"The Beginner's Guide To Keeping Chickens In The UK"
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 interesting addition to my garden.
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 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 6 am 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!
You may also be concerned about the noise level but these are generally unfounded.
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 hour period:
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 midnight antics.
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.
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 also slows.
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.
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 with things.
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 this time.
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 surprisingly 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 later on.
Feeding your hens
Your chickens can obtain up to 25% of their protein by foraging for grass and insects.
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 £15 per bag. You can buy their feed online or from local farmers feed supply store or even high street pet stores.
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.
Their 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 fed pellets or meal/crumb and the best time to get them to eat is in the morning. No treats until later in the day.
Regarding leftover kitchen scraps and feeding them to your hens, I must warn you, it is actually illegal to feed catering waste, kitchen scraps, meat or meat products to farmed animals and this would likely apply to a few keeping chickens in the back garden.
This is to prevent the introduction and spread of potentially devastating notifiable animal diseases, such as African and Classical Swine Fever, and Foot and Mouth disease.
So while you may be tempted to toss your left over pasta or rice to your chickens, you are technically breaking the law.
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 ground level.
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 access it.
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 top.
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 invest 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 a litre!
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 may 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.
A Bit About Bedding
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 hens.
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.
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 Aubiose and Hempcore.
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 that 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 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 number of hens their coops can hold. I would be wary of people selling £150 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 to eat.
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 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 the lawn.
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 about survives.
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 thing.
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 way in.
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.
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 space where you know their eggs will be clean and protected - and easy to find!
Hen houses that have the nesting box protruding at the side and access via a nesting box lid allow you to easily collect your eggs with minimal disturbance to the hen house as a whole.
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 more options.
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 number 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 that has the perches high up.
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!
Your chicken 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 under £200 and on the face of it they look like great value for money.
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 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 from becoming larger.
Click the blue link for a detailled section on foxes and the steps you can take to keep your hens safe.
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 dustbin.
If you develop a major problem with rats, your local authority should be able to help you deal with it, as rats are classed as vermin.
End of part 1.
In the next instalments, I go deeper into chicken breeds, where to buy your hens and what to look out for (and avoid), as well as the most common pests and problems and a lot more.
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