I think I’ve mentioned it before about me being retired, anyway one of my plans to keep me busy after a longish career in the military and law enforcement was an allotment, and on every self-respecting plot I believe chickens should play a part! Not everyone’s cup of tea as they can get a bit smelly but since creating my own flock, I can’t imagine being without a few of the little cluckers!
We had our allotment a year before we toyed with the idea of chickens as we wanted to know if we could accommodate them and having not really kept birds before, we didn’t want to go in blind. Whilst we were talking and musing the idea of keeping hens, a young lad took the tenancy of one of the plots at the site who knew his stuff as he had had a plot before and kept all manner of animals. He stated keeping chickens wasn’t particularly a hard thing to do, however they do need attending to on a daily basis. So, you cannot keep them if you’re planning on a fortnight away in Spain every year, unless you have someone to feed and water them. Now, this wasn’t a problem as we did have a couple of people on other plots who would look after them if we went away for a few days, but seeing as my new chicken guru was planning on getting another flock at this site, we could help each other.
So, the seed was set and we quickly acquired 4 white Silkies, not a conventional breed for eggs as they only lay about 120 eggs a year, which isn’t great, but it was a start. Within a couple of days, one died and we learnt our first lesson in chicken care, that lesson was a condition called ‘Eggbound’. This is when, for whatever reason, the egg gets blocked on the chickens plumbing and is fatal if not treated. We know the signs now, but back then we didn’t see it coming and the problem may have come from whoever sold us the hen. I’ll touch on this later. We got our heads around these little cheeky birds and as we were warned, “you’ll become addicted”, we started to create our flock. Our plan was to have a variety of breeds, nicer looking hens instead of your bog standard chicken used by mass producing farms for eggs. We wanted different colours and temperaments, and after nearly two years now, we have definitely achieved the difference in characters. Our ‘run’ has gradually growth from a small 3m x 2m wooden fenced off area to 2 huge runs using Heras fencing and 3 hen houses, housing 6 Silkies, 16 different varieties of hens and 2 cockerels.
I think from here, I’m best of explaining our chicken venture in headed paragraphs and the ways we have tackled our venture into chicken keeping:
Like I’ve already stated, the surround of our chicken runs are fenced off by a metal lightweight creation called ‘HERAS’ fencing. These are 3.5m sections of alloy fences used mainly by contractors and utility companies when making temporary enclosures, they’re usually held together by bolted clips and huge rubber feet that weight a ton, but we have pressed the end poles into the ground and used the blot clips to hold them together. We had to by a purpose built doorway for one of the runs as we didn’t know better but we bastardised a door for the other run. We have covered both rooves with mesh; this was a conscious decision with initially no reason. After watching countless videos on YouTube, generally if there’s a fox problem in the area you fix some sort of roof to stop them climbing into the run and killing your flock. But, even though we live semi-rural there isn’t a fox problem and the only aerial threat is maybe a possible Sparrowhawk fancying its chances with a small Silkie. But then after being subjected to a few Avian flu scares having a roof stops any carries of the disease from getting into the flock. Some of the old timers told us to dig mesh in around the perimeter fences about a foot down, this was also to stop foxes digging in or any chickens digging out. I can quite honestly state that none of our birds have ever tried to dig their way out. Time is probably better spent looking for any nooks and crannies they can squeeze out of in the fencing or at any joins in the structure, because if there’s a small chink in the armour, they’ll find it and break out and eat your veg.
We lock our birds away with padlocks on both doors, this is to prevent rats, the two legged variety. Our area is generally OK but there has been break in’s in other sites and birds have been stolen. As for the four legged variety, you can’t stop them, I’ll explain later.
Because we were going to treat our hens a bit like pets, we wanted to variate the breeds as so we would get a few different characters, colours etc. There was the option of ‘adopting’ ex battery hens, which is a great thing to do, and if we were just using for eggs and meat we may have gone down that route. However, we decided to spend money and mix a few breeds. Of course, when researching we did look for the breeds that gave a good egg yield, this is because we planned to sell the eggs to pay for feed etc, but tried to get a diverse flock. I can’t remember in which order we acquired our birds, but we managed to collect the following:
2 x Sussex
2 x Rhode Rocks
2 x Goldliners
3 x Haze
2 x Marran
3 x Vorwerk
6 x Silkie
2 x Black Tail
2 x Cockerels (1 x Vorwerk and 1 x marran/legbarr)
These are all housed in two big runs with plenty of space and nesting boxes.
