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 people across the country to have a go at growing their own food and 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. They can cost almost nothing to buy and are one of the cheapest farm animals to maintain. Bear in mind though, they will need a bit of love. You even 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 you need to do to is to check with your local authority that there are no restrictions on having livestock on your property. Or on the property where you intend to keep the birds, in fact. 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 will need some equipment to keep your 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 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. You will also need enough perches for the rest of your chickens. You also need to consider how easy the house is to clean and move, as you will need to do both of these things.
Some of the best online bargains can be had on eBay, with prices starting from £50. A scattering of the hen coops that are sold on eBay are new. But if you intend to buy one second hand, then be careful to check exactly it’s condition. You can also buy a super state of the art coop from a site called Omlet, who provide everything you need for your chickens from £360.
If you are considering making a coop, remember to factor in material costs before you start buying them. This way you can calculate whether it’s worth it or not. Don’t forget to calculate your own manual labour into this too!
Then you’ll need to construct a large pen around the house that leaves the birds with room to roam. This will also protect the hens from any predators.
For city areas, foxes are going to be the biggest threat as they are able to tunnel underneath a pen. As such, you’ve got to make sure that you dig the wire down into the ground and then bend it outwards and upwards a little. Now, any animal that tries to dig down under the wire will scratch their paws on the upturned wire and will hopefully be deterred.
Finally, there are the everyday upkeep items. You’ll need to purchase a feeder and feed, a water container and dust-free wood shavings for the floor of the hen house. Also, if you don’t have grass, you’ll need woodchips to cover the floor in the pen.
Once you’re all setup, the final element is the chickens themselves. There is ample choice of hens and lots of different ways to get your hands on them.
Firstly, you will need to decide what breeds you want. This will depend on whether you want your chickens for their eggs, meat, or their aesthetics.
- If you’re only looking for egg layers, then ISA Brown, Australorp, 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 gain advice is to talk directly to the breeder. They 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. This is because the charity ensures that the hens are going to a good home. You will also have to take into consideration a few specialist needs that the birds will have at first.
For example, the hens will only be used to eating dry layers mash food, so you will need this in supply. Even if it’s not what you want to feed them in the long run, it’s very good to have.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 short while. This is because they will need some time to rest and recuperate. This won’t be forever though and they should start laying again eventually.
The British Hen Welfare Trust deals with hybrid chickens who are bred to be heavy layers. This means, 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 register your details online. 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 the breed. If you get rescued battery chickens from the British Hen Welfare Trust it will cost you just £2.50 a chicken. But you can end up paying hundreds 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. Also, the eggs are not guaranteed to hatch, so you might end up having to buy more anyway.
Remember though, what you can save by keeping your own chickens will vary depending on how many chickens you have and how many eggs you eat. Ultimately, you’re not going to make big savings. But, 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.