Hen heaven in the backyard

Sylvie, a light sussex hen, checks out the grubs in Gordonton.
Sylvie, a light sussex hen, checks out the grubs in Gordonton.

Keeping a few chooks in the backyard makes sense in more ways than one. Remember they’re more than just egg machines, says Annette Taylor.

In these days of economic strain, many of us are trying to be more self-sufficient. Next to having a luscious vegie garden, keeping a few feathered friends can be a real boost.  The benefits are not just for the humans: no hen should be cooped up in a tiny cage.

Three birds will keep one person in enough eggs for 10 months – and will provide manure for the compost as well.

I wrote a feature for Next magazine some years back and spoke with leading poultry specialists from around New Zealand, including former MP Chris Carter, who used to breed old-fashioned varieties of chickens before he got into politics.

Here is their accumulated advice on how to get the best from a bunch of hens.

DIY eggs
The first thing to do when setting up a poultry operation is to check with the local council to see what restrictions and guidelines are in place.

Most councils agree: you can have your fowl (and eat them too) but they mustn’t bother anyone, anywhere and they have to have a properly constructed house which is in good repair, clean, unsmelly and free from rats.

What ho?
What ho?

Chook houses
There are two ways to get a chook house.

The easy one involves paying someone to build it or ordering a ready made abode. The other is to make it yourself. This has advantages because you can get exactly what you want. Our latest chook house has a tiled roof, concrete floor and running water.

However it gets built, the most important thing is to follow a plan. A well-designed chook house is worth its weight in eggs. Read books, see what your friends have constructed, or check out Dr Google. There are some cleverly thought-out sheds about.

There is no best design: it depends on your situation, available materials and, above all, the number of birds you want to keep. All houses for chooks should have adequate room for them to nest and a place for them to roost at night.

The chick mobile...
The chick mobile…

Hens are social creatures and like sharing the same nest box so this should be fairly roomy – for every five birds there should be a nest box measuring 30cm x 30cm.

Opinions differ on how thick the roosting perch should be – some say it should be no more than 2.5c, (1 inch) wide so the birds’ claws can fasten around it at night. Others maintain a thick perch lets them rest their chest during sleep. I favoured the latter approach with my flock.

An essential design feature is being able to open the nest boxes from outside, without disturbing the occupants too much. My first hen house required going through a door and walking across the space to fetch the eggs. Not so good.

Then there is the run. It’s great if this can be moved and is tall enough so they can’t fly out to search for greener pasture. We currently have quite a large space which can be closed in half, rather like break feeding. Clipping one wing is a good, painless way to keep your birds from flying the roost.

They’ll need something to nest in. Straw is traditional (and it’s so much easier to get these days, I used to have to drive out to Cambridge!) but you can use hay. This may mean a few more weed seeds in your garden if your composting system isn’t the best.  Some people use pine needles, others shredded paper for their chooks.

Whatever you use, this stuff needs constant replacement, and it makes a wonderful addition to compost. I used to put it straight on the garden, with other waste from the hen house. (Watch out for the dust when under taking this operation – wrapping a damp tea towel around you nose is a good idea.)

Where to get chooks
Do you want to keep the old rarer breeds or to liberate some ex-battery hens? This was how I started, more than 25 years ago. They were cheap, but I had to spend some time teaching them how to be hens.

On this point, a word of advice. Chooks, like dogs and cats, get parasites. Red mites, worms and lice can be a real problem.

A word on mites
Mites are thoroughly nasty things and hide in the wood in the chicken house by day, and come out at night to feed on your birds. They can make the chooks seriously ill, and make them go off the lay.

The best thing is to prevent them, right from the start. My first chook house was filled with ex-battery hens, who had mites. As a result, the mites populated the hen house and laid eggs in the wood.  And then infected the hens…

When I shifted a few miles down the road my father, a hen keeper for many decades, forbade me to take the old girls with me, or in fact, anything from the old hen house.  At the time I was a little bit grumpy with him but he was sooooo right.

We made a new, swanky hen house and I got myself a dozen fertilised eggs.  There are suppliers all around the place and they arrived one fine day in the post.  No live hen from any other property has ever stepped foot in my hen house, because there’s a good chance they’ll have mites and that’s the way I’m keeping it.