Like I stated before, we sell the eggs but not for any profit, the money goes on feed and bedding. When we started the feed was quite cheap and we had enough money spare made in the summer months to make up for the shortage of eggs and money in the darker months, but the price of feed has now gone sky high. The bloke at the feed store cannot explain why, Ukraine, fuel prices or whatever, I just know it’s nearly twice the price.
We feed them all the same feed, layers pellets, these are bran looking pellets that apparently have all they need for good laying and general wellbeing. We have a drum of corn mix for winter to give them some extra calories to keep warm. They also get veg from the allotment too, cabbage, turnips tops and their favourite sprout stalks. This is straight from the ground and been nowhere near the house. We NEVER EVER give them scraps from the kitchen because this is illegal apparently, so we don’t…… never…..ever!! But speaking to some old timers, apparently chickens will eat absolutely anything, even chicken. But we don’t do that, ever!!
Diseases and Health
We bought a book so we would be able to diagnose and treat diseases or pinpoint any illnesses the bird would get. Now there are a mountain of lurgies they can get and this book told us what to do and what not to do to prevent absolutely everything, but to be honest, if you did all these preventive measures you wouldn’t have a life outside your run and would be stressed to bits. The only problems we’ve had have been Egg-bound and White Lice, seriously that’s all in two years (I’ll have jinxed the flock now).
Egg-bound is as far as I can see is very hard to prevent, it’s when an egg gets stuck up the chicken’s back passage and causes death eventually if not treated. Apparently, obesity and bad diet is the main cause. The symptoms are lethargic birds who appear drunk and disorientated, and off their food. We’ve had one case and didn’t get to the bird in time so sadly it died. Some of the other plot owners have noticed the condition in a hen and apparently Vaseline finger insert does the trick, like I’ve said, not had to carry this out yet! I’ve thought about this condition and after reading a couple of books, it can happen if the birds stools are hard and prevent passage of the egg. So, I know when I give our birds raw veg from the allotment their faeces are quite loose so it would appear this helps prevent egg-bound. Don’t quote me on this as I’m not a vet, but all’s well so far!
White lice looks like white scales on the bird’s feet and legs. We’ve had a few cases but an application of Vaseline or Swarfega to affected areas and it usually goes away in a week or so. Apparently the petrol based lubricant prevents the lice breathing and they die and bob’s your uncle.
One of the things I would mention, if they get a whiff of blood from another hen, they’re relentless picking at scabs and affected area. Story for you, one day we were at the allotment and noticed one of the Sussex had a fairly big injury to the back of its neck. I mean there was a flap of skin about an inch square and it revealed the neck bone it was so deep. We applied some Stockholm wax (which smells like burnt wood) and anti -peck spray and put her back into circulation. However, because our cockerel is a randy bastard and a very rough lover, he kept pulling at any healing that may have occurred and we were basically peeing in to the wind with this course of treatment. We tried to isolate her from the flock but overnight she managed to get back into the general population, God knows how as the ‘hospital section’ id cordoned off was like Alcatraz. It appeared she was prepared to take the hit on her neck for some cockerel lovin! For weeks we persevered but no luck, the injury was not healing.
