"The Beginners Guide To Keeping Chickens"
Keeping chickens is simple and rewarding, and you can
keep chickens as easily in a town garden as you can in the countryside.
I’ve been keeping chickens now for some time. I
got started because I liked the idea of producing my own fresh organic
eggs, and I thought it would be a fun hobby and an interesting addition
to my garden.
Two of my hens - Sienna and Pheonix, a pair
of laying machines!
We also have two young girls (aged 11 and 5) and it’s
been a great educational experience for them both. Our hens have become
much loved pets and the fact that we know where at least some of our
food is coming from and that our animals are having a good life is just
some of the reasons why in my opinion keeping chickens is so rewarding.
This short guide aims to give you an honest overview of
life with chickens, so you can decide for yourself if keeping chickens
is right for you. Many delighted chicken owners in the UK think it's
more than worthwhile, but read on to see if you agree!
A chicken is for life, not just for eggs.
You will need to care for your chickens every day, just
like any other pet (cat, dog, or rabbit). You cannot just disappear
for a week's holiday without organising someone to come and care for
the chickens in your absence.
However, you’ll be happy to know that chicken care
is relatively simple, and neighbours or a friend can often be bribed
to keep an eye on them with the promise of some extra fresh eggs should
you wish to be away for a while.
Talking of pets, remember that any existing pets you
have will suddenly have to share their lives - and garden - with the
If you already have a cat or dog you can
still keep chickens.
If you have cats or dogs, free-range hens may prove a
bit of a temptation, but they will probably get used to each other,
and if not you will then need to provide a sturdy chicken coop and run
space that keep chickens in, and larger furry animals out.
What does the law say about keeping chickens at home?
Well, generally speaking if you are keeping a few hens
for eggs then you aren’t going to have any problems. (Over 700
000 people in the UK already keep chickens in their gardens.)
However make sure you examine the deeds and any lease
for your home - you'll be surprised to find that some expressly forbid
the keeping of livestock and chickens. In addition, your local council
may have by-laws concerning chickens.
If you are seriously thinking about getting a few hens
then it may be best to do a quick check and make a few phone calls just
to be on the safe side.
Should you tell the neighbours?
If you mention to your neighbours that you are planning
to keep chickens, most will immediately think "Great! Cockerels
at 6am in the morning!”
In fact, the vast majority of people keep chickens without
a cockerel, as you don’t need one for your hens to lay their eggs.
And contrary to what some may think having a cockerel around doesn’t
increase the number of eggs your hens will lay. Unless you plan on having
a large flock (8+) or are keen on actually hatching your own chicks
there is very little reason to keep one.
(If you are set on hatching your own chicks then you
can quite easily do what our good friends Matt and Joanne did. They
simply bought a few fertilized eggs from a local farmer and got one
of their more broody hens to sit on and hatch them. No expensive incubators
and a great learning experience for their 3 home school daughters!)
Matt and Joanne hatched their your own chicks
thanks to Molly!
You may also be concerned about the noise level but these are generally
Our hens like most, are really quiet during the day and
apart from the usual soft clucking which is barely audible from the
bottom of the garden they only make a bit of noise to proudly announce
to us that they have laid their egg.
Below is about as much noise my chickens make in a 24
And if you think about it they’re a lot quieter
than a barking dog, or cat that can keep you up at night with their
Do you have time to keep chickens?
To be honest, this really boils down to time to check
your chickens in the morning before work or the school run and again
just before sundown, to put them safely into their coop for the night.
Currently I probably take 5 to 10 minutes on a daily basis to deal
with my hens, and this could probably be halved if I invested in an
automatic door opener and a larger drinker and feeder.
You will also need to put aside time each week or two to clean out
the coop - an undemanding task if you invest in an easy-to-clean
hen house and think of delicious fresh egg omelettes as you do it.
We’ll talk more about a typical daily routine later in this guide.
So how many chickens should you start with?
I would suggest that if you are completely new to keeping
chickens to start with just two or three hens to begin with and see
how you get on. Chickens like to live in groups (birds of a feather
and all that) so never keep less than a pair.
If laying properly, three hens will provide a family
of four with enough eggs to keep the fridge stocked and the poached
eggs flowing, so to speak.
Just how many eggs can you expect?
According to the International Egg Commission, the UK
average egg consumption per person is approximately 180 eggs a year,
or just under 3.5 eggs a week. So, on paper a family of four would eat
about 12 to 14 eggs a week, which is exactly what you would expect from
three happy and well-fed hens. We get this from just two!
You should also know that egg production does vary depending
on what breed of chicken you keep. For example, a Light Sussex may lay
up to 220 eggs a year, while a showier breed such as the Orpington may
only produce 80 eggs a year.
A pair of light Sussex Chickens - excellent
Also, egg production does vary between winter and summer.
During the summer months, most hens will lay an egg a day, but in winter,
they will lay fewer, and may even stop altogether. Egg production will
also decrease when a hen moults which can happen at any time but is
most common at the end of summer. As hens get older, their egg production
What I have found since keeping chickens is that we seem
to get through a lot more eggs at home than we used. Maybe it’s
because in the past it was just another item on the list to pick up
at the supermarket and now it’s just a short walk in the garden.
And it’s a conscious thing; I find myself frying up a quick egg
whenever I’m in a rush and feeling a bit peckish.
The girls also bake a lot more, as we don’t want
to let any extra eggs go to waste!
What a typical day to day routine will involve.
What you will discover once you start to keep chickens
is that they are actually very undemanding creatures, and just get on
Initially as with all things new you may well be a little
nervous and unsure, but after a few weeks you will fast become an expert
in the subject and realise it not much different to keeping a pet dog,
cat or rabbit, but with added benefits!
Typically you will need to let your hens out first thing
every morning, regardless of how you are feeling, put out their feeder
with feed, and fill their water dispensers with fresh, clean water.
Chickens will typically lay in the morning. So if you
see them come out to eat and then disappear back into the housing area
it's usually to lay an egg.
Ideally you should check and remove any eggs from the
nesting boxes as soon as they have laid. This is to prevent accidental
damage or one of your hens actually eating the egg. It also lessens
the chances of the egg getting muck on it – chickens produce waste
as and where they need, which can be in the nesting box too.
That being said many people who keep chickens work and
only get back in the evening which is when they collect their eggs and
report that they never have a problem with collecting their eggs at
Your chickens will happily scratch about until sundown,
when you should return to collect any new eggs. Make a quick check for
any wet or soiled bedding, which should be removed, and then shut your
hens away, safe from predators.
Your chicken coop should be cleaned once a week, or twice
a month if you only have a few hens. However, I always ‘poo pick’
in the mornings which simply involves carefully scooping up the poop
in the hen house and throwing it on the compost heap – chickens
produce a surprising large amount of waste during both the day and night.
I’ll tell you which bedding I use that makes this
job an absolute breeze and why a little latter on.
Feeding your hens
Your chickens can obtain up to 25% of their protein by
foraging for grass and insects, and you can add (non-meat) kitchen scraps
to their diet for variety. (Things like leftover cooked rice and pasta
as well as veggies and fruit can all be given to your hens as treats.
Just avoid citrus fruits, or anything that is salty, sugary or fatty.)
Your hens however should always be fed a complete chicken
food of either pellets or meal, to keep them in top laying condition.
The average hen will eat between 100-150 grams of complete food a day.
So if you start with 3 hens expect to go through a 20 kg bag of layers
pellets every 40 to 50 days. That would set you back in the region of
about £10 per bag. (You can buy
their feed online - here or from local farmers feed supply store
or even high street pet stores.)
Organic layers pellets - the average hen
will eat between 100-150 grams a day.
You can also supplement this with around 20 grams of
grain or corn per bird per day. But a little tip is to NOT feed them
grain and chicken feed mixed together or in the morning.
Like a small child with chocolate chip cookies, the chickens
will simply pick out the tasty grain, filling their crops and reducing
their intake of the more nutritious complete food.
An unbalanced diet can adversely affect egg production,
so grain should be given as a treat, perhaps in the afternoon when the
day's supply of fresh shoots and pellets has been eaten.
Having a ‘treat bag’ of mixed corn is a must.
When we first got our girls my daughters were desperate to get them
to eat out of their hand and also stroke them, but after almost a week
of quietly sitting with them in the run, offering them handfuls of organic
pellets they still were wary of us. Then a friend suggested I try using
mixed corn and kindly gave me a few huge scoopfuls to take home.
