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Planning Retirement Online

Out of The Box - Time for a good egg                         October 2008

This is our new regular OUT OF THE BOX feature where we give suggestions on different things to try. 

If you have tried something unusual or different, tell us all about it - and send in a photograph as well if you can – so that we can share your experiences with others.




chickenIn the “good old days” everyone had a chicken or two at the bottom of their garden.

Why this wonderful pastime and useful food source ever went out of fashion I can’t imagine. Chickens are delightful birds that have great characters and offer lots of fun and interest. They are also fairly robust and require minimal attention and are quite cheap to keep. Add to that the joy of fresh eggs, and there is no doubt that keeping chickens has to be a real winner.

The first thing of course is that you do need somewhere to keep them. If you have a reasonable sized garden, then you have a choice. Lots of pet shops sell ready made chicken homes; either netted areas with an “ark” roof at one end for protection and roosting; or a more substantial coop which provide more space for the chickens. Today there are also the Eglus made by the commercial concern Omlet. These are small, colourful and a great way to start if you are hesitant about your ability or interest.

The chicken house should contain a reasonably sized area of shelter, traditionally you allow around one square foot of floor area per bird in the house. You will need some nest boxes in the house which should be low down and in the darkest place of the house so that the hens can lay their eggs in privacy; and you also need perches higher up for the birds to sleep on. These should be removable for cleaning and you should allow at least 7 – 8 inches of perch space per bird. Good ventilation is also important to prevent respiratory diseases.

Whatever the home you are giving your chickens, they need the ground covered, usually by straw, sawdust or wood chippings. You can buy commercial packs from many pet stores, supermarkets and farm shops. You will need to change this regularly as chickens poop all over the place; you may need to top it up during the week and at least once a week you will need to clear out the floor, clean it well and recover it. You can buy commercial chicken disinfectant.

Alongside the chicken home you will need an area for the birds to run around and peck in. This needs to be protected, especially to keep foxes out.

Some chicken houses come with a ready prepared netted run area but most people like the chickens to run around the garden. If this is what you want to do, you need to ensure your garden or the area you mark off for the run is safeguarded by a 19 or 21 gauge wire mesh – don’t use chicken wire as this isn’t fox proof. Don’t let this put you off, it really isn’t too difficult to bang in some fence posts and attach the wire to make a safe run for the chickens.

Electric poultry fences are becoming more popular these days. They don’t have to be dug in and they can be moved around when you want the chickens to run around in a different area of the garden.

Like us, chickens need regular drink and food. Chickens drink just water and there are lots of variations of drinkers from pet shops and hardware stores. Some are simple bowls but the better ones allow a ring of water around the bottom while keeping an ample supply in the main round body of the drinker. This ensures there is minimal spillage but always a constant source of fresh clean water for the birds.  You can also buy special drink bottles that attach to the netting.

For food, again there are a number of feeders in similar designs to ensure a good quantity of food is available for the birds. Chickens don’t have teeth, but otherwise they are very easy to feed. Chickens will peck about on grass all day happily in search of bits and pieces, but for healthy birds you do need to give them a wider diet. You can easily buy commercial chicken feed from a number of shops and supermarkets, and this provides the additional grit, oystershell and other items which make a chicken healthy. You can also give them chopped vegetables and fruit which they eat happily. Don’t give them potato peelings or too much bread as this can give them the runs.

And then of course there is the most exciting thing of all – choosing the chickens. There are many breeds available, from rare breeds to colourful birds and from chickens renowned for their egg laying ability to chickens that lay occasional but beautiful eggs and chickens that aren’t good egg layers at all but can provide good meat for the table.

A local paper is bound to have chickens for sale; or you can look in specialist magazines such as Practical Poultry, or go to a commercial supplier. Either way, ask for advice and choose a breed that is right for you. Good starter birds are often hybrids like Black Rocks and Bluebelles; or pure breeds like Light Sussex. Orpingtons are excellent with children, Marans lay really dark brown eggs, Welsummers have a lovely temperament – and so it goes on. Once you have kept a few chickens you will soon learn more and know which breed is best for you.

New chickens should be placed inside the house and kept in until the next morning before being released into a run. This way they will be 'homed' to the house and therefore go back to perch at night. You may have to 'shoo' them out of the house at first but they will soon get the hang of it. Once 'homed' you can let them free-range and they will always come home at dusk.

Once you have got over the first step and become used to keeping chickens – and used to having a regular supply of lovely fresh eggs – you will wonder why on earth you didn’t do it before!

There is lots of information on the web about keeping chickens. Useful sites include:




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