Starting with hens


I have kept hens in our garden for the last 15 years and enjoy every minute of it. Hens are so like humans in many ways and all have their own individual traits and personalities. Like children, they fight and bully each other, eventually establishing a pecking order. Like many people, they enjoy the sun and have their own way of sunbathing, lying on their sides and fanning out one wing; like us with our children, mother hens protect their chicks from all dangers; they look out for them, teaching dust bathing, foraging for food and later on how to perch and fend for themselves. Keeping hens in your garden will give you great pleasure and endless amusement and in return your hens will be leading the happiest of lives and give you the most delicious eggs.

Starting with three or four hybrid hens is a good idea which you should buy at Point of Lay (18 – 22 weeks) or you could go for pure breed bantams such as the cuddly, feather-legged Pekins or some pure breed hens such as Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns or Sussexes. Alternatively go for cross breeds (hardier and long-living) or rescue some battery hens. Beware of buying your first hens at a livestock market (you may end up with four young cockerels!) Go to a reputable source and see your hens before you buy them. The Domestic Fowl Trust is worth a visit as you can take a good look at the variety of breeds. If you decide on hybrids you can find various companies through a search on the internet that advertise Point of Lay hybrid hens. Another excellent hybrid, the Black Rock is also sold through agents. If you buy a copy of Country Smallholding they have a useful breeders’ directory at the back. You don’t need a cockerel in order for your hens to lay eggs. Hybrid hens will lay very well for two years and then production may reduce dramatically, while pure breeds will lay less eggs each year (stopping for a well-earned rest in the winter) but will lay for longer.

The most important thing for your hens is space – the more grassy areas you can give up to your hens the better for them and the happier they will be.  You will need a secure hen house which must be weatherproof with perches and nest boxes, lined with shavings or straw. As a general rule a minimum space for three chickens is 3.6m by 4.8m but give your hens as much space as possible, with shade and some grass to peck at and roam on. If you have a large garden let your hens free-range if at all possible – you will have the happiest of hens who will lay deep yellow egg yolks. You may opt to enclose your hens in a run; you should make it fox-proof by burying 1.8m fences at least 30cm into the ground or use electric fencing. If you’re a city dweller you may have to keep your hens enclosed; Arks which attach to hen houses are a good option since they are on wheels and can be moved to fresh grass.

Foxes are a huge problem nowadays and I hear many heartbreaking stories of fox attacks – a fox will kill all your hens in one go so be sure to give your hens the best protection against them.

You’ll need a drinker (hens need fresh, clean drinking water at all times), a feeder, mixed poultry corn and/or layers pellets. If your hens are enclosed give them as much green stuff as you can but also mixed grit with oystershell to aid digestion and provide strong egg shells.

Hens have many needs – apart from making nests and laying eggs, mating with cockerels and mothering broods of chicks, they love to exercise, flap their wings, preen, dust-bathe, sun-bathe, scratch, peck and forage for food as well as perch during the day. Remember all hens moult in the late summer/autumn and they will stop laying at this time. If you are lucky your hens could live for up to 10 years although they can die for no apparent reason. Once a routine is established with your new hens you’ll find maintenance easy – the least you need to do is to let them out in the morning, making sure they look fit and healthy, give them their food and water, then later on collect their eggs and shut them up in the evening. If and when you go on holiday, neighbours will jump at the chance of free eggs in exchange for looking after them.

For lots more information and advice on keeping chickens, take a look at our range of keeping poultry books.