The magic hen house

The new hen house arrived about an hour before I set off on my travels last Thursday. This allowed just enough time for me to help Mr Snail get it unpackaged and round the back of the house. The only construction required was attaching the laying boxes, sliding two doors into place, slotting in the perches and attaching the mesh run. Of course, the old run had to be dismantled and the old house moved out of the way. Mr Snail said he would do all this whilst I was away so that it would be fully installed by the time I returned home. And, thus, on Friday morning I was able to see a picture of the house in situ via Facebook and by Friday evening Mr Snail was able to report that the run was attached. There was a slight issue with attaching the drinker and feeder, but snipping a couple of pieces of wire allowed these to be attached and removed the need for a stand to support them.

The girls spent their first night in the new house last Thursday – sleeping on the floor rather than on the perches, but that is their choice and not a problem – there is plenty of space. The house is lovely – there is a big door at the back to allow easy cleaning, two perches, an adjustable vent and two nest boxes. The pop-hole at the other end from the big door opens into a run with another pop-hole in the solid end of this through which they can exit into the garden. The run is about a metre long, so I wouldn’t want them to be confined in there all the time, but it will provide a secure space for them should we wish to leave them safely overnight at times when our neighbours are not available to put them to bed.

The house is made of recycled agricultural plastic (old silage wrap, feed buckets, silage clamp covers, dumpy bags, fertiliser bags etc), so uses a resource that would otherwise simply be dumped. Hopefully we will never have to replace it because it won’t rot and should any component break, the company who made it will be able to make a new one: each house is built to order anyway.

Rare as hen's teeth: a Lorna egg

Rare as hen’s teeth: a Lorna egg

In addition, the people who made it appear to have added some sort of magic ingredient because yesterday, Mr Snail discovered Lorna sitting on one of the nest boxes, and when she stood up she revealed an egg. Her eggs are very distinctive and cannot be confused with eggs from any of the others. This is amazing, because the last time she laid an egg was June 2013. Having not produced anything for a year and being one of our oldest girls, we assumed that she had just run out, but clearly we were wrong. And just to prove that it wan’t a fluke – she has laid another one today! It was a very expensive way to get more eggs from her!

My theory is that because the new house is black inside and has no window, her laying has been triggered by her experiencing a very distinct difference between day and night. The only other possible explanation I can think of  is that I have recently started giving the girls a little of my homemade apple scrap vinegar in their water and it must be better than the commercial stuff, but I can’t believe that would trigger such a major effect. Either way, we’re happy and clearly Lorna is too!

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…

The wrong sort of worms

Just can’t bring myself to post a picture of an intestinal worm!

To date I have written about compost worms and knitted worms, and even earthworms get a mention occasionally, but currently we are suffering from ‘the wrong sort of worms’.

For two years our little flock of hens remained worm-free, possibly as a result of the addition of Vermex (a herbal supplement including garlic and cinnamon) to their food in the form of three doses every month. However, at least one of our two new girls has arrived with intestinal worms – round worms to be precise. Sadly, we have run out of Vermex and the local farmers store doesn’t have any in stock… and the second nearest one only has the stuff for sheep and goats. We are adding garlic granules to their feed, but I’m not certain whether these will help. In general I feel that the herbal treatments keep worms away, but they don’t get rid of them once there is an infestation.

So, we need some sort of medication. It was ordered and we awaited its arrival. I was planning to deliver it to the girls individually in raspberries (currently the highest value chicken treat available in the garden), but my plans have been revised. An e-mail arrived from the internet company to say that, despite claims that the product was in stock when we ordered it, it actually wasn’t (grrr). Now I don’t want to hang around when it comes to worms, so we cancelled the on-line order and picked some up (at much greater expense – 30% greater!) from that farmers’ store we passed on the way to visit my parents today.

Reading the instructions, I discovered that the dose is so small that the raspberry trick isn’t going to work and that, instead, we have to spike their main food with it for the next seven days. This means they should each receive the correct dose because big chickens will eat more than small chickens and, therefore, will receive a bigger does. Clever, eh? Well, the feed is mixed and ready for them to dive into tomorrow morning. Apparently we can eat the eggs whilst they are being medicated, which considering the dose is so small seems fine to me.

Parasites are something of an issue when keeping any animals and my approach is to try to avoid them rather than have to treat an infestation once established. This is why we use the herbal ‘worm deterrent ‘ and why we have been struggling to find a way to end the infestation of red mite that the girls have been suffering from. Red mite, in case you don’t know, are blood suckers that hang around in the nooks and crannies of the hen-house during the day, then emerge at night to suck your chickens dry (well, sort of). There are various powders and sprays (some very toxic, some entirely organic) that you can use on the hen-house to rid it of these pests. We managed to keep them at bay mainly with the use of diatomaceous earth for two years, plus an occasional spray with something more hardcore, but this year they got out of hand and we just couldn’t shift them.

