Hens in the Garden
One day I was chatting with the editor of a smallholding
magazine. She told me that sales of the magazine increased by
a significant percentage if pictures of chickens were on the
cover. Chickens can be cute, but do they have any place in
the veg garden? Before that question can be answered let's
have a quick look at the major issues in keeping hens.
There is an enormous amount of material on the
net about keeping hens so I won't repeat it all, but here
are a few notes on key points and local information, from my own
If your hens are going to be outdoors then they need to be a
robust variety. They should be able to with stand a little
rain. Look for the 'heritage' breeds like Sussex, Marans, and Rhode Island Red. I like Marans.
Generally I'm assuming that you are keeping hens for egg
production. Data on each variety may tell you how many
eggs to expect per year. For example I think the Goldline, a modern hybrid breed, is rated at
320 eggs per year. Expect most eggs at Easter time and
fewest (or none) at Christmas. Hens generally have a moulting period every autumn when they will
lay nothing at all. Their rate of laying is determined by
amount of light and can be extended by artificial light. If
you want a 'meat bird' you could either choose a 'dual-purpose'
variety of else go for a meat ('table') breed. The most
popular table bird seems to be the Hubbard. These can be ready in about 12
weeks if seriously fattened for the table. If you are going to kill and butcher your birds then I hope you
get the proper guidance.
Hens do not like getting wet.
There are plenty of descriptions of hen houses on the
net. Pay attention to ventilation and draughts, provision
of nest boxes, position and size of perches. Design hen
houses with yourself in mind - because you will have to clean it
and collect the eggs. I have a winter hen house and a summer
hen house and this helps stop the build-up of parasites. I like the idea of a hen house
inside a small barn or shed in the winter as this gives the hens
plenty of dry, sheltered space.
It is impossible to specify how secure your chicken housing
should be as vulnerability to foxes etc. varies enormously. Most
chicken deaths here at Snoring Dog Cottage have been from my crazy
hunting terrier bitch, Ivy. Note also that chickens can fly to a
certain extent and so can get over high fences. The remedy is
to clip the flight feathers on one
wing. Don't do this until they have fully moulted and
the feathers have stopped growing.
Ideally the water could come from the roof of the hen
house. Carrying water around is a bad idea. Be prepared
to thaw the hens' water in winter. Either a hanging water
container or a robust trough is required because hens will pollute
or knock over anything else. Hen equipment can be bought from
farmers' co-ops ( MVF, Mole
Avon) or smallholders' suppliers ( Tucker's) or online.
Hens need good food in order to enable them to lay an
egg every day. The easy option is to buy layers' pellets from
your supplier. These should have the correct nutritional
balance. Hens can get bored with these. Your suppler
will also sell 'mixed poultry corn' which the hens will probably
prefer. There are always dire warnings about feeding too much
corn as it can make the birds fat and 'fat hens don't lay'. I
mix the two options. Hens should have access to green food
and this will occur naturally if they free-range. If they are
not free ranging then greenstuffs like weeds and cabbage tops are
really appreciated. Don't feed any leftovers of exotic human
food. Chickens also need 'grit'. This is a mixture of small
insoluble stones that grind down the chickens food in their
gizzards, plus something like oyster shell as a source of calcium.
It is possible to recycle your chickens' own egg shells as a
source of calcium by drying them slowly in a stove and crumbling
them up. (Generally we avoid tempting chickens to eat their
own eggs as they might get into the habit of doing this).
I can't write about chicken feed without writing about
rats. Rats are all around us here in the countryside.
Ratty seems to have 3 priorities - food, keeping warm in winter and
making more rats. Ratty is attracted to your hen housing.
Rats can chew through all wood and some metal wire. They can
also climb and dig and are very canny about your attempts to trap
them. A noble adversary. My number one priority is to not leave too
much excess chicken food around. You will need a secure feed
bin also. I have tried trapping rats and hunting them with a
terrier. I've settled for a draw. The most frustrating
situation is when neighbours provide all the facilities (e.g. junk
metal sheets in the garden) for Ratty to breed. All Ratty has
to do is pop through the fence to get some grub. Finally I
also installed a secure poison bait station.
