How to keep chickens
A beginner’s guide
Fancy bringing a bit of life, love and laughter to your home? You can’t go far wrong with a feathery flock. We’re fascinated by these funny creatures, which is why you’ll find plenty of poultry inspired prints, homewares and gifts at Joules. But are chickens easy to keep? What do you need for happy hens? Will they ruin the garden and annoy your neighbours?
We caught up with an experienced poultry pet owner, as well as experts at the British Hen Welfare Trust and our long-standing charity partner, Farms for City Children, to understand the pleasures and the pitfalls of chicken keeping.
Jane Jones, Joules customer
Jane has been keeping chickens for 30 years. After growing up on a smallholding, Jane wanted her own small children to experience the joy of keeping animals. She now has a flock of five rescue hens.
Are chickens worth keeping?
Absolutely. Aside from the obvious benefit of fresh eggs, our hens provide so much entertainment. They are so full of character and quite sociable. I love watching their funny antics.
We have five and they lay eggs pretty much every day in the height of summer. There is really nothing like the taste of fresh, free-range eggs. You know exactly what the chickens have been eating to produce their eggs and the yokes are a dark orange colour and taste rich.
My father was a hobby smallholder, so I grew up surrounded by geese, chickens, pheasants and rabbits. It was my job as a child when I got home from school to go down and collect the eggs. I wanted my children to grow up understanding where food comes from also and to enjoy the process of seeing eggs hatch. Watching sweet, fluffy little chicks grow up into entertaining pets is fascinating and a great learning experience. Also, to realise from an early age that pets are pets and things don't live forever. Now my grandson loves to collect eggs, feed and run around with our hens.
How many eggs will I get
from keeping chickens?
Egg production depends on the age and health of the chicken, as well as the time of year. Most hens lay their first egg around 18 weeks of age. If they are happy and healthy, from spring through to autumn, they’ll probably lay one egg a day, maybe every other day.
It depends how old the chicken is though. They have around three or four good years of laying, and then they become sort of menopausal like humans, and you get less and less eggs before they stop around six or seven years. They still make fantastic pets though. One of my girls is 12 and hasn’t laid an egg for years, but we still love her.
What will I need to keep chickens?
You don’t need to have a huge garden, but I do think it’s a good idea to have a dedicated area. I have five hens now, and they take over about a quarter of the garden. If you were starting with three or four hens, I’d say a 6x8 meter space would be enough.
Pictures of chickens running freely in the garden look pretty, but it’s not very practical. Chickens tend to scratch everything to pieces, so would soon ruin grass and create a mud pit. I have a penned off area with wood chippings on the ground, so I don’t need to worry about grass damage.
You’ll need somewhere to shut them up at night and it needs to be fox proof. Foxes, even in urban areas, are becoming more of a problem. You also need to keep them in a fox-proof run if you’re not at home during the day.
A good solid chicken coop should protect them though. You can buy fantastic ready-made options off the shelf now, even ones with automated doors that open at dawn and securely close at night, in case you are away or forget. Just make sure to get the right size for the amount of chickens you want to keep.
Or you could make one. My Dad made me my first chicken coop from old furniture, and it lasted us for years! It doesn’t need to be expensive, just secure enough to keep foxes out.
Chickens also need water available 24/7, so you’ll need a plastic or galvanised metal water feeder. There are covered options to keep the water fresh, or even heated ones. You can also get all sorts of chicken feeders now too - rat proof, automated, or even ones that are like a game for the chickens to win their food. I tend to just use a normal bowl though or spread their food on the floor.
What do chickens eat?
My chickens have a staple diet of a wheat based or mixed corn well-balanced chicken feed, which I feed them every morning. But they also love vegetable peelings and fruit.
It’s important to also give lots of fresh greenery to keep egg production up. It makes a difference to the quality of eggs too - the better diet they have, the more vibrant the egg yolks will be.
“Because chickens don’t have teeth, they also need grit as a food supplement to grind down their food. Otherwise, it can cause digestive problems. For a treat, mine love strawberries, raspberries, or a stalk of brussel sprouts.
What are the routine jobs
involved in keeping chickens?
It really doesn’t take a lot of work; they are quite easy animals. Obviously, you need to provide a safe, contained space for them to live. Then day-to-day jobs involve:
• Letting them out from the coop each morning
• Collecting eggs (this is the fun part)
• Shutting them up
• Cleaning out the coop once a week
It is a commitment. If we go on holiday, we need to arrange for someone to look after the girls. They really don’t take a lot of work though.
Are there any downsides
to keeping chickens?
Not really, if you are conscientious. There is a lot to learn, like any new endeavour. Depending on the type you get, there are a few things to be aware of. There are different types of chicken:
• Hen: A female chicken.
• Cockerel: A young rooster who is less than one year of age.
• Pullet: A young hen who is less than one year of age.
Cockerels can be very noisy, so might not make you too popular with the neighbours! Even the girls can be quite loud at times. Roosters can also mate with the hens and you get fertilised eggs, which personally I don’t like the thought of eating. I have had male chickens in the past, but I prefer to have all female hens living together these days, it is easier.
Good housekeeping is everything too. If you don’t clean them out regularly, they can smell. We keep ours in a contained pen at the back of the garden, but I can imagine the smell might not be very nice right next to your patio or kitchen window. They can leave lots of droppings too, which incidentally makes brilliant fertiliser, and will destroy veg or flower beds if left to roam free.
