Keeping chickens: A beginner’s guide

“I’m thinking about keeping hens – what do I need to know?”

This is probably the topic I get contacted about the most on social media.

You might not know it about me, but before I do anything I generally have to research it 548 times. This has its pros and cons in life but means whenever we’ve got pets I’ve largely felt like I knew what to expect. As ever, I’m not an expert – but I do like to think I keep happy hens, and it’s a privilege to be able to share my experiences. Remember that point though, these are just my experiences – talk to other chicken keepers and please do your own research.

I’ve had so many people get in touch with questions when I said I was going to write this, that I’m going to split this blog up into a number of different topics going forward. I plan to address common egg laying problems, other nasties like mites (red mite, scaly leg mite etc), gardening with chickens, integration and specific seasonal hen-keeping issues – but let’s start with the basics. If there’s anything else you’d find handy (a guide to wing clipping for example) then please let me know!

So you really want chickens?

Chickens are simply wonderful pets. Seeing them run down the garden can lift the darkest cloud and fresh eggs never lose that Christmas morning excitement – nor should they. But keeping chickens is a commitment. Some days that commitment might just be a few minutes checking on them and making sure they’re fed and watered, while other days you can find you’ve got a hen who has managed to pull off a nail on her adventures and needs attention (thanks Marble). Importantly, hens need to be let out in the morning and shut into their coop at night. You can get automatic door openers for coops which it might be worth exploring if that’s not for you or you’re keeping them at an allotment. I haven’t gone down this route because I know I’d worry about a little hen being locked out, but that’s just personal preference. Some days if I’m back late from work and Tom is going out when it’s still light, he’ll pop them in their secure run and I will close them in the coop when I get home – so the good news is there are definitely ways around it. But equally I’m not going to pretend there aren’t cold winter mornings where I really don’t want to get up to let the hens out, and I sleepily walk down the garden path like a zombie in whatever dressing gown is nearest.

Chickens will also poo everywhere and eat everything. We manage to keep a nice garden with chickens through sheer hard work. My spring bulbs are planted with protective frames on top to stop the girls digging them up and I frequently have to accept a plant has left this world too soon. However that’s the price I pay for having them free range the garden and I wouldn’t change it! If you rescue ex-battery hens you should be prepared for heartache (I’ve spoken about this before!) and like any animal, there are probably going to be vets bills/health incidents along the way.

Yes, they’re not as loud as a cockerel, but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t sometimes hear them from the house. Sometimes it’s a demanding sqwuark from the back door demanding treats, others it’s the egg song to announce how proud they are of their hard work. If you live with neighbours in close proximity, you might want to check with them first, or just be prepared to bribe them with fresh eggs. Saying that, the hens are still not as loud as our spaniel or the kids next door, but a rabbit is definitely quieter…!

People also ask me about how I manage holidays. The best advice I have is to make friends with your neighbours and, once again, bribe them with eggs. We have the BEST neighbour who has quail and we look after each other’s girls in return. We’re also lucky to have family nearby who are on standby if she’s not around. If that’s not possible, then there are hen-sitting services where you can pay someone to come around and check on your chooks, or boarding services where you can take your girls to be looked after for a few weeks. As keeping chickens is growing in popularity lots of these services are springing up, so you might be surprised how near someone is to you!

Other things to consider: if you’re getting chickens purely for eggs, then what are you going to do when a chicken stops laying? A heritage hen breed can live for up to eight years, but might only lay eggs for three. I’m keeping chickens as pets, so eggs are an added bonus, but it’s something you might want to consider.

If you’re still reading, and you do really want chickens – then let’s address equipment you need.

The set up

I can’t stress enough how important a good set up is. We’re lucky that we work funny hours/Tom works from home and is therefore around in the day a lot, but other places we’ve lived I wouldn’t risk the hens being out for 30 seconds without a fox sighting. The best way to get around this is to have a secure run with your coop in – so if you’re out all day, you’re not going to worry about them. When we designed our garden, it was designed with a safe space for the girls in mind. We have an Eglu coop and run which we have extended – it has a mesh skirt around the edge, and it’s then cemented and enclosed with paving slabs, meaning that it’s very very challenging to dig under without managing to lift some paving slabs. I’ve spoken to other people with constant fox problems who have dug down under their run and inserted a mesh base so nothing can dig up. I appreciate in other countries there are different predators to contend with, but my experiences are only of UK chicken keeping – though if you’re reading this, please let me know in the comments! We will always keep them in the run at dusk and dawn to be on the safe side – it’s important to be vigilant.

In terms of space, most people recommend one-metre square per hen as a minimum, though I’ve said before – chickens always want more. Essentially my advice is give them as much space as you can, for both hygiene and boredom busting reasons. Some days they’ll all seem to stick together in the smallest area, while others they’re off exploring on separate garden adventures.

There are so many different coops out there, and it’s personal preference what sort you go for – just do your research. Our coop is plastic. I spend so much time trying to avoid plastic, but as a chicken coop I can’t recommend it enough. The main reason being that it’s so easy to keep clean, and we’ve never had any mite problems. I don’t have any experience of a wooden coop (and those who love them please let me know!), but my friend had repeated red mite problems in her wooden coop which, touch wood, I haven’t battled with. I take ours apart and blast it with the jet washer, which seems to do the trick.

Chicken feed (warning this turned into a long section!)

I love to spoil my girls, but in the same way too many sweets are bad for your teeth, too many treats are bad for hens. There are a few different categories of chicken feed – chick crumb, growers mash, layers feed, as well as any specialised feed or medicated feed. If you’re getting chicks then do your research but any laying hens (from about 20 weeks) will need access to a good-quality layers feed and this generally comes in two main forms – pellets or mash.

Most commercial hens will be fed mash, so it’s recommended you start them on the same – with the general consensus being most people prefer to feed pellets as they’re less messy. We have a feeder which hangs up (to deter rodents) with a scooped side, and I don’t find mash is flicked out of the feeder. For that reason, we’ve stuck with mash as they turned their fussy beaks up at pellets when we tried to swap them over! But it’s personal preference. The important thing is they have access to this at all times and it forms the main bulk of their diet so they’re getting all the nutrients they need.

Feeding too many treats is one of the biggest mistakes chicken keepers can make – and something I try to remember when they shriek with delight at any gifts! A balance of nutrients are needed to lay an egg – disrupting that can cause a hen to go off lay or have egg problems. Mixed corn for example is a mixture of wheat and grain, which is low in protein and high in fats – and it takes a fair amount of protein to make an egg! It’s best kept as a cold-weather treat, as it causes hens to heat up. However scattered treats can encourage foraging and, if you have a lazy hen (one word – Debs) , a nice bit of exercise! I prefer to use a mixture of seeds, such as sunflower, linseed and millet if I want to treat the girls. It’s hard to suggest a product nowadays without people thinking it’s an ad (this isn’t an ad!) but if I want to encourage foraging, I’ll throw down a handful of something like Garvo Alfamix. This is actually a complete feed of pellets, seeds and ‘amphipods’ and the girls LOVE it. It’s quite pricey as a complete feed in my opinion, but a handful a day means a bag lasts for ages alongside their layers mash.

Make sure you keep any food stored somewhere safe to a) deter rodents and b) make sure it doesn’t get damp and mouldy. We also take our food in every evening from the run.

Eat your five a day

The exception to the treat rule is fresh vegetables which you can feed alongside your layers feed, and fruit – but you might need to limit the quantities. Again, if you’re worried about them not eating their layers feed then it’s good to give any vegetables etc in the afternoon, but I find the girls are fine. I thought I’d list some of our girls’ favourites below for inspiration!

Leafy greens: Think lettuce, chard, kale etc – always a hit.
Cabbages: A hung up cabbage can be a good crowd pleaser in the winter.
Broccoli and Cauliflowers: The girls go wild for cauliflower.
Berries: Strawberries are a big hit here, but generally any berry is a big treat.
Grapes: In moderation, a very popular choice.
Fresh corn on the cob: Hung up, this can entertain them for hours in the summer.
Tomatoes: Always a hit, and a good way to use any squishy ones from the greenhouse! DON’T feed green tomatoes or the plant though, for the same reason as potatoes below.
Cucumber: A good summer cool down.
Melon: Another summer treat. On really hot days I’d cut up melon in some water which they’d have to hunt for – seems to keep them happy!
Squash: Think that allotment courgette glut or pumpkins – both seeds and flesh are nutritious.
Edible flowers: Marigolds and nasturtiums seem to be a hit in our garden, with both having health-boosting properties. I’ll cover these in my gardening post. And don’t get me started on the health benefits of herbs…!
Fruit: A little bit of peeled banana is popular, pomegranate seeds, a bit of apple/pear, or cherries. We have a cherry tree in our garden we have long given up on beating the birds to. It’s always a very happy few weeks when the cherries drop to the floor and the girls hoover them up!
Carrots and peas: Never a huge hit, but sometimes they’ll be in the mood for dried peas!
Raisins are OK in very small amounts – they contain lots of sugar.

