Keeping chickens has been such an enormous pleasure. There’s something very relaxing about them, their movements, the noises they make, their behaviour … it’s a much more pleasurable experience than I’d expected. And of course, fresh eggs every day.
We’d been thinking about getting chickens for a couple of years. Our garden is a reasonable size, but not huge (about 30 metres long), so we had to think about how we’d fit them in. After a lot of research and a chicken keeping course at Mantel Farm in Catsfield, we finally succumbed last September. We bought three: Marge (a Light Sussex, the white one); Phyllis (a Cuckoo Maran, the speckled one); and Hilda, (a Skyline, the brown one). They quickly established a pecking order: Marge at the top, although she’s the most placid and doesn’t mind being picked up, and Hilda at the bottom, she’s the least placid and hates being picked up. The names come from Jo’s three great aunts – long dead now, but she thinks they would have approved. We did wonder what the cats would make of them, but after being a little alarmed at first, they’ve quickly accepted them as part of the family.
Their house and enclosed run came from ‘Buttercup Farm’, an online retailer – expensive, but very solid and completely fox proof. The chicken house part is 1.8m x 1.2m, the attached covered run is 2.4m x 1.2m. It did need a bit of modification though to block up the eaves (installing a covered air vent instead) and fitting a door jamb. The house wasn’t designed for coastal environments where the rain falls horizontally. We tried a number of different feeds, but eventually settled on Marriage’s Organic layers’ pellets, which they seem to like best. We also give them ‘treats’ made up a mixture of dried maize and mealworms. Treats are how you get chickens to co-operate – once they learn the sound of a shaken treat box, they’ll go anywhere you want them to. We also give them a tin of tuna occasionally – they love tuna, and it provides lots of protein. But overall, chickens seem to eat more or less anything: worms, snails, woodlice, spiders, grass, weeds, courgettes, cabbage, and indeed your favourite plants if you let them. On this diet, they lay about an egg a day each – a bit less in the depths of winter. Hilda, the Skyline, lays blue eggs. The other two lay brown eggs.
The floor of the enclosed run (which is just earth) is covered with a 100cm or so layer of hardwood chips, which are cheap and work well, giving the chickens something to scratch around in. The coop part is quite large, and has allowed us to use a ‘deep litter’ system. You don’t hear much of deep litter chicken management nowadays. It used to be popular, but was abandoned in favour of more ‘hygienic’ methods. But I wanted to try it as it’s how my Dad used to keep chickens, in the garage in Chobham at the house where we lived until I was five years old (we didn’t have a car then). ‘Deep litter’ was something I heard every day, and was quite probably one of my first words.
The idea with deep litter is that you turn the floor of the chickens’ indoor housing into a sort of compost heap. That requires a bit of modification to the housing. I asked for the pop-hole (where the chicken pop out) to be raised six inches above the floor when I ordered the housing, and I had to put a board across the bottom of the door opening. You put in a deep layer of bedding, and allow the chickens to scratch around in it, mixing their droppings in. A natural decomposition process starts, with an ecosystem established in the litter, from microorganisms up to predatory arthropods, and indeed the chickens themselves. The advantage of deep litter is that you don’t have to clean it out for months; the disadvantage is that it has to be quite carefully managed to make sure the process works as it should, maintaining the right kind of decomposition of the droppings and the right microflora in the bedding.
I used hemp bedding, which is very absorbent and stops the litter getting too damp. If the moisture content gets too high, the droppings will decompose producing ammonia, which is toxic. I put in a 150cm layer, and rake it over once a week, using a cultivator hoe to make sure air remains in contact with the droppings and hemp bedding throughout. It’s been there for six months now, and there’s no sign of any ammonia odours, it still smells as sweet as when I put it in. I was thinking it would need changing after six months, but I’m going to leave it longer now. The chickens like it, scratching around in it and picking out insects that are now in the bedding helping the decomposition process. It’s also still quite dry, which seems to be more to do with the extraordinary absorbing properties of the chopped hemp. Using the deep litter system, the rest of the weekly clean-out (cleaning the nest boxes, washing their perches, refilling their oyster shell and grit, generally tidying up) takes about half an hour.
When we’re out in the garden (or in the summerhouse, which is close to the chickens) we let them out into a larger, uncovered run. It’s not fox proof, but is fairly robust – we’ve used chicken fencing from Omlet, an online supplier – pricey, but good quality and easy to move around. Throughout the winter, they roamed our vegetable patch (with our winter kale and spring cabbage carefully enclosed in a cage), which worked really well, they scratched it over, fertilised it, and got rid of all the weeds. Now they’ve moved on to their summer quarters, part of the lawn and our ‘wild area’.
So it’s been an enjoyable experience. Marge, Hilda and Phyllis are part of the family. They provide us with eggs and endless, calming entertainment. If you’re thinking about chicken keeping, I can recommend it. And if you’re not thinking about it, and you’ve got the space, do consider it!