A new house

For some time now I have been weighing up the pros and cons of buying a new house… one with more space, one that’s easier to clean, one that hasn’t had its roof repaired with an old bath panel…

… for the hens, not me!

Five years ago we were chicken newbies, with no experience. Of course, what you do in these circumstances is search the interweb and learn as much as you can, before launching in, thinking you know what you are doing when, in fact, you are completely unprepared.

At that time, I understood from my research that, if I just wanted a few hens, a hen house with integral run would be ideal… we would be able to keep the chickens in it all the time and move it around the garden to wherever we wanted, allowing us to use the chickens to clear raised beds, mow the lawn and generally keep the pests under control. So, I shopped around and found a coop that was suitable for three or four hens and came complete with a feeder and water dispenser.

The original coop under construction

The original coop under construction

The coop arrived and Mr Snail assembled it with minimal swearing – result. We went off and bought three point-of-lay hens and inserted them into the coop along with the drinker and the feeder. Once all these things were in the outdoor part of the run, there was very little space for poultry manoeuvre, but the hens seemed ok.

It soon became clear, however, that there were issues with our chosen coop. First, the space in it did not allow our hens (supposedly happy outdoor birds) to run around, stretch their wings or even scratch about very much. Second, whilst in theory the coop is portable, it actually turned out to be really difficult to move about – one end is heavy (where the nest boxes are), whilst the other is light and getting a secure grip on it is difficult. In addition, you can’t move it with the hens inside, unless you shut them in the house… and anyway the ramp into the house kept getting  in the way and finally became detached and we had to use hooks to attach it so that it could be removed when we were moving the coop.

And then. in the second year, we started to get red mites and had to use insecticide. Even when we thought we’d solved the problem, they kept coming back. After some investigation, we discovered that the roof had a cavity in it that provided an ideal mite refuge. We removed the original roof and replaced it with the aforementioned old bath panel – unsightly, but blessedly mite-free. Eventually, we decided to leave the door to the run permanently open and we started to use poles and garden netting to fashion a much bigger run for when we need confined hens… much of the time, however, they are free to roam about as the garden is generally chicken-proof (well, most of the time). Finally, the newly constructed pallet-gate means they can enjoy one half of the garden and the vegetables can remain safe in the other.

And so, we have continued to make the best of a bad coop. But now, laying has declined and we may have to increase our flock size a bit, so the original house is not big enough and a replacement may be in order. Thus, I have been researching eco-friendly hen houses that will not harbour mites, will have a long life, do not have a built in run, but do have to possibility of attaching a run (so we can safely leave the hens to their own devices overnight) and will house up to six girls. And the answer, it turns out, is recycled agricultural plastic. It’s not cheap, but it ticks all the boxes, plus it’s made from a waste product. And that’s what I’ve ordered – it’s from a firm that specialises in making animal housing and it is being made to order. It won’t rot, it will be easy to keep clean and pest-free and it comes ready-built, so Mr Snail won’t be forced into any sort of diy activities. It’s going to take up to a couple of weeks to arrive, but I’m hoping it will be the last hen house I ever have to buy.

Hmm… I wish I’d known all this stuff five years ago… and I haven’t even mentioned useless food and water dispensers… maybe another day…

Free range chickens and caged vegetables

I read an interesting post the other day about chickens as protein harvesters and then my attention was drawn to another post about reducing the amount of brought-in feed for chickens, and yet another about creating a chicken foraging system. All of which set me thinking about my own hens and their inputs and outputs.

Aliss hard at work: cultivating and eating pests

Now, I’m quite clear about the outputs: eggs for us to eat and barter, fertiliser and compost activator, entertainment, pest control (slugs and snails), weed control, cultivation (particularly useful for incorporating new material into the “rubbish” beds) and consumers of left-overs (although few and far-between in reality). There are also a few minor things like feathers for craft projects. So, we get a great deal out of them Even if I just consider the saving on the cost of nematodes to control the slug population and the number of eggs now available to us as a protein source, I feel that they make a great contribution to our economy.

However, when I consider the inputs, I realise that we are buying quite a lot in for them – layer mash or pellets and corn are the main items, but we also use Poultry spice and Vermex to make sure they are healthy and worm free. When we first started keeping chickens they remained in a run and all the food, apart from the grass that they quickly ate, was bought in. As we have come to understand the value of hens in the garden, they are allowed free access to most of it for most of the time. This means that they consume less bought food and instead eat wild plants, slugs, snails, grubs and worms. As chickens that have been brought up outdoors, we find that they are eager to eat worms and molluscs (although they are not keen on the caterpillars of the white butterflies). We do, however find that they don’t like to be confined and they (as the descendents of jungle fowl) particularly like spending time foraging under the willow hedge and associated shrubs.

We started off with a chicken ‘coop’ that claimed to be big enough for four hens:

Our coop when we were building it.

Don’t be fooled by such claims! The house part has a perch that will accommodate three average-sized hens; the run itself barely has room for four of them to move around once there is a drinker and a feeder in there (even if they are suspended). The result is cramped hens and food and water either knocked flying or full of muck. We soon realised that this was no way to go on and started putting them in the fruit cage, with a net tunnel leading back to the coop so they could lay in the appropriate place. Of course, once the fruits started appearing we found ourselves in competition with the hens. I like raspberries way too much to want to feed them to chickens, so they were banished from the fruit cage. By this stage, they were all used to coming when called and happy to go in and out of an expanded run attached to the original coop, so since the garden was already terrier-proof we hoped it might also be chicken-proof and decided to let them roam free.

Gytha – the Houdini of chickens

I have some news: a terrier-proof garden is not, in fact, chicken-proof. The late lamented Gytha was particularly good at getting out. We used to get phone calls from our neighbours opposite to tell us she was sitting on our front doorstep! Once all escape routes had been blocked in that direction, she took to escaping into the field behind to run around with the sheep. At my age, you really don’t want to have to call round to the neighbouring farm to ask if you can please have your chicken back! Finally we worked out how she was getting out and blocked that egress. After that the only issue was protecting the vegetables. Unsurprisingly we have found that whilst chickens like to roam free, vegetables are quite happy to be caged! So, we have chicken exclosures rather than enclosures. This seems to work out well for the welfare of both hens and veggies.

Our next task is to focus on producing some crops specifically for chickens. I have yet to research what might keep them worm-free (any suggestions welcome, but I’m guessing at least garlic) and fully supplied with vitamins and minerals (comfrey perhaps?). But I have read somewhere that they like chokeberry (Aronia), so I have one of those on order from the Agroforestry Research Trust and I’m hoping that Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) might be a good source of food for them (some seeds are on their way from Lithuania as I write) as well as flint corn (as grown by Carol Deppe). In addition, I’m broadcasting wheat seed in the fruit cage in the hope that some will germinate and provide heads to be eaten directly by the chickens once the soft fruit season is over. I plan to turn the small overgrown area at the front of the house into a source of chicken feed since i don’t really like gardening out there as I’m not a sociable gardener! Finally, I hope to up my production of worms in the wormery… another great food for chickens. Although I don’t envision being self-sufficient in chicken feed, I would like to reduce external inputs without compromising our human food production. I’m hoping too, that the result will be healthy and happy hens.

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