FAQs - Chickens
This page was written to provide a few simple tips for those new to chicken keeping.
Why Keep Chickens?
Keeping chickens in the back garden is becoming increasingly popular. Being able to source your own eggs knowing they have come from happy + healthy birds is hugely rewarding. The difference in quality between shop bought eggs and fresh eggs straight from your birds is huge!
How may birds to keep?
Chickens are a flock animal and cannot be kept on their own. They need the social interaction of other chickens to thrive. We generally recommend a minimum of 3. This means if something does happen to one flock member you are not left with one lonely bird. Birds on their own can become depressed, stop eating and even die.
For the above reasons, we only sell young birds in a minimum of 3. Older birds will only be sold in smaller numbers if joining a suitable existing flock.
Introducing new birds to your flock:
Chickens are naturally territorial and can be defensive towards newcomers. Chickens will naturally want to establish a "pecking order" among the flock. Once established, this generally keeps the peace. Establishing this hierarchy can involve pecking and fighting, but this generally quickly settles down,
I have found most bird introductions are straight forward, but some can be more difficult. There is a larger risk when adding smaller numbers to a larger existing flock, or when adding young/small birds into an older group.
In most cases after a few initial pecks towards the newcomer the birds decide who is boss and that is that. They may have the occasional scrap. If things escalates its worth being prepared to split them for a day or so. Also keep an eye on how much the new comer is eating/drinking, as they can occasionally be bullied off resources.
The above is assuming we are talking about adding hens to hens. Adding a cock bird to hens is fairly straight forward. However, I would not recommend adding a cock bird in with an existing cock bird, particularly where hens are present,
Which sex to choose?
A common misconception is that you need a cockerel for a hen to lay eggs. This isn’t true! You only need a cockerel if you want fertile eggs.
Cock birds will look after the group, acting as a protector and peace keeper within the flock, but will not impact on egg numbers.
Please keep in mind that cockerels are noisy, which is something to consider if you have close neighbours.
Do keep a cockerel if you can. Not only do they benefit the flock, but they don't always find homes as quickly as their female hatch mates.
What age to choose?
Day old chicks have extra care requirements compared to a grown on bird. Chicks need a heat source up until around 4 weeks old, which is provided using a heat lamp or heat plate. After 4 weeks they need to be kept indoors off heat for a few more weeks before moving outside. If they are feathered up to their neck, they are usually good to go outside.
Except for a few autosexing breeds, most chicks are sold unsexed. If buying chicks you will need to be prepared to either live with, or rehome those that turn out to be males.
“Growers” would be classed as a bird from 5 weeks old to point of lay (approximately 20 weeks). They can be housed outdoors.
Point of lay (POL) refers to hens that are at or close to the point where they are ready to lay eggs. At this age the birds tend to be much more established and can be sexed more reliably.
If you are certain you do not want to risk purchasing a male bird, buying more grown on birds is the better choice.
Which breed to choose?
Every breed has its own pros and cons. So it is worth spending some time online researching which breeds you may be interested in to decide which is right for you.
All the breeds we work with make excellent birds to keep. Some breeds are excellent layers, where others are more traditionally raised for the table. Some are more of an ornamental breed. Some breeds are more flighty and nervous than others and some are more suited to free ranging and larger spaces. Feel free to discuss this topic with us and we can give suggestions on what might fit into your preferences and set up.
Many breeds have a 'bantam' and 'large fowl' version, with some only having the one size option. Large fowl is what most people would consider a normal sized chicken. Bantams are a smaller version of their large fowl counterpart. A true bantam is a breed which has no large fowl counterpart.
Bantams, being smaller, require less space and less feed. However they generally lay smaller eggs and less frequently than a large fowl.
Hybrid birds are not just mixed breed birds, but are created from breeding two specific breeds together for a particular purpose. This is usually done to create "autosexing" chicks which can be sexed at day old. This is due to the genetics of the two pure breeds used. The resulting male and female chicks are distinguishable at hatching. Hybrids tend to lay more eggs, but have a shorter life span as a result.
Choosing a healthy bird:
When buying any animals you should be looking for those that are happy and healthy.
Birds should be clean and tidy, Dirty feathers, particularly around their rear can be a concern. Dirty vents can be caused by drinking dirty water, or the bird may be due worming,
Missing feathers could because the bird is in molt, or it may be due to bullying or parasites on the skin. Hens that have been with a cockerel during breeding season will likely have scruffy feather on their back, but this should not be excessive.
The bird should be alert and not hunched up. Eyes should be clear and alert. Discharge from the mouth/nose may be a sign of a respiratory infection.
It is worth considering how seriously the seller takes bio security. A relax attitude to disease control could increase the chances of you bringing a new disease back to your flock. I would also have concerns about a seller who is buying and selling birds from multiple sources. Often stock is not quarantined so the seller would have no idea if the birds were carrying a disease.
The daily routine:
Chickens need to be let out first thing on a morning, and locked up at dusk. This is a commitment as someone needs to be around daily to do this. Arriving home late is the classic scenario when birds are lost to predators.
The birds will need their food and water changed/.topped up daily. You will also want to collect the eggs daily, as well as spot cleaning the coop as you go. The size of coop and number of birds will dictate how often the coop needs cleaning out fully.
Caring for chickens isn't difficult once you understand their needs. But they do need daily attention.
Food and Water?
Clean water should be available to the birds throughout the day. Dirty water will quickly make your birds ill. Make sure water is topped up in hot spells, and kept from freezing over in winter.
For food, we raise our chicks on ‘chick crumb’ up to 4 weeks. Then they are moved onto ‘grower pellets’ up until POL, when finally they move onto ‘layers pellets’. There are various other feed options, so do read up fully on the subject to decide which is right for you. We would always advocate buying a reputable commercially produced pellet as their main diet, as this ensure the birds are getting a complete balanced diet.
It is tempting to feed your bird treats, but I only do so very sparingly. Many birds will chose to eat treats over their nutritionally balanced feed and so miss out on essential vitamins and minerals.
You will want to keep feed/water as vermin proof as possible, trying to prevent access by both rodents and wild birds. This may be achieved through netting, or simply by taking feeders/drinkers in at night. Do not let food get wet as it will quickly spoil which can be lethal to your birds.
Poultry grit also needs to be provided periodically, which allows the birds to grind hard food in their crop.
Hopefully this is all set up before you bring your new bird home. There are infinite housing options to keep your chickens. But here are some basic points to consider…
Ventilation is hugely important. