A duty of care

Safe, happy hens photographed today

Safe, happy hens photographed today

It has become very popular in the UK in recent years to keep chickens. Many a back garden, like mine, contains a small flock of hens. There are all sorts of companies selling fancy hen houses, feeders and accessories. From Eglus to gypsy caravans, you can treat your backyard chickens to grand accommodation, co-ordinated with your garden design. But, before you embark on keeping chickens, there are a few things that you should consider.

First, they are not garden ornaments. This means that, unlike a statue, they do stuff. They poo, scratch, dig, eat things you don’t want them to, escape and poo. Yes, I know I mentioned pooing twice, but it’s important – you will have to clean out their housing (even if it is a gypsy caravan costing nearly Β£4000) and dispose of the soiled bedding; and you will get poo on your shoes, because you cannot train chickens to use a special place – hens (unlike badgers and horses) do not have latrine areas! And you can’t not clean them out – just adding extra layers of bedding works up to a point, but eventually you will need to clean the house and scrub the perches.

And so we come to parasites. If you don’t clean out their housing, you will find you get a build-up of parasites. Similarly, if you have a small enclosed area for your hens, you will get a build-up of parasites. Hens that are able to range about over a wide area will have much less chance of re-infestation with intestinal worms than those that are enclosed in a small space. In addition, enclosed hens will scratch up a small area and turn it into mud (even if you do start with grass) and then they will be deprived of the opportunity to graze. One way to get round this issue is to have a ‘chicken tractor‘: a mobile coop/run that you reposition regularly. It sounds like a great idea, but they can be unwieldy to move and they tend to work best if your ground is nice and smooth as lumps and holes make them wobbly and provide ideal escape routes for determined hens.

I’m not terribly keen on small pens for chickens – I think they should have room to stretch their legs and their wings, have a dust bath and go for a run if they feel like it. Ours do have a run that we can shut them in if necessary, but most of their time is spent wandering round their half of the garden, which includes the compost bins, shed and lots of hedge. Chickens are the descendants of Jungle fowl and, in my experience, they like being underneath trees and shrubs, and they enjoy rooting about in fallen leaves and in the soil building up underneath deciduous woody plants. Understanding the needs and behaviourΒ  of your livestock is important, whether they are chickens, goats, sheep or rabbits, so that you can supply them with everything that is required.

Don’t get me wrong – I love keeping hens. The do all sorts of things in the garden that are really worthwhile: they provide fertilizer, they eat pests (especially slugs and snails), they provide eggs and entertainment and they consume vegetable waste. By keeping hens I can be assured that the eggs we eat are from happy and healthy birds that have led a good life and have not been pumped full of antibiotics and other chemicals. And, thus, it is important to ensure that your hens do lead a good life: that you do provide for all their needs.

The beans did not survive the storm

The beans did not survive the storm

With all livestock-keeping you take on a duty of care. And so it was that in high winds and driving rain, in the dark, yesterday evening I was hunting chickens in the garden. We experienced the remains of Hurricane Gonzalo yesterday – mainly in the form of strong winds. Even so, our hens were out and about and doing their normal thing, albeit with rather ruffled feathers. I kept an eye on them on and off all day just in case, but all was well. Usually they put themselves to bed at dusk and I go out a little later to close up the run and the door to the house (double security over night). So I was most distressed to get outside and discover the house door had been dislodged and was closed (that has never happened before) and a large bag of bramble prunings had blown against the entrance to the run, blocking it completely. Both these things had happened in the hour since I last checked on them and just at the time they would have been going to bed. Hopefully I looked into the house, but none of them had made it in before the entrances were blocked. So, I set off in the rain, with my torch (flashlight if you are in the US… I wasn’t carrying a flaming brand) to find the girls. Even though it was still very windy I could hear the gentle noises of roosting hens and was quickly able to locate Lorna and Annagramma in the ‘nest’ under the hedge where Anna lays every day. Although it was awkward, I was able to crawl in and extract them, one at a time, and place them safely in their house. What about the others? Not in the nest, not under the old chicken house (which was quite sheltered and dry), not tucked up by the compost bins, or in the nettle patch. Back to the hedge I went and listened again… I could here chickeny noises. Illuminating different areas, I finally spotted a hen behind the old wooden hen house and thus inaccessible without moving the structure… which I did. And there was Esme – balancing on the edging that surrounds their raised area of woodchip and runs between the old house and the hedge. I battled my way into the gap I had made and got number three out safely. But where was Tiffany? I shone my light into the bottom of the hedge but could see no sign of her. I listened again and thought I could hear her somewhere in there, but where? Hunting for a grey hen in a hedge on a dark night is not easy, but I really felt I needed to find her.

