We started keeping chickens in the garden about six years ago. Like many, we’d had dreams of moving to ‘the country’ but the more we talked, the more we realised how much we like where we live. We have friendly neighbours, our friends are local, and there’s a good pub a few minutes down the road. The town centre and swimming pool are within walking distance and yet within a five minute walk, we can hit the fields and go for miles.
Lucky enough to have a large garden, there was no reason why we couldn’t start making some of our plans a reality. That included growing vegetables so we could eat our own produce and also keeping chickens so we had our own eggs. The thought of being more self-sufficient and having control over some of the food we eat was a great motivator.
We did our research and it seemed that like most activities, keeping chickens could be as expensive or economical as you want. I looked around on the internet for plans for a chicken house and my husband was able to build a hen house on stilts using an old table and a demolished shed. It felt very good using materials we had in the garage to basically get a free hen house.
That was when our first four girls joined us. You need a fair amount of commitment to keep chickens as they need to be let out in the morning and shut up again in the evening. We clean ours out every week and check water and food daily, so you have to be prepared to go out in all weathers. The dog gets us up early so one of us usually lets them out at the same time as letting the dog out in the garden.
After three years with our first girls, disaster struck and a fox got in the pen one night. It was very upsetting to lose these ladies who had made such good pets.
A month on and we got some more hens – Poppy (Black), Daisy (White) and Bluebell (Grey) plus a little red chicken called Ruby who was never very robust and sadly died six months later.
These three ladies have been with us now for three years and we love watching their antics in the garden. When the sun is low in Winter and before we have planted the vegetable garden, they get free run of the garden. We are now very cautious and have done our best to make their run as fox-proof as possible. They have a smaller run that is fully fenced and covered over the top with net. This means we can safely leave them outside when we are out. When we are at home, they have a much larger run which means they can forage under hedges and scratch around by the compost bins. If the weather is very wet and cold in Autumn/Winter, I leave the door to the greenhouse open so they can have access to dry soil and have a dust bath. The benefit is a bit of natural manure added to the beds!
Sometimes they have their dippy moments! Here Bluebell and Daisy look like they are trying to figure out how to join Poppy on the other side of the fence, despite the gate being wide open to the run.
In return for a little care, these three reward us with eggs. They stop laying when they moult and also when the light levels are at their lowest for a few weeks in Winter but most days we get 2-3 eggs. These are lovely large eggs with bright yellow yokes and I feel very comfortable eating them knowing the chickens are healthy and have as good a life as we can give them.
We may have been lucky but on the whole the girls stay healthy. There are some common chicken ailments that we have managed to escape. However, we have successfully treated a case of bumble foot – a quaintly named disorder of the foot which is painful for the chicken and causes it to limp. We also had one chicken with a stomach complaint that required antibiotics. Imagine one wiley chicken, knowing the liquid tastes bitter, giving two adults the run around as we tried to catch her. That was exercise twice a day for a fortnight that we didn’t always appreciate but did have lots of laughs doing!
We worked out that the cost of keeping chickens compared with buying the number of eggs we get is about even or only slightly more expensive. We buy straw for bedding and feed them on pellets supplemented by kitchen scraps (usually greens, carrot peelings and left-over pasta or rice). Our neighbours will look after them when we are away in return for eggs so we are very lucky.
Nothing beats walking down the garden to collect eggs, then coming back to cook them for breakfast or lunch.