hens and cockerel
Angela Slater
Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas

How to keep chickens in the garden

Fancy producing your own delicious eggs?

We’ve always taken for granted the fact that we can always nip to the shops for our foodstuffs and they will have what we need, but recent events have brought this into question. As a result, more people have started providing their own food, whether it be fruit and vegetables or eggs. Sales of vegetable seeds and plants have rocketed, as have the number of people who have started to keep a few chickens in the back garden. We have put together a few points to consider if you are considering going down that route.

hen eggs

There is no doubt that watching chickens can be hugely entertaining and their soft chattering quite soothing. As a bonus they’re great slug gobblers and their eggs taste far better than any mass-produced supermarket offerings and you know exactly what has gone into the eggs, just wholesome feed and no antibiotics. Just like any animal they will get sick and come to end of their productive lives, which raises the uncomfortable question of what to do with them. The choices are to end their lives or keep them on as retired slug deterrents.

How many chickens do I need?

Hens are sociable so don’t want to be kept in isolation, so aim to keep a minimum of three. Six birds will provide enough eggs for an average family of 4, however if you are all vegetarians you may need more. If you do have more eggs than you can use why not visit your local allotments and swap them for some vegs. If you have enough to sell you will have to adhere to the law; see the paragraph below.

Which sort of chickens to choose

Basically there are 3 types of chickens:

  • Rare breeds
  • Hybrids bred for egg production
  • Ex-battery hens

There are pros and cons for all the groups so you just have to decide on your priorities.

Rare breeds; you are preserving the old pure breeds which are usually very attractive birds but more often than not are not great egg layers. Usually the most expensive option.

Hybrids are bred for maximum egg production but usually only come in brown or white.

Ex-battery hens are the hybrids which have started laying fewer eggs and are being replaced by younger stock. They are usually just brown and have bald patches but are the cheapest option. Downside is they can take some time to come onto lay, you have to wait until they have moulted and then grown new feathers. On the plus side you are saving them from becoming pet food.

Whichever type you go for make sure they are from a reputable supplier, otherwise you could end up with old birds with very little laying life left or a diseased bird. When you get them home make sure they have food and water and keep them in their house for the first few days. Don’t be surprised when you don’t get any eggs over the winter, this is perfectly normal they will start again when the days start to lengthen in February. Don’t have a cockerel unless you want to fall out with all the neighbours, breed your own hens or have birds for the table.

Where are they going to live?

Chickens need a secure home, whether it’s a state-of-the-art purpose-built chicken ark or just the garden shed. They will need a perch to sleep on at night and nest boxes where they can lay their eggs. The minimum recommended size is 30 x 30cm (12” x 12”) floor space per bird. It needs to be water tight and have a good air flow, otherwise it will become a breeding ground for mites and bacteria. The nest boxes need to contain chopped straw, sawdust or shavings; they like a nice cosy nest in which to lay. You also need shavings or sawdust on the floor, which needs to be kept clean and changed regularly. Regularly check the hen house for rat holes as they will take the eggs.

Are you going to provide them with a wire mesh run or just going to let them roam freely? If keeping them in a run they need a minimum of 60 x 60cm (24” x 24”) per bird. The run will have to be moved frequently as they will soon reduce the grass to soil which will become mud as soon as it rains.

chicken run

If they are running free, they will need some shade from the sun, so make sure you have a tree or shrub they can shelter beneath. They will also peck up nice juicy vegetable seedlings so make sure they are fenced off the new shoots, otherwise they are great for gobbling up a tasty slug or two. They can make a mess of an herbaceous border in spring when everything is just shooting so you may have to experiment with what will survive and what needs protection until it becomes established.

How to keep them safe

Chickens make a delicious meal for a whole host of creatures so you have to make sure they are kept safe. Number one predator is the fox which nowadays is not just confined to the countryside but also prevalent in the city. Make no mistake if you leave your chickens unprotected they will get eaten. The chickens will go to bed just before dusk so just shut the door and make sure their pop hole is secured down. If they are contained within a mesh run make sure you bury the mesh in the ground to a depth of 20cm (8”) otherwise the fox will bury underneath. Don’t let them out again until the sun is well up as the fox soon gets to know they are out and about and will visit in the early morning. Foxes are not the only predator; weasels, polecats, mink and dogs will all take a nice plump chicken, this is probably more of a rural problem than one you will encounter in the town. Lastly do you have a domestic pet that may fancy something new to play with? Introduce your pets gradually and never leave them unsupervised with the chickens.  

hen on nest

Legal requirements

There are very few legal requirements unless you keep over 50 birds or are keeping several poultry species, such as hens, ducks, geese and turkeys or selling the eggs to the public in any capacity. If you meet any of the above criteria you need to register with DEFRA. If you plan to sell your eggs to the public and want to call them organic, you must meet strict criteria and be registered with an organic body, such as the Soil Association. You also have to register as a packing centre if you wish to sell to the public and stamp your eggs with a best before date, a grade and advise customers to keep eggs chilled. Although there is no legal requirement to register less than 50 chickens, you can do so voluntarily and by doing so you will be notified of any infectious poultry diseases.  

What do they eat?

Chickens need a balanced diet in the form of a dedicated poultry feed, available from an agricultural feed supplier. This comes in the form of pellets or meal; they love the meal just dampened with warm water in winter to form a mash. You can also give them some greens as a treat, but please don’t think you can feed them solely on scraps. For one thing it’s illegal to feed them scraps from the kitchen and another it will result in obesity or malnutrition, both of which will cause them to drop off their egg production. They also need a constant supply of fresh water so invest in a poultry drinker; they can’t foul these the same as they can an open dish. Clean the drinker regularly to avoid a build-up of bacteria.

Plants and foodstuffs which should not be fed and can cause harm to chickens:

  • Alliums (onions); they cause anaemia and jaundice which can be fatal
  • Apple seeds; they contain cyanide
  • Avocados; they can stop the heart
  • Beans; raw or dried, can feed if they are cooked
  • Bracken
  • Bread; little nutritional value and causes obesity which in turn leads to a drop in egg production
  • Breakfast cereal; little nutritional value and causes obesity
  • Bryony
  • Chocolate and other sweetstuff; causes obesity
  • Citrus: causes a drop in egg production
  • Dairy foods; causes diarrhea
  • Delphinium
  • Foxglove
  • Ground Ivy
  • Hemlock
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Horseradish
  • Hyacinth
  • Hydrangea
  • Iceberg lettuce; causes diarrhea
  • Ivy
  • Laburnum (seed)
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Mould on bread, fruit and vegetables
  • Pasta; little nutritional value and causes obesity
  • Rhododendron
  • Salt
  • Scraps from the kitchen; illegal under DEFRA rules as may have come into contact with animal products
  • Solanaceae family; potatoes, tomatoes, aubergine, deadly nightshade
  • St. Johns Wort
  • Tulip
  • Yew