At this point I want to remind you that it was raining and I was very wet. I wasn’t wearing a waterproof as, normally, shutting them in is a really quick job and I certainly wasn’t going to shred a waterproof as well as myself by diving into the prickles!

Tiffany was in the depths of this

Tiffany was in the depths of this

More light shining, higher up in the hedge this time looking for a possible roost… and there was a patch of grey at about waist height. Sadly, deep in the hedge amongst blackthorn and brambles, not just willow. I fought my way in, reached out and sure enough I had found Tiffany. However, getting her out was not easy. She’s a big bird and the gaps between all the pointy things were not large. In the end I just had to reach in and grab her, hoping all the time that she didn’t struggle too much. Usually they are quite docile once they are roosting, but she was quite upset and I had to hold her firmly to get her out, but finally I had all four in the hen house.

I was wet, I was scratched, I was bleeding… but my girls were safe and under cover. I peeked in and they were arranging themselves quite happily in the dry… cooing gently. After a change of clothes, vigorous towelling of hair and a large glass of wine, I too settled down, just without the cooing. I’m happy to report that all was fine this morning – all four girls emerged from their house with barely a feather out of place and no signs of any lasting damage – the same cannot be said for my arms and hands, which will take a while to heal.

And the moral of the story? If you decide to take on animals, you have to put their needs first. You have a duty of care. You will have to make decisions about their well-being and take action, and this is likely to mean you sometimes have to do things you would prefer no to, possibly including sticking your finger up a hen’s bum and fighting your way through a hedge in a storm. And, be warned, few vets are chicken specialists! What I really want to say is that chicken keeping is great, but do your research first and make sure you are really willing to take on the responsibility.

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22 Comments

  1. People spend Β£4000 on chicken sheds???!!!!!

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  2. KayT

     /  October 22, 2014

    My goodness you really do care for your chickens! Oh bless you!

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  3. Aww poor chickens! I’m glad they’re all ok and safe πŸ™‚ what a wild adventure!

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  4. Great writing! I will pass this on to a friend who has taken in some rescue hens and needs to tweak her set-up a little.

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  5. Hooray! The girls are safe! I am so pleased to read this post and to know that there is another animal lover out there who will go, not just the extra mile, but all the way to defend and protect their vulnerable animals. I really struggle to hear all the pathetic excuses which people make to justify why they give up on their pets, or the animals in their care.
    Perhaps I go too far, but once I have taken on the welfare of a pet, it is for life.
    My heart was in my mouth as I read your post. I am so glad you found all your lovely, lovely girls.

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  6. What an exciting read and what great commitment to your charges. This post is a must read for all those trendy weekend chicken owners out there. I have always fancied having a few chooks charging about my imagined garden paradise – but know very well I have neither the knowledge nor the time to care for them properly and so they live on happily in my dreams. I love that you care for your girls so much and I hope your wounds heal safely and quickly.