There are a number of options.
You could go to a specialist breeder or distributor. The
advantage with this is that you know what you are getting and the
birds should be good quality and vaccinated. It is usual to
buy young hens at ' point of lay' - when they are about 16 or 17
weeks old and will lay at 22 or 23 weeks. Reputable
establishments near Crediton include Weeke Farm, Spreyton and Moon Ridge
Farm at Half Moon. Expect to pay about £15 per bird.
You could go to an auction or a sale, such as one at Hatherleigh or Newton Abbot. You may get a
bargain. Unfortunately, if you are not careful you could end
up buying hens that are old, diseased or have red mite that will spread to your existing
You could re-home an industrially caged hen that has reached
the end of its industrially economic life at about a year and a
half old. These hens will still lay for years. They may
be very much out of condition when you get them
and not used to seeing the outside world at all. It may take
up to a month before they lay properly and the re-homing
organisation may ask for up to £5 per bird.
Running hens in the veg garden
In their natural state hens scratch around for food on the
jungle floor. They will eat insects, worms and green
vegetation. I don't believe they can be left
alone in a veg garden - your green veg will disappear.
If you try to confine a number of hens in a small area around
their hen house you will probably find that the area becomes a
polluted, muddy mess. The vegetation will be stripped and the
ground both churned up and compacted. Additionally a
concentration of very strong chicken manure will poison the
The solution that I've adopted is to let the hens run free in a
small orchard and shrubbery area. They have plenty of green food
and can beneficially scratch around for bugs. They also have
a sheltered habitat suitable for the whole year. This area is
fenced and I don't feel the need to lock up the hens at
night. (The idea of having to get up in the morning to 'let
the hens out' doesn't appeal).
The permaculturalists have a different approach. They are
always looking for good design ideas that can be applied
widely. One such idea is the ' chicken tractor'. This is not a device
for getting a flock of hens to pull a plough. It is a
portable chicken house that is moved around the garden.
Permaculturalists strive to design for high productivity from
minimal effort. The idea of the movable tractor is that the
hens will dig your veg plot, eat the weeds and bugs,
fertilise the garden and lay eggs, with little effort on your
It's a great idea but it must be said that either you need a big
garden or else you need to design your garden around the chicken
tractor. It should also be pointed out that chickens scratch
the ground rather than dig it. Further details are here on the
It's worth mentioning other poultry varieties that you might
I asked a friend why she kept ducks in preference to hens. She
said "Chickens do so much damage with their scratching and
the poor soil up here turns to mud really quickly. The
ducks dibble so don't do so much damage, don't eat the plants
and can eat up the slugs for you too. The ducks also lay for longer
than chickens do. Whilst to start with duck eggs are a
bit rich, when you have nothing else you soon get used to them
and they are great for cakes!!!" You will need a tub of
water or a small pond and one management problem is to stop the
whole area around it becoming a muddy quagmire. Moonridge Farm are local suppliers.
I know lots of people with large lawns that are a maintenance
burden. Maybe they should get geese. Geese are very hardy and can
survive on a diet of grass during the summer. I toyed with
the idea of getting goslings in the spring and raising them for the
autumn or winter table. Geese take a fair amount
of killing and plucking though, so that idea is 'on hold'.
A few years ago some friends of mine worked on a local farm that
raised guinea fowl for fishing feathers. As a result we
regularly dined on guinea fowl goulash. As it says on the web "There's no denying that guinea fowl are
relatively easy to keep, providing you have plenty of space and no
near neighbours." Reading between the lines - they are crazy, noisy birds. For the veg gardener
one advantage is that they are insectivorous and not attracted to
your veg. I read somewhere that if they find you stealing their
eggs then they will hate you forever. The now deceased guinea fowl
of a neighbour were a constant nuisance as they ignored garden
boundaries and terrorised children and pets. Interesting.
Probably the smallest egg laying and table bird you can
keep. Require specialist treatment.