Keeping your own hens is very easy, and eggs from a small flock at home always taste better than bought ones. There are a lot of books on the subject, so this article aims at answering a few common practical questions.
Choice of hen
‘Hybrid’ hens are my favourites, as they are strong, healthy, friendly, productive and cheap to buy. There are endless different strains of hybrids, bred from differing mixes of the original old, ‘rare’, breeds.
Mr. Hookins at Gillingham (01747 822312) charges from £7 for a point of lay pullet. In the last couple of years he has sold me 13 Black Lakes (relatives of the Black Rock), which are supposed to lay eggs for longer than most, and 3 Lomin Browns, which lay browner eggs. We are currently laying 12½ eggs a day.
Probably the cheapest source of hens is to buy 1 year old discards from a factory farm. At the end of a year, these hens start to moult and lay less than an egg a day, and become unprofitable by the factory’s standards. There is always a factory near you, they generally cost less than £3 each. Feed them correctly and they will lay well (see below). Older hens lay less eggs, but bigger ones, and have a laying life of around 4 years.
If you want your hens to look beautiful and exotic, you are never far from a breeder of rare breed beauties. Or try Revels poultry auction in Middlemarsh on the first Sunday of each month (01300 345301) or Moon Ridge near Exeter (01392 851190), or the Somerset Smallholders website at www.shasomerset.org.uk. They will cost more, and you will get less eggs, but have a lot of fun.
Keeping the eggs coming
Feeding ad lib layers pellets is essential. And as fresh as possible, at 2 months old there is a definite drop in egg numbers. Check the label when you buy your pellets. The pellets contain grass nuts, so the hens will eat little grass, they are scavengers by nature, and their favourite foods are worms and grubs.
You can feed a little grain to outdoor hens in the cold of winter, or to rare breeds, but risk losing eggs if you overdo it. Most hens take a natural break from laying eggs in the autumn as the days shorten, and while they change their feathers for the winter. Keep feeding fresh pellets, and if the hens refuse to start laying again, perhaps try a different company’s pellets. We usually buy a few point of lay pullets in June to get around this problem.
Any small amount of ground will do. Hens need access to ad lib feed and water, and a little coop. My hens have the luxury of a large old farmyard to play in, and they keep the weeds down a treat. Hens tend not to eat much grass, as layers pellets contain grass nuts, but they will peck the shoots of any green matter. I have yet to see a garden with hens in that isn’t a complete mess, and it is best to keep them in a contained area.
Whatever the wildlife lobby say, foxes love killing for fun, whether humans, lambs or hens. Security is the biggest cost of all, but finding headless chicks everywhere is a ghastly experience. It happens to me every so often, and will not stop until you square with the fox doing the damage.
You will need either an electric fence or a high wire one. If you are keeping just a few hens, then a small ready made coop may be best. These are fairly expensive, but will pay in the long run. Make sure the fox can’t dig underneath it by putting some chicken wire flat on the ground around it. Badgers and rats are also a problem, but tend to only eat hen food and chicks.
And why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide.