Housing for hens can be as simple or as fancy as you like; the bare minimum is somewhere secure to perch at night that can be locked to keep the foxes out and a cosy nest box to lay their eggs in. If you’re handy with a saw and a hammer you could knock something up in half-a-day that will do the job perfectly.
Alternatively, new coops are available from around £100; the Eglu brand is a bit more expensive but it’s an attractive twist on a familiar theme that is easy to keep clean and is very practical.
Space to roam
Hens don’t need much space and two or three can be kept in even the smallest garden. You can give your hens a free run but they will scratch up young seedlings, so if you’re proud of your garden you might be better keeping them in a run.
The best runs are integral with the coop and can be easily moved from one place to another to avoid causing too much damage to the ground, which will happen if they’re kept in one place for too long.
You’ll need to buy ‘Layers’ Pellets’, which cost around £10 for a 25kg sack. Don’t be tempted to feed them kitchen scraps because it’s illegal; DEFRA consider domestic kitchens to be ‘unregulated’ and has ruled that the possibility that waste food might contain high-risk animal protein is too high. However, if you’re out in the garden with them they’ll love the odd earthworm; yes, hens are omnivorous and will eat just about anything, given the chance.
You’ll need a plastic or galvanised metal feeder and water dispenser for them, and I’d advise buying a decent sized one because you don’t want to be topping it up every day!
If your hens are left to range freely they’ll pick up grit naturally but if they’re in a pen, you’ll need to provide them with special grit to help them digest their food.
Buying your hens
You can buy ‘point of lay’ hens that are just about to start laying eggs and I think two or three hens is a realistic minimum as they’re sociable animals and need company. Expect to pay £12-20 each from a reputable breeder.
Don’t write off ex-battery hens either. They probably won’t lay an egg every day anymore (and will look awful when you first get them) but you’ll be giving them a fresh start and you should still get 3-5 eggs a week.
Unless you intend to breed them you may not want a cockerel as they can be noisy, troublesome and don’t give any return on your hard-earned money.
Common chicken problems
Hens are hierarchical animals and need to establish a pecking order (yes, that’s where the term comes from) and that can be distressing to watch because they’ll peck and bully each other from time to time to keep each other in order.
If you give them something to do and plenty of space in which to do it you can minimize the problem; a cabbage hanging from a piece of string will keep them occupied for hours and help stop them getting bored.
You’ll need to dose them for worms twice a year, something your vet can advise on. Other than that, they’re hardy and pretty low maintenance.
You need to lock your hens up at dusk otherwise they run the risk of becoming a tasty snack for your neighbourhood foxes. This can be a pain, especially in winter when you need to be home by mid-afternoon to be safe. To avoid this, we’ve just bought an automatic door closer, which opens the door at first light and closes it at dusk.
Do you have any tips for new hen keepers? Or, if you’re inspired to start keeping them we’d love to know how you get on.