Have you ever considered owning your own hens?
Food prices are on the rise and eating well, especially if you’re a die-hard organic disciple, is getting more expensive. This is prompting loads of people across the country to have a go at growing their own food, or even explore keeping animals for food.
If you think you could handle a small foray into the world of farming, chickens are a great place to start as they cost almost nothing to buy, are one of the cheapest farm animals to maintain (they will need a bit of love though) and you have the choice of keeping them just for their eggs, or rearing them for – eek – slaughter to have your very own organic and free-range chicken.
The first thing to do if you’re interested in how to keep your own hens is to check out with your local authority that there are no restrictions on having livestock on your property or the property where you intend to keep the birds. You’ll need enough space for at least two hens because solitary chickens are not happy chickens. However, you’ll need between four and six birds to provide a family with a steady supply of eggs.
What you’ll need
Once you’ve got the green light you’re going to need some equipment to keep your own hens safe and healthy. You also need to secure your chickens as foxes, badgers and other predators will be quick to ruin your organic dream if you don’t take precautions.
They’ll need a hen house which should be cleaned once a week. A house of about 1.2m by 1.8m in size should be ample space for four to six chickens as they will only sleep in it. You can buy one of these ready made, or if you fancy yourself as a bit of a DIY whiz, then you can build one yourself. You’ll need to have at least one nesting box per four chickens, as they won’t all lay at the same time, and enough perches for the rest of your chickens. You also need to consider how easy the house is to clean out and move about, as you will need to do both of these things. Some of the best online bargains can be had on eBay. Some of the hen coops sold on eBay are new, but if you are buying one second hand then be careful to check exactly what state it’s in. You can get a super state of the art coop from a site called Omlet which provides everything you need for your chickens from £360. However, the houses on eBay start at around £50. If you are considering making a coop yourself, remember to do some calculations of the costs of your materials before you start buying them, that way you can calculate whether it’s worth it or not to do it yourself or if it would be better just to buy one.
Then you’ll need to construct a large pen around the house which leaves the birds with room to roam but protects them from any predators. For city areas, foxes are going to be the biggest threat and because they can tunnel underneath a pen, you’ve got to make sure that you dig the wire right down into the ground and then bend it outwards and upwards a little so that if any animals try to dig down under the wire, they will scratch their paws on the upturned wire and hopefully be deterred.
Finally there are the everyday upkeep items. You’ll need a feeder and feed, a water container and dust-free wood shavings for the floor of the hen house and if you don’t have grass, you’ll need woodchips to cover the floor in the pen.
Once you’ve got all the setup, the final element is the chickens themselves. You’ve got loads of choice when selecting your own hens and there are lots of different ways to get your hands on them.
You firstly need to decide what breeds you want, which will depend on whether you want your chickens just for eggs or you’ll be rearing them for meat as well, and also on whether you want them to be pretty or not.
- If you’re only looking for egg layers, then ISA Brown, White Star, Lohmann Brown and Black Rock are good laying breeds that are fairly low maintenance.
- If you want a good-looking chicken, pure breeds like Light Sussex and Barnevelder have nice feathers and combs, but are unlikely to perform as well in the egg department.
- The exception to the purebred rule is the Rhode Island Red, which as well as being quite a looker, can produce up to 260 eggs a year.
The best way to get advice is to talk directly to the breeder who will be able to guide you through the chicken breeds they have and show you which breed will be the best for you.
If you’re not too fussed about the breed of your chicken and you’re only really looking for chickens to lay eggs and not to eat, a fantastic and cheap way to get chickens is by adopting an ex-battery farm chicken.
The British Hen Welfare Trust rehouses battery chickens all over the country. You will have to be all set up and ready to go before you even apply to adopt these chickens as the charity has to be sure they are going to a good home (especially considering they’ve only just escaped a horrible one) and you will have to take into consideration a few special needs the birds will have at first.
For example, they will only be used to dry layers mash food and so you’ll have to have a supply of this for the first couple of weeks even if it’s not really what you want to feed them in the long run. They will also have no concept of laying in a nest, but rubber eggs can be used to teach them to lay in boxes. They may stop laying for a while shortly after you get them, as after being battery chickens they need some time to rest and recuperate. However, this won’t be forever and they should start laying again eventually. The BHWT deals with hybrid chickens bred to be heavy layers and so you could end up with any number of different breeds, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t get tasty eggs from all of them.
To enquire about adopting an ex-battery hen you need to get in touch with your nearest co-ordinator which you can find on this page of the BHWT website. Adoption dates depend on slaughter dates in the area and waiting lists are pretty long. However, you should be able to have your chicken at home with you within 6-8 weeks.
Counting your money (not the chickens)
The cost of the chickens themselves will vary depending on what kind of chickens you want and where you get them from. If you get rescued battery chickens from the BHWT it will cost you just 50p a chicken, however you can pay up to a hundred pounds for a grown pure breed chicken. If you have your heart set on the pure breeds then you can save money by buying the eggs and hatching them yourself. Of course, this will mean more effort with incubators and hot lamps, plus the eggs are not guaranteed to hatch, so you might end up having to buy more anyway.
As with the price of the chickens themselves, what you can save by keeping your own chickens will vary depending on how many chickens you have, how many eggs you eat a week and whether or not you can sell any on to neighbours or friends. Ultimately you’re not going to make big savings, however it can be a lot of fun keeping chickens as well as saving a couple of pounds a week on eggs. Plus, if your hens perform particularly well, you can also make a few pounds by selling the extra eggs to friends and family.