Don’t feed them…

Be careful with long grass, especially if you’re giving them grass clippings. This can impact their crop – I’d just avoid it altogether.
Uncooked rice: this can expand in their gut and cause possible blockages
Rhubarb/rhubarb plants.
Potatoes: Cooked potato is apparently fine, but green potatoes are very poisonous (not altered by cooking) and the plant is toxic – so I just steer clear. This is due to the solanin if you want to Google it!
Spinach contains oxalic acid – so just feed sparingly if you do
Dried or raw beans – a really big NO.
Avocados have mixed reports (the flesh is apparently fine) – I just avoid.
Bread – Again, bread has a mixed reaction on the internet. Some say it causes crop problems or that it has a low nutritional value, while others will tell you they’ve fed bread for years, so if you do feed them bread – everything in moderation.

Other big fat nos include anything that’s mouldy, and just using a bit of common sense. Do I really need to point out that chocolate isn’t a good idea for example?!

I should point out that it’s illegal to feed kitchen scraps unless you have a ‘vegan kitchen’ because of the risk of transferring disease. I tend to remove any parts of fruit/veg before it makes it to the kitchen, and the girls get a lot of veg straight from the allotment, but more info can be found on the DEFRA website. (Serious bit covered, ta daaaa!)

Water

Chickens need access to fresh water at all times when they’re awake. We don’t put it in the coop because they only go in there to lay or roost, and when they’re asleep – they’re fast asleep. (Honestly, it’s a deep sleep that could rival my husband’s.) Obviously keep it clean, top it up more when it’s hot and check it’s not frozen when it’s cold. You can’t go too wrong.
There are lots of supplements for chicken water – I’ll do another post on some of them.

Grit – this is not optional!

Sometimes people get in touch with me to say their hens have crop problems or are laying thin shelled eggs. Sometimes, it can be a whole range of things – but the first thing I always check is whether the chickens have access to mixed grit. Grit is divided into two main categories – soluble and insoluble.

Insoluble: Chickens don’t have teeth (surprise!) but grind food down in their gizzard. For this grinding process to happen, they need some grit such as flint. If they’re free ranging they might pick this up naturally, but otherwise it’s good to have a pot they can help themselves to.

Soluble: To make strong eggshells, chickens need enough calcium in their diet. Word on the street is that most chicken food will nowadays contain enough calcium for them to make their eggshells, however ex-commerical hens are more likely to need a bit of help with, therefore having oystershell they can help themselves to can solve thin eggshell problems. This can be bought as part of a mixed grit bag cheaply, or baked, crushed eggshells will also do the trick.

I add grit to little pots which attach to the side of the run and they help themselves. However if, like Ginger, you have a hen who refuses to eat grit from a pot (standards, darling…) then I find scattering it on top of plant pots does the job. She thinks she’s not allowed to eat it, so naturally does. It works every time.

Do I need to worm my hens?

I’ll be honest, I started looking into this and it fascinated me. To the point I might write another post going into some of signs and symptoms of worms in hens.

In short, worms can cause lots of damage to hens – but how you treat/prevent worms varies in opinion from chicken keeper to chicken keeper

Getting a ‘worm egg count’ (never has a more glamorous sentence been typed) is one way. This can be done via a vet (bit more expensive) or by sending some freshly-picked droppings (a nice mixture from all your hens, please) to a special poultry lab service.

Kits you order online from the service contain everything you need to collect and send off a sample of your chosen poo, and the results are sent to you for around £20. As Flubenvet (the only licensed UK chicken wormer) has gone up in price and with concerns about drug resistance, more chicken keepers I speak to are doing this.

The other way is preventative – routinely using Flubenvet mixed in with feed, or buying specially medicated pellet feed for your hens. It’s recommended this is done every three-six months, and straight away if you rescue battery hens.

As ever – good husbandry is going to be your friend in preventing worms.

Worm eggs like warm, muddy, moist environments. Using ground sanitisers can be one way to absorb moisture, and is the route I tend to go down for keeping the ground fresh.

There are lots of natural products said to make the chicken gut an unpleasant place for worms. Verm-X is one popular one, but it’s not a licensed medicine, so make sure you know the difference. Apple cider vinegar and garlic are both popular herbal choices as well.