The next time I went down to check on them I sat quietly as always and
threw a few small handfuls of the grain near the hens. There initial
reaction was to scatter in all directions (I guess from my sudden hand
movement) but it only took a few moments for them to realise that I
meant no harm and they pretty much attacked the floor and within seconds
had pecked up every last grain.
You’d think they had never been fed! I threw a few
more handfuls down, this time a little closer and that too was polished
off. The following day, I repeat this process all the while making the
distance between them and myself less. On the third day they were eating
out of our hands.
It’s a great way to get them back into the hen
house when necessary or to bribe them to do anything really. So it’s
your ace up your sleeve!
But just to reiterate – they need to be mainly
feed pellets or meal/crumb and the best time to get them to eat is in
the morning. No treats until later in the day.
The Importance Of Water
Water is absolutely essential for your hen's health- an
egg is made up of 65% water - so you must give your chickens access
to fresh water.
Unfortunately, you’ll soon discover that chickens
do not make much of an effort to keep their water supply clean, and
will foul it with droppings or dirt they scratch up if it is left at
Once the water is dirty, they tend not to drink from
it, so a solution is to raise the water dish or feeder above ground
level and place it near to the entrance to the coop, so they can easily
Some people do this by hanging the drinker and feeder
from something so it is at your hens shoulder height – we just
use upside down terracotta pots with the drinker and feeder placed on
You’ll also notice that even if you do this that
their water will still get somewhat dirty.
What happens is that when they drink–their beaks get wet. They
then peck at something in the soil, go back and have a few more sips
to wash whatever it was they managed to get and in the process deposit
the soil that stuck to their beak!
So the solution should be to invested in a few plastic
gravity feed drinkers which should be scattered about the garden or
run area, so there is always the option of a clean source of water.
Water is critical to the health of your hens and you
should know that on a hot day a single hen can drink as much as half
Why You'll Need Grit
Hens don't have teeth (hence the phrase, rare as hen's
teeth), so they ingest grit into their gizzards, where it helps break
up their food. (It's the same reason you see birds pecking at the side
of roads.) If your chickens don't have access to natural grit in the
ground, you should provide some.
Grit with added oyster shell has the benefit of a higher
calcium content which helps create stronger egg shells.
You can have some in a small container next to their
feeder or you can mix it in with the feed. The hens seem to peck at
it as and when they need it.
Bedding is usually spread on the floor of the chicken
coop, where it can absorb moisture, droppings and smells. This layer
of bedding also acts as a soft surface for the hens' feet and as insulation
in the winter. Bedding should also be placed in the nesting boxes to
protect the eggs and to provide more comfort for the hens.
Good quality bedding should dry quickly too, as wet bedding
is a haven for parasites, mould and bacteria, none of which will do
your chickens any good. Wood shavings, chopped straw and shredded paper
can all be used as chicken bedding.
Wood shavings are popular as it’s cheap and helps
to reduce the ammonia smell. It provides a soft surface and insulates
the hen house well. However make sure if you decide to use wood shavings
as your choice of bedding that it is ‘dust free’ or ‘dust
extracted’ otherwise it can cause respiratory problems for your
Straw is what I always pictured in nesting boxes but
now in my opinion is not as effective as wood shavings. It’s not
as absorbent as shavings and needs changing more often.
Shredded paper is the cheapest option if you own a shredder
and have access to plenty of paper. But it does get soiled very quickly
and you will need to change it more frequently.
Hemp which has been cut up and dried is
perfect for lining the nestbox.
The bedding I use and recommend hands down is that made
from Hemp which has been cut up and dried. It is super absorbent and
makes poo picking very easy as it sticks to it and you can simply scoop
it up. It’s 100% natural material, and composts readily.
It’s more expensive than most (it comes in a 20kg
bale which will set you back between £12 and £20 depending
where you get it.)
However I find that it lasts an age – and probably
saves me hours over the course of a month because its super absorbent
and it’s very easy to work with. Two brands to look out for are
Housing Your Hens.
Before you rush out and get hens you need to decide where and how you
are going to house them. This will most likely be your biggest outlay
of cash so you will want to get it right.
With so many chicken coop suppliers both on and offline
it can feel a bit overwhelming when you first start out. Hopefully after
this section of the guide you will know what to look for in a chicken
coop and what to avoid.