To be honest they are funny little buggers, I mean, we’ve had 3 fatalities, one of our original Silkies was egg bound. The second was a strange situation; we had a call from a friend stating they’d found a Vorwerk wandering the streets of a pit village the other side of the county. We jumped into the van and went to pick it up. It was a flighty thing but hard to tell how old it was, we got it back to the flock and left it to settle in. It struggled initially like all hens do to fit in, but it settled down with only the cockerel giving it a hard time. It ate, drank and seemed to be settled then one morning I noticed it wasn’t with the rest of the flock, on closer inspection I found it curled up in the sand tyre unfortunately had passed away. We can only deduce it had frozen to death through the night. You see we have deployed a trail cam (NORRIS) in the run to see what the birds get up to on an evening, we know they roost beneath the hen house on two perches, swapping places throughout the night to keep warm and keep watch. It would appear the Vorwerk wasn’t in with the perching crowd and this particular night was below freezing, so it had nothing to swap heat with and so more than likely passed away in the night with the cold. The other hen, no idea, it wasn’t egg bound or appeared ill. Can only imagine it was something that was quick and none violent. But, apparently 3 deaths in 2 years isn’t too bad so we’re doing something right.
Listen, unless you have a lead lined massive run with a solid floor which is welded to the floor, you will never stop Rats!! Their whole existence evolves around food and where they can get their next meal. If you suspend the feed containers in the air so they can’t jump, the chickens can’t reach. The rats will eat through anything plastic which contains the feed and any food left by your birds will be easy pickings for rats. If you dig wire in the floor around the perimeter they will gnaw through it. They climb absolutely anything and if you leave the smallest of holes in your run, they’ll find it and will tell their mates. They breed like rabbits so if you see one, you can guarantee it’s got 10 siblings not far behind it. To be honest, having an allotment and keeping chickens isn’t all eggs and Aubergines, pests need dealing with and the best way we have at our site is to give the little buggers a .22 lead injection. You can catch them in humane traps but as soon as you release them, they find their way back, unless you drop them off in Bradford. If you use kill traps, you risk catching and killing wild birds or God forbid, one of your own hens.
I’ve heard of chicken keepers heating their hen houses and other ways of trying to keep their birds warm. I’ve done some reading and they have their own ways of keeping warm. Like I’ve stated before they huddle up on their perches and pass on heat. I’ve seen people making jumpers and clothing for their hens, absolutely stupid and animal cruelty. Mine have been subjected to minus temperatures here in the NE and are fit and well. If we know the temp is going to drop overnight we give them some extra corn mix to keep them warm.
The heat, all I can suggest is shade and lots of water. I think when it comes down to it, they prefer cold to heat. Please do not put clothing on your birds, apart from it doing more harm than good, they also look stupid!
Unless you have hundreds of hens I wouldn’t even think about it. And in the words of an RSPCA officer who I recently spoke to, small amount of hens will never contract the disease. In fact, this officer also disclosed it only really affects larger birds like geese and wildfowl, after mixing with infected birds in the wild. And to go even one step further, I’ve seen farmers state that avian flu is a con made up to use as weapon to scare and put prices up, not my words! I know my birds have displayed symptoms, sneezing, snotty etc and all I’ve done is stick some white wine vinegar in their daily water and bobs your uncle, cured!
Of course different breeds give different amounts of eggs. They even give a variety of colours and sizes. Things that effect egg production is stress, weather, diet and probably a few other things I’ve not experienced yet. Basically, they do what they want and when they want and unless they’re looking a bit under the weather, let them crack on. I’ve found dull weather makes them sulky and they don’t lay or cold weather but sunny doesn’t really affect them. Give them grit if they need it and protein (which should be in the layers pellets anyway). A decent diet and a good run with at least 1m square each they will be fine.
We’ve got two, one Vorwerk who is a very handsome chap. He’s got a calm temperament and is no bother at all. The other is a Legbarr/Maran cross and he’s an absolute terror. He likes to sneak up on you and dig his spurs in your calf. Both birds look after their hens and stop them from squabbling and both like to keep their girls happy on the bedroom front…if you know what I mean?! We have also given some some eggs from both runs to a friend who incubated them with a 100% success rate, creating a new flock for our friend of very nice looking birds, the Vorwerk/ Silkie crosses are particularly good looking birds. The only problem is the noise they make, our council state they don’t encourage the keeping of cockerels but as long as they don’t cause a noise nuisance they’re OK. Personally, I think they’re worth it even if just to keep the runs in order.
In summary, this is just from our experience and advice readers to do whatever works for them. I’m not an expert and if anyone is starting fresh I’d advice consult experts!