The improvised mite-busting hen-house

It turned out that our chicken house was a haven for mites – the construction of the roof provided ideal locations for them to hide out and where no spray (organic or otherwise) could penetrate. We removed the roof and burnt it (in our Kelly kettle, of course), but there were still mites in other places. Then we got the two new girls and needed separate accommodation. I’ve described before how we made a new chicken house for free from an old dog crate, some carpet protector, a piece of old skirting board and some cable ties. For a while the  newbies slept in the new house and oldies in the old house, but gradually they all wanted to sleep together. Initially they chose the old hen-house, but we realised quite soon what a mistake this was. We managed to persuade them that the new house was much better. .. and so it is. It’s bigger, the perch is longer, it’s completely fox-proof and red mites hate it. There are no dark crevices, there are no poorly ventilated areas and there’s no wood. Inadvertently we have built a great hen-house, We still let them use the laying boxes in the roofless old house (the boxes still have roofs), but that’s all. Never again will we have to deal with a mite infestation, unless a new species evolves that has a preference, for dry conditions that are light, airy and made of plastic.

I’m pretty sure that there’s no guaranteed way of preventing worms and I know that there’s always a chance of hens picking them up from wild birds, but hopefully once the current infestation is cleared up we’ll be able to prevent future problems by using herbal food supplements. I would be really interested, however, if anyone has tips for keeping chickens worm-free.

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.

The pecking order

The Snail-of-happiness flock now comprises four hens: the oldies – Lorna and Esme; and the newbies – Perdy and Aliss. Our original idea was to separate them during the day, with newbies in the run and oldies free to roam the garden as usual. Then to put them all together at night when everyone was sleepy.

This worked fine on the first day in the sunshine. However, since then winter seems to have arrived and free access to the garden was inappropriate as there was so much standing water. Also, all of them needed to be indoors quite early because the rain was so heavy the water was soaking them to the skin (very unusual, they usually only get superficially wet). Unfortunately when they were placed together in the hen-house there was an unseemly scuffle! Newbies ended up sleeping in the shed.

To alleviate some of the stress we decided to construct a new house using assorted stuff from around the house. We now have a second hen-house made of a large dog crate and some heavy-duty plastic carpet protector, held together with cable ties and with a perch made from a piece of old skirting board. You see, I knew being a squirrel would come in useful eventually.

The new residence in situ

This, currently is Aliss and Perdy’s house, although the picture shows it with Lorna and Esme just after we put it in position. Eventually it will be home to all of them as it’s bigger than the original hen-house, unlikely to support the dreaded red mites and will not rot. Also, because it’s a dog crate, it will be completely fox-proof. It’s currently sitting on a pallet, but we will raise it higher to provide additional shelter underneath.

So, for the time being, the pairs are being kept separate, although able to interact through the mesh. When we do put them together Esme is determined to show the new ones that she is boss. Everyone we know who keeps chickens seems to have different advice on what to do:

  • just put them together and let them sort it out
  • keep them apart during the day, but visible to each other and make them sleep together
  • keep them apart but visible to each other for several days, then put them together
  • isolate Esme for 24 hours but put the others together and when she is returned to the flock she will behave better towards all of them…

I guess that eventually we’ll just have to let them sort it out amongst themselves, but for the time being they are separated by mesh and sleeping separately. I have been advised that if we had a cockerel, he’d probably help to keep the peace, which might be true with respect to the hens but not, I suspect, with our human neighbours. However, the interactions are fascinating and despite all the disturbance the new arrivals have caused the oldies are still laying… so we had boiled eggs for lunch and I’ve made cup cakes. Oh yes, eggs, that’s why we have them, not entertainment!

The newbies

We have been profligate in the chicken department… after the demise of Gytha we decided that a replacement was in order so off we went to the chickenery (or Country Lane Nurseries as they call themselves) to get a new girl to add to our flock.

‘We’d like a chicken,’ we said to the nice lady.

A chicken?’ she responded with slight incredulity, or possibly amusement.

‘Yes, a chicken. One of ours has recently died and we want a replacement. We have two others that also came from here.’

One chicken?’

‘Yes, please’

‘Well, we don’t advise getting a single one… she might get bullied by the existing chickens, so it’s better if she has a friend.’

Now, I know this is common thinking, but we have limited perching space in the hen-house and three fit nicely, but it would be a squash for four. But the prospect of our newbie getting bullied was too much… so we bought 100% more chickens than we had intended to. They will just have to get very cozy in the hen-house… or sleep in the laying boxes.

So, let me introduce our two new ladies:

The new girls

Carrying on the Terry Pratchett witches theme, that’s Aliss at the front (Black Aliss because she’s a Black Rock) and Perdy at the back (Perdita aka Agnes Nitt – another Speckledy).

Esme, being the boss (as befits the one named after Esmeralda Weatherwax – chief of witches despite them not being hierarchical, unlike chickens) has decided that she will spend time letting them know the pecking order:

Esme letting everybody know who’s boss

She has been strutting up and down and making herself look big – plus when allowed direct contact, she occasionally pecks and sits on the newbies. Interesting thing this chicken behaviour. Lorna is not interested particularly and is just getting on with life as normal, hence her absence from the photos.

They all slept together last night, but during the day we are mostly keeping them apart until they are more used to each other. By August we should be having eggs from all four. Plus we will have built a new and bigger house for them… and we may even have stopped being rained on for more than a day or two. Actually, perhaps we should build them a chicken ark!

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