Then there’s the threat of other animals. Cats, dogs and chickens need to be trained to live together. Then there are fear of foxes. I previously had seven rescue hens who were wiped out in one night by a fox, it was heart-breaking. You have to be careful too not to leave food lying around, or you’ll encourage rats and pigeons. Although I find our Terrier tends to do a good job at deterring other animals.
Where do I get chickens from?
There are lots of options. You can buy new from a reputable breeder. Chickens can cost anything between £5 for a common garden breed to £35 for a rare breed Rhode Island Red hen.
Alternatively, you could buy fertile eggs and hatch your own in an incubator. That is particularly exciting if you have little ones. I belong to a few local Facebook groups that advertise rare breed hatching dates.
I really enjoy rescuing chickens these days though. The egg producing industry tends to discard a hen after its prime laying years, at around 18 months, but there is still life in the old girls! The British Hen Welfare Trust rescue and rehome ex-battery hens. You just need to be willing to help them back to health. With a bit of care, they can carry on laying for another couple of years.
My current rescue hens actually came from a care home. I found them through a notice board advertisement at my local farm shop.
British Hen Welfare Trust
Jane is the founder of The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT). The hens re-homed by the British Hen Welfare Trust have been in a commercial system laying eggs for 18 months. If you’d like to re-home a feathery flock of your own, simply register your details here or call Hen Central on 01884 860084. The BHWT has re-homing points all over the UK, from Redruth in Cornwall up as far as Aberdeen in Scotland.
How do I rehome a rescue chicken?
The first thing to do is to register with the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT). We save around 60,000 commercial hens from slaughter each year, re-homing them to people all over the country where they become much-loved pets.
We hold regular rehoming events, but even if there isn’t one coming up in your area you can sign up to our waiting list to find out when we do.
If you’re new to hen keeping, our team at Hen Central can give you any advice you may need about how to prepare for your flock and look after them once they arrive; we also have lots of information on our website.
When you first pick up your hens, they might be lacking a few feathers, but you’ll be amazed how quickly they blossom. They usually start to re-feather within a few weeks and their combs will slowly become vibrant red once they are free-ranging out in the sunshine and fresh air.
It’s best to keep them in a safe, restricted area so they become ‘homed’. A rescue hen might never have seen daylight, so you’ll need to gently teach it a morning and night routine for the first day or so. They’re clever birds and soon get the hang of things, but we’re here to help with whatever you may need
How many hens should I get?
Hens are super sociable animals, so we always recommend a minimum of three so that they have some friends to chat with and cuddle up to at night.
Deciding how many you should get may also depend on space, as they need room to interact with each other. As a guide, we suggest a minimum of 30 sq cms per bird inside the hen house and a minimum of 1 sq m outside space per bird for ex-caged hens and a minimum of 2 sq m outside space for ex-free range hens.
Are there any surprising things you’ve learnt about chickens?
How addictive they are! Trust us, once you’ve started you won’t be able to stop. We put this down to their endearing, quirky personalities. No two hens are the same and, once they’ve established their pecking order, you’ll soon come to know who’s the bossy one, the quiet one, the greedy one and so on.
“Also, bath time is interesting. This might sound odd if you’ve not kept chickens before, but their way of getting clean is to get dirty. You’ll need to provide some kind of dust bath area for them, consisting mainly of dry soil or sand. Hens close their eyes and roll in the dip they have created, throwing loose soil over themselves, before jumping up and shaking it all off, much like a dog who’s had a dip in a river.
Katy, Farms For
Katy spends time teaching children to take care of a variety of poultry on the farm, including hens, guinea fowl, turkeys and geese. Each year, Farms for City Children offers over 3,200 urban primary school children from all over the country a unique opportunity to live and work together for a week, on one of three real farms, in the heart of the countryside. It is an intense, ‘learning through doing’ experience of a different life – for children who may not know where their food comes from and have limited opportunities to explore the outside world.
What can children learn from
The children learn how to take care of them all, letting them in and out, cleaning their houses, feeding them and of course collecting the eggs and cooking with them in the kitchens. They learn all about how eggs are made, and how chicks hatch. We often watch the process in the incubator.
By working with our chickens and the other animals at the farm the children also learn about responsibility, develop teamworking skills and even overcome fears and grow in confidence. For a lot of the children who visit us they have never seen a chicken before, and are scared of being near them. During the week they become more confident around the flock and by the time they leave us they’re best friends! The children feel proud of themselves as a result, which is what we’re all about.
Is it safe for children to
interact with chickens?
If they are shown how to behave. Knowing how to approach and pick up a chicken, how to look after them properly and how to behave around them, and also to practice good hygiene as you would with any animals, washing your hands before and after spending time with them, for example, is important. It also depends on your chickens, as you wouldn’t want children around an aggressive cockerel or hen – but that also applies to animals like cats and dogs as well.
Do chickens make
Chickens do make great pets. They can become very tame the more you interact with them. They love to be cuddled, will come running to greet you and will eat out of your hand. They are very comfortable being fed, held and stroked, and as a bonus they’re a very productive pet, making your breakfast for you!
Tempted to make a home for hens? They might not be your first thought when asked to name a typical household pet, but poultry keeping is most certainly on the rise, with over 750,000 domestic hen keepers across the UK. And it’s easy to see why. Providing entertainment, excitement and a steady supply of delicious free-range eggs, hens can make a wonderful addition to your home.
A word of warning though: If your garden is full of prized petunias, you’ve got a cat who likes to thinks they’re top of the pecking order, or you prefer having a cuppa and a biscuit in your back garden without being accosted, then keeping chickens probably isn’t for you! In that case, these poultry inspired homeware picks might be a safer bet…