The Basic Function of a Chicken Coop.
The basic function of a chicken coop is to provide your hens with a
place to lay their eggs and a safe and secure place to roost at night.
This is all they generally do in the coop – lay eggs and rest
safely at night.
Chickens are natural foragers, and from sun up to sun
down they will want to be out and about scratching around for food.
So they should also have access to well-drained areas for them to scratch
about. You will need to make sure that you can provide this for them.
Now I won’t lie – chickens left to free range
the entire day will have a somewhat negative effect on the aesthetics
of your garden. Initially we let ours free range around the garden for
most of the day, but after a few months they had managed to rid it entirely
of weeds, which was great but also most of our pretty plants. Even our
nice establish lawn started to look a little worse for wear.
I was amazed at just how destructive they can be, digging
holes which would put most dogs to shame and ‘pruning’ a
considerable amount of foliage!
Now you might well be having second thoughts with this
revelation. “What about my garden, my lawn, my veggie patch?”
The fact is you will need to give over a bit of space for your chickens.
How you do this is really up to you.
We have chicken
coops available that have extendable runs which in total only take
up a few meters of space. These would give you the flexibility of having
an all in one designated area for your chickens where they have free
access to an enclosed outside area to roam.
That being said I would still recommend letting your
hens out late in the afternoon for a change of scene. This allows them
an hour or two to peck and scratch around your garden for tasty shoots,
grubs or worms.
I recommend the late afternoon because as night approaches
they are more open to the idea of going back in their coop, without
you working up a sweat trying to persuade them!
Knowing what to look for in a chicken coop.
There are 7 important questions you should ask yourself when looking
at any chicken coop:
1. Does the chicken coop have sufficient room
for the number of hens you wish to keep?
As you would expect, there are guidelines on the minimum
space per bird, which according to DEFRA (Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs) is 1 sq foot per bird. The UK
Poultry club which has been around since 1877 also suggests at least
1 square foot per bird (large fowl) or 8" square for bantams.
However, that is a MINIMUM, and what you will find from
the many people already keeping hens is that the more room you can give
your chickens, the healthier and happier they will be.
If you allow your hens to free range during the day and
you only lock them up in their house at night then you can quite easily
get away with a the smaller amount of housing space set out by DEFRA.
But while hens will perch close together at night bear
in mind that keeping too many hens in a coop could result in health
problems as well as a lot more cleaning!
A trick when assessing a chicken coop whether online or
in a shop is to find out what the internal measurements of the sleeping/roosting
area of the coop are in square feet and remember to allow at least 1
sq foot per bird.
What you should know is that some suppliers inflate the
amount of hens their coops can hold. I would be wary of people selling
£90 coops that can hold 8 hens. When you look closely you see
that they are also taking into account the nesting box space and you
find that the ‘hens’ are actually bantams! Work out the
internal space yourself and make up your own mind based on common sense
and the 1sq foot rule as the minimum.
(To get the area: multiply the length and width. If the
measurements are in cm, do the same to calculate the square centimetres
and then visit a site like this to work out the amount of square foot
space your hens will have.)
It’s important that your hens have space to roam,
however if your hens are not to be totally free-range, (sometimes it
is not practical in a suburban garden), you could invest in a chicken
coop with a run.
As a general rule of thumb the more space you give them
the happier they will be. Cramped conditions leads to boredom, pecking
and an increased likelihood of pests and diseases.
Most of our coops come with runs that can be extended
to allow you to give your birds more space should you need it. If you
are going to keep your chickens in a run for most of the time then as
a rule of thumb you should allow around 1 square meter of run space
for each bird.
If you do plan on keeping your hens permanently in an
enclosed run then you should expect the grass in that area to soon wear
thin and turn in to a bit of a quagmire when it rains.
Because of this some people prefer to keep their coop
and run on a hard standing. This has the advantage of there being a
little less mud about when it rains; it can be sprayed down and cleaned
regularly with a hose or high pressure cleaner and there is also less
chance of a determined fox tunnelling in under the run.
It does however create a bit of an unnatural environment
for them. So if you do go down this route then you will need to give
your hens a really good layer of bark to allow them to act naturally
and scratch about in.
This would need to be regularly raked out and replenished.
There is also the option of using rubber chippings which are more expensive
initially but can be washed and disinfected and generally last longer.
Your hens will also need access to a dry area of soil
for them to take regular dust baths. Hens will need and want to take
a regular dust bath to rid their feathers of parasites and insects.
If they don’t have access to an area of dry soil
then you should provide them with some. This can be done by filling
a deep cat
litter tray or a large pot with soil and sand. If allowed to free
range they would typically find a secluded spot in the garden to dig
their dust bath.
Free range birds have plenty to keep them occupied but
hens housed permanently in a run will need things to keep them entertained.
They like to have different levels of height to clamber on to and perch
on, some people hang CDs in the run which give them something to peck
at. You can also push leafy greens through the chicken wire for them
You could also consider using a poultry
electric netting kit to provide a safe and secure area for you hens
to roam but you will need to consider if you have the space and budget
(£150 to £200) for one of them.
Before you begin researching which coop would best suit
your needs knowing whether you intend to keep them full time in a coop
and run or whether you intend to allow your hens the freedom to free
range will help narrow down the search.
When we started out we allowed our hens’ full access
to our garden but later decided it was a better idea to fence of a small
unproductive section of our veggie patch where they go do as they please
without us worrying if they were eating the sweet peas or digging up
A late afternoon to roam abou searching
We still let them out in the late afternoon to roam about
the rest of our garden. This way they help keep the weeds down, they
get to explore a bit and have a change of scene and our garden just
If you do decide to fence off an area of your back garden
for your chicken then keep in mind that you will need to take steps
to ensure foxes can’t access their run by simply climbing over
or tunnelling under.
Just as we enjoy chickens and eggs as a tasty meal, so,
unfortunately, do predators such as foxes. Moving on....
2. Will it be easy to clean and collect eggs?
As you collect eggs nearly every day, it makes sense
to choose a chicken coop that offers an easy way to access those eggs,
with the minimum disturbance to your hens. Also, your hen house will
need regular cleaning to keep your chickens in good condition, so ease
of cleaning should be a major consideration.
Look for hen houses that have easy access to the nesting
area as well as pull out trays and removable perches. Regular cleaning
will not only avoid the build-up of droppings but also reduces the opportunities
for pests and diseases to take hold. A weekly clean should only take
around 15 minutes in a well-made and maintained hen house.
3. Is it well ventilated?
This is an important point you may not realize but the
air inside a chicken coop can quickly become toxic due the high level
of ammonia given off by the chicken’s droppings.
Inadequate ventilation can lead to respiratory problems
in your hens, so it is important to keep fresh air circulating.
You may have also heard that chickens do not tolerate
draughts, and that the ventilation must be such that there are no draughts.
In my experience chickens are hardy, and well insulated from the elements,
and as long as they don’t have a continuous blast of cold air
in their faces then air circulation inside the coop is actually a good
We have designed our coops so that the ventilation holes
are near the top of the coop. This way it allows for the toxic air to
escape without your chickens being in a draughts.
4. Will the coop keep your hens safe from predators
and does it provide adequate protection from the elements?
Your chicken coop must be secure against predators including
foxes and to a lesser extent rats. A housing area that is raised off
the ground offers better protection from predators trying to dig their
Also get into a habit of checking your coop and run when
you collect your eggs, for any signs of damage or gnawing. Both of these
are signs of potential predators trying to get in.
Your hen house should also be weatherproofed sufficiently
for the UK weather, and if you invest in a wooden coop then you should
consider treating it with animal-friendly
preservatives, ideally once a year.
5. Are the perches correctly made?
At night, hens like to perch as high above the ground
as they can, as this gives them a sense of safety from predators. Perches
made from plastic or metal piping are not suitable for chickens, as
they cannot grip the perch properly.
In fact, chickens prefer to perch on a flat surface with
gently curving edges so their feet are protected as they grip onto it.
So the perch should be about 3 to 4 cm wide, with curved edges. So often
we see coops being sold online with perches that are not correctly made.
When assessing a hen house take close look at the perches.
They should be wide, flat and rounded off along the top edges.
A view of the fully removeable perches inside
our hen houses.
You should also be able to remove your perches for cleaning,
and they should be positioned well away from food or water, as chicken
can create over 50% of their droppings during the night.