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  7. Our chooks have free reign of our 4 acres from when I let them out in the morning, till when they are closed back into their coop at night. The race out to see what deliciousness then can scoop up as soon as that door is open in the morning and don’t stop eating till they meander back in when the early evening and light start to fade. You are SO right about chook poo. It’s everywhere BUT look at the silver lining, it is great for the garden. Free fertiliser! Not so great on your kitchen floor when your husband forgot to wipe his feet…again…sigh…

    I have a few issues with the dust baths. Our property is 4 acres. I think I mentioned that already BUT the chooks appear to ONLY want to dust bath where I have planted things. The other day I came out to see a small geranium upside down and dehydrated thanks to the determined efforts of a large overfed rooster and his harem of bolshie babes scratching it out of the soil. There is dust everywhere. Why this particular spot?!

    As of yet, I haven’t ventured up the rear end of any of my girls (and certainly not of Big Yin. I am sure he would be MOST unappreciative πŸ˜‰ ) but know what you mean about vets. They really have no idea and you will be left to trawl the net to find out what ails your chooks. My ninja chooks often skate on thin ice but they certainly do a great job of ridding us of pest species. I just wish they ate possums…

    Kudos on your rescue efforts. I would have been tempted to leave them there but at the moment we can’t leave a single chook out of the coop as we have quolls that are actively hunting out fat clucky girls to scoff for dinner so it’s all hands on deck to find the cluckers before the quolls do…the things we do for our chooky mates πŸ˜‰

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  8. Good on you and yep, chickens are alot of work and they are like any animal we decide to get – a commitment and our responsibility. Chooks make wonderful pets and we are very fond of ours, I hate seeing them not treated well.

    This reminded me of years ago when my first husband, I and our teenagers were living and working on a dairy farm. Our goat we had adopted (naive ex city dwellers!) was tethered out by some silos but a storm was raging and at around 6 pm and after dark I grabbed a torch and told everybody I was going to move the goat to shelter, headed out into the rain. An hour later I was still out there, tied up in a great big chain and on the ground being butted by this goat who was freaked as anything and no-one had noticed I hadn’t come back!! I managed through tears and much anguish to clip her from the chain and just let her free to find her own shelter and boy I was in a foul mood when I got back to see hubby and teenage boys all sprawled out by the fire and tele.

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  9. I had a similar experience, but a large tree came down beside the chook yard in high winds at 3am, and I ventured out in pjs, gumboots and waterproofs, clambered over the tree (which had taken out the gate of their paddock) and went to check on the Girls, only to find them peacefully asleep through the whole thing. It was a BIG tree, and I have no idea how they slept through… They regarded the whole thing as an exercise for their benefit the next morning, when they discovered the upheaved roots and bugs!

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  10. I have been a quail keeper on and off over my life. Only for eggs. I never et them because I loved them and I loved your post. I have had a few chicky adventures myself so I understand fully. Hmmm…. perhaps it is time for some more quail in my life? You inspire me. πŸ˜€

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  11. Everyone who is thinking to hop on the band wagon and get chickens should be required to read this first! I grew up on a farm, with the job of reaching under the girls and retrieving the eggs, and am always a little astounded about how trendy chickens have become. I worry about the welfare of the chickens when reality sets in and people realize how not-quaint the whole undertaking is. You’re a good mama.

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    • Thank you… the lack of understanding does concern me. I know that, generally, they are quite straightforward to look after, but I’m sure the appeal wears off soon for many people… after all, they do require daily care.

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  12. I know I shouldn’t laugh… but I did… I to have been that crazy woman out in the pours of rain, knee deep in mud, crawling though hedges in search of hens and ducks! And yes, invariably it is the time, I’ve not got the right shoes or clothes on!!! πŸ™‚

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  13. You have to love chickens. We had chickens at our last home and like yours, they were doubly locked in at night. We allowed them to roam our back garden through the day although we had to fence off certain areas to stop them eating some of the plants. We never had too many difficulties with their poo though. It was the duck that caused all the problems! lol

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  14. Totally relate to this post!!! We have ducks, not chickens, but same stories, I see! Weather, predators, food, water, shelter–poultry can be a lot of work but so much pleasure, too. Wishing you & your gals a safe & happy year ahead!

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