If you are looking for a regular supply of eggs and a hardy bird which is family friendly, a hen from the commercial hybrid range is ideal. A commercial hybrid or 'layer' will produce 300 eggs or more in their first year of laying, after which it decreases, normally ceasing within three years. The birds are availlable in different varieties so you can put together your own mixed flock. Hybrids live for three to five years, producing so many eggs in a short timescale does have an impact on their lifespan.
If you are looking for something a little different, there are numerous pure breeds that thrive well in back gardens, each with their own characteristics and temperaments. Pure breeds are seasonal layers, from Spring to Autumn, giving nearer 200 eggs a year depending on the breed. Egg production from pure breeds gradually decreases as they age, however they can still be producing 'summer' eggs at 5 year old, they live for 6 or 7 years. Many pure breeds are available in bantam size, smaller than your traditional hen, making them easier to handle and far less impact on the garden. Bantam eggs are half to two thirds the size of an average hen egg - su just double up !
For pretty, pure breed chickens that won’t have the same impact on your grass, consider the booted bantams with their feathered feet, which inhibits their ability to dig up your lawn. Seasonal layers, 150 to 200 eggs a year and smaller easy to handle birds. Breeds such as Silkies, Pekins and Sabelpoots with feathered legs are easier to manage in a run with a good degree of cover, or free draining floor covering such as wood chips to assist in keeping those foot feathers free of mud. Birds with feathered legs benefit from the occasional footbath, especially after prolonged wet weather and muddy floors.
At Hens for Pets we are more than happy to advise you of the most appropriate breed of chicken for your own circumstances, we have lots of experience with the breeds we offer and can make your decision making process easier.
Once you’ve decided on your hybrid or pure breed, full size or or bantam, your next big decision is how many to keep. Hens need company, they are very social despite their bickering, so you would need two, perhaps more depending on the space available. If its a regular supply of eggs you’re after, you could spread your purchases over a couple of years, so when your older bird’s egg production starts to decrease, you have younger birds coming into lay. Hens are addictive and you'll be tempted to buy more as you learn more, so leave some space in your flock for future additions. When adding to your flock it's a good idea to add at least a couple of birds at a time, to help cope with the settling in period, never add just one as it is likely to be badly bullied, which is why we do not sell single hens.
A hybrid ‘layer’ may live for three to five years, whereas a pure breed variety could live much longer, so it’s important to have good strong coop that will last. There are lots of different types of housing to choose from, so once you've checked out the essentials, its down to personal preference and budget. Whether you decide on plastic moulded, recycled, or wooden coops, there are some basic considerations, and cleaning is a major one. Most coops require cleaning on a weekly basis, so it’s important that cleaning is easy to manage and not too time consuming. Check if you can access all areas inside the house, which will make your job of cleaning and controling mites, much easier. Is the base of the coop at a comfortable height, or will you have to kneel on the floor or do a lot of bending to access it.
The coop should be waterproof with adequate ventilation, which is particularly important as chickens create moisture through breathing and can suffer from a variety of respiratory deseases. As we seem to be experiencing more extreme weather conditions, you'll want to make sure your birds are keeping snug in winter, so no draughts near the perches and an extra layer of bedding when its freezing. For wood, a little word of caution about felt roofs, if you get a red mite, and you most probably will at some stage, the felt may have to be stripped off to eradicate them. The run is important too, is the mesh welded for greater protection, and is the woodwork strong enough to withstand a fox or badger attack. Is there a covered area of run for the feeder, and to give your hens some protection from the sun and rain, all important considerations.
A large access door is useful and easy access to the under cover area for replenishing feed. The design of some coops will limit where they can be placed in your garden, and a dry area with the pop hole facing away from the prevailing wind is preferred. if you need to access to all sides of the coop, for example if the nest box, pop hole operation and cleaning trays are on different sides tucking them in a corner or close to a fence or wall won't be an option.
If you are fortunate to have a large garden you could a choose a coop and run which is easily moved, but in practice this may have to be a weekly task if you don’t want to kill all your grass, so bear this in mind. For a static coop and run the flooring is really important, especially in poor weather conditions. Unless you have a very large run, placing your coop on soil or grass may mean digging it out every month or two and replacing with fresh soil, to keep it smelling sweet and avoid a build up of parasites. Alternatively remove the top 4 inches of soil and replace with woodchips, which can be hosed down, and should only need changing about every 6 months. Anti-fox precautions would be required to prevent a fox from digging under the run.
Alternatively set your coop and run on a solid base which would make it easier to clean and give extra protection against foxes. If you choose a solid base, such as paving slabs, cover the floor with wood chips (not bark) or pea gravel.
We recommend 'Walk-In' runs or Aviaries for your birds, you get the benefit of plently of room for good sized feeders and drinkers and room for the essential dustbath, we use an old rubber car tyre filled with sand & soil for this. It's easier if you go away for a few days and the neighbours are in charge, and also you won't feel so guilty in the darker winter months if you are not able to let your girls into the garden quite so often !
For the coop bedding, use dust extracted shavings or chopped straw, we use rapestraw which is very absorbant and composts down really quickly.
We suggest you also read the RSPCA's Five Freedoms for animals, which details your legal responsibilities in providing the right environment for your birds. If you have a flock of 50 birds or more you are legally required to register with DEFRA, in light of the recent Avian Flu outbreaks it is useful to register whatever you flock size, you will then be sent notifications of outbreaks and any action you are required to take.
We hope this information is helpful to you, please call Teresa on 07860 436586, if you would like any further advice or wish to purchase hens or housing. Free Chicken Keeping courses, which cover the basics, are an ideal place to start - checkout our Notice Board for dates this summer.