6. The Nesting Area
Hens will always seek out dark, quiet and secluded places
to lay their eggs. By providing suitable nesting boxes within the coop,
you can provide your hens with their ideal laying environment, and a
space where you know their eggs will be clean and protected - and easy
Hen houses that have the nesting box protruding at the
side and access via a nesting box lid allows you to easily collect your
eggs with minimal disturbance to the hen house as a whole.
Hens like a quiet cosy place to lay and
they don't mind sharing
You’ll find they don’t need much space to
lay their eggs, quite often we find two hens squashed together inside
one tiny compartment of the nesting box even though the other 2 areas
are completely free! Up to three hens will share one nesting area happily,
but if you have three hens; two boxes or areas to lay will give them
Nest boxes should be lined with soft dry bedding material
and raised from the ground. If the nesting boxes are positioned higher
than the perches what tends to happen is your hens will sleep in their
nesting box because it’s the highest place.
This isn’t a problem as such but what you will
find is they will foul their laying area (hens produce a large amount
of their droppings at night) and then quite happily lay right on top
of it! So if you want clean eggs look for a coop which has the perches
We have specifically designed all our wooden coops so
that the perches are either in line or higher than the bottom of the
nesting box so there is less chance of this happening.
7. Design and aesthetics – does it look
good and will it last!
The beautifully made Devon Hen House by
coop sits in your garden 365 days a year, so it should be something
you are pleased to look at, not an eyesore.
More importantly you should ask yourself will it last.
There are plenty of chicken coops for sale out there for a £100
or slightly more and on the face of it they look like great value
But what you’ll find is that the wood is thinner
and the supplier has cut every corner to get the lowest possible price
and you could well end up wasting your time and money.
Obviously budget is a determining factor in your decision
when purchasing a chicken coop. But personal experience has taught me
that buying the cheapest of anything (especially something that will
be outside in the elements) is more often than not false economy.
Instead by investing a little bit more I have often found
less frustrations and problems, better customer service and generally
a much better product.
Predators – what you need to know.
Where there are chickens, there will most likely be foxes.
Now that urban foxes are as numerous as their country cousins, they
are a major consideration for the urban chicken owner.
Your chicken coop must be both secure and robust enough
to resist a determined attack by a fox armed with sharp teeth and claws.
Despite popular belief, foxes can attack during the day as well as at
night, so if you live in an area where foxes are found, only let your
chickens out loose in the garden if you are there with them, or you
run the risk of losing one.
The best protection against a fox attack is to return
your hens at night to a secure, sturdy and robust hen house. Foxes are
also highly effective diggers, so they can easily tunnel under a coop
wall and into the run. So it is a very wise idea to lock your hens up
at night inside the actual housing area of the coop.
Another way to prevent a fox from digging under the coop
is to lay a line of pavers or bricks around the outside of the run.
A fox will soon get tired of digging in from a half a metre out and
will probably move on to find an easier meal.
Some say that human smell around the chicken coop discourages
foxes, and we have read that urinating along the perimeter of your chicken
run will mark it as 'your' territory, and discourage foxes. Not sure
what the neighbours will think, but it's a theory… ;)
Remember to always inspect your chicken coop for signs
of scratching or teeth marks, and make any repairs quickly to prevent
a small hole becoming larger.
For a detailled section on foxes and the steps you can
take to keep your hens safe visit this link here.
You should also know that keeping chickens can increase
the likelihood of rats, mice and other vermin. The problem isn't so
much that hens attract the vermin but rather that they are attracted
by leftover chicken feed and the chance of an easy meal.
Rats are most likely to come and visit the chicken coop
during the winter, when other food is scarce. Rats rarely attack chickens
as such, but they will take eggs given half a chance.
Mice and small vermin are less of a problem because they
are often seen as a meal by most chickens, so they tend to stay away
or their numbers kept low, if you know what I mean.
Rats are opportunists who love a free meal, so the best
way to discourage rats is to keep your chicken coop clean and free from
surplus food. Also pay close attention to where you store your chicken
feed. Simply putting it high on a shelf won't discourage mice or rats;
keep your feed in a container
with a secure lid, such as a large galvanized
If you develop a major problem with rats, your local
authority should be able to help you deal with it, as rats are classed
[This article is part1 of our free guide to keeping chicken
. You can
grab your free copy here.]
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