If you do have worms (I should rephrase that, if your hens have worms…!) remember you can’t just treat the chicken – you need to treat the environment as well.

Dust bathing

A dust bath is basically the equivalent of your hens getting into the tub, but in dry dirt. The first time I saw a chicken on its back rolling around I thought she was dying. Turns out she was blissfully happy – think getting into a deep bubble bath with a glass of wine. A healthy chicken needs/wants to dust bath as a way of repelling external parasites. It’s not essential like food and water, but it’s a really good idea. In my experience you can make a lovely dust bath, but your hens will find their own, probably under your favourite garden plant. However if your chickens are in a run then you might want to provide one.

I’ve seen people build wooden structures, use child’s sandboxes or even just use a plastic tub, but you want it somewhere sheltered where the dirt will stay dry. Some people add sand or wood ash to the dirt to create a lovely blend – I’ve even seen lavender added, but this seemed a bit too fancy for my girls, who just like dry mud. The only times I’ve added wood ash etc are when the weather has been really bad and they looked like they needed a pick me up.

Having access to a dust bath is going to make your hens happier and is really good for chicken health. Plus, watching them purr is one of the best things about keeping chickens. Especially if you rescue ex-commercial hens who have been deprived of dust bathing.

Good husbandry

Nope, this isn’t about how tolerant my husband is of my hen-keeping obsession. Cleanliness is key to preventing so many issues – I refer you to worms above!

Here are some of the jobs I do to give you an idea:

Sanitise food and water holders weekly.
Deep clean the coop weekly, but empty the droppings tray daily/every other day to prevent it building up. When we deep clean I will either wipe it down inside or blast it with the jet wash and leave to dry in the sunshine. We use dengie bedding inside the coop (I can’t resist the pine smell, regardless of whether the chickens like it!) and this gets replaced every couple of days – depending on how quickly it’s been kicked around. Sometimes when it’s hot I’ll change it every day for example.
Poo pick daily. Sanitise the area weekly with a ground sanitiser – NB this needs to be done less frequently when the weather is really nice, it’s that warm/moist environment you want to avoid.
Every month we’ll empty the run completely and top up with fresh woodchip – we find this is enough as the girls free range.
Check on the girls daily, but do a health check every week to spot any early signs of illness (eg checking for mites etc) – see my health video if you’re unsure of what to do!

Written down it doesn’t sound too much work really!

OK. I think for my first chapter I’ve managed to cover a few of the essentials – I hope its been helpful! I’ll let you know what’s next on IG, and as ever, please get in touch if you have any questions.

Thanks for reading, happy chicken keeping!

Love Rach and the girls xx

9 Comments

  1. I can’t tell you enough how helpful this is. I’m desperate to have chickens in my back garden, however I’m fully aware it will be far more involved than I picture it in my head. I also have a rather large Alaskan malamute. I see them being best friends but I know this won’t be the case although I’d like to think in time they would all get along. I absolutely love seeing your chickens on Instagram so being able to read this blog has really helped to highlight things I’d never thought of. I will happily read anything else you add to this.x

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  2. Excellent, very helpful article thank you. I am new to keeping chickens and about to build a run to add onto our coop. What do you find best for flooring? Do you use wood chips on soil or do you put down a base of something else?

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  3. I’m a newbie to the chicken. I did a lot of research before I purchased my 2 silkies (1 a rooster) and 5 Plymouth rocks (2 roosters) but it’s funny the things people don’t tell you. For example, I didn’t realise that the chooks don’t sleep in their little boxes, that they’re supposed to sleep on a roost and I didn’t know that they love to run… flat out. Seeing them run, for no reason at all is just the funniest thing ever. It seems funny now but I also thought my little silkie was dying when I saw her take a dust bath… it’s a funny journey indeed. Looking forward to the next chapter

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  4. I have read quite a lot in advance of getting the chicks in April, Hen house in place Run built originally 10ft x 6ft but under instructions from my beloved I have added another 10 ft extension, the things you read about however does make me wonder will they survive.
    I do hope that it works out well.

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  5. Thank you. I have wanted chickens forever and now have some $ saved up to start building a coup. I guess I’d better check with the neighbors first! I look forward to reading more.😻

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  6. Brilliant read, im desperate for some ex-batts, but really want to research it all first. I follow you on Instagram and love seeing posts of your girls (and your growing bump – good luck with that btw)! Looking forward to the next installment, easy to read and understand, some brilliant little tips here too. Thanks 🙂

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