Keeping Poultry

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 experience.

What breed? 

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.    

Buying Chickens 

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 hens.

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 land.

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 part.  Perfect!

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 net.

Other fowls

It's worth mentioning other poultry varieties that you might consider.


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'.

Guinea Fowl 

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.