That first lot of eggs we hatched ourselves in an old chilly bin, using a heat lamp.  Thereafter we always had a broody hen or two who took on the job.  It was more work, but utterly rewarding and we are 100% mite free now.

If you don’t do this, you’ll need to consider using an insecticide on your flock, something I never wanted to do.

Mother hen Pip with her chicks. Possibly the best hen we ever had, she wasa real friend.
Mother hen Pip with her chicks. Possibly the best hen we ever had, she was a real friend.

Finding the right chook
Spend some time thinking about what type of chooks to keep. For some, the decorative aspect is important: are they colour co-ordinated to enhance your house and garden? (See comment below concerning Chris Carter’s birds!)

Some breeds, such as Leghorns, are great layers but not so good for the table. (Yes, some folk eat their poultry, and we have done so in the past. Young roosters can make a mighty fine dinner.)

Most birds available these days lay lovely brown eggs, but white egg layers are obtainable. Temperament is another consideration, particularly if you have small children. Barred Plymouth Rocks, particularly the roosters, can be aggressive, while Orpingtons are generally peaceful.

A few simple guidelines

  • Hens need clean water, and plenty of it in the summer.
  • Oyster grit (from most pet shops) keeps their eggs sparkling.
  • Fresh greens keep them happy, as does rootling around for bugs and insects.
  • Keep a bin in the kitchen for scraps – peelings, half eaten fruit, left-over bread and buns etc. I used to boil peelings and add it into their bucket with some mash, which had water added to it. In the winter I used warm water which they loved.
  • Last thing at night they enjoy some wheat.
  • They adore comfrey and it’s worthwhile having a few of these planted for later use.

One specialist advised 120g of food for commercial or light breeds and up to 180g for heavy breeds.

Never, ever give your birds food you wouldn’t eat. Banana and onion skins, pips or stones from fruit, egg shells or seriously mouldy bread. They’re just like us and will ignore this and you don’t want this in your hen house, attracting rats.

They like to play, too. My hens loved having a big whole cabbage in their run and would peck away at it as if it was a special project.

Chooks, of course, are useful gardeners if kept under scrutiny. Let them at your recently dug over garden – they have a keen eye for oxalis bulbs, slaters, snails and grubs. But they also love dust baths, and there is a place (in the run) for this.

If you get the groundwork done – and it’s not too hard – chooks are easy to keep and immensely rewarding. I would wander off to feed the girls in the morning and sit on the food bucket just enjoying being with them. They are truly beautiful. It was even better when young chicks were hatched, and the mother hen would croon gently to her chicks.  My daughter and I almost camped out at the hen house…

There’s nothing nicer than making pikelets with your own, very yellow, eggs. Put eggs into a little basket with some flowers poking out the top – a lovely present for a friend.

Get a cottage industry going and sell your surplus. I was never able to do this, for the reason mentioned just above.

Which reminds me. We found new homes for our hens this time last year, as we were off on a longish trip. It’s time to clean the mower and tools out of the chook house and get cracking with poultry again.   Hen heaven in the backyard, indeed.

Jiminy cricket! I can't believe you're storing a mower in my chicken house!
Jiminy cricket! I can’t believe you’re storing a mower in my chicken house!

A few little known facts about Chris Carter’s hens –

He kept 12 types on his West Auckland property, Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Australorps and Barred Plymouth Rocks – all purebred and known as ‘heavy’ breeds – the traditional farmyard fowl that lays well and converts to an excellent Sunday roast.

Pure breeds, he said, are way more attractive than mass-produced hybrids.  “They’re really hardy and all go clucky.  That’s largely bred out of the battery forms, which also tend to aberrant social behaviour.”

One summer his hens starred in an Amercian TV commercial for frankfurters. The New York film crew needed an authentic rural barnyard scene and thought Chris’ chooks couldn’t be bettered.

His birds also featured in the heady world of exterior design. The owners of a Remuera villa wanted three chickens to “go with” the grey and black exterior. This request was easily met by three Barred Plymouth Rocks.

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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

2 thoughts on “Hen heaven in the backyard

  • November 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Lovely story, and so-o informative. I am very partial to this caption: “Mother hen Pip with her chicks. Possibly the best hen we ever had, she was a real friend.” Can’t think why.

    • November 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      She was, like her namesake, an absolute, glorious star. ‘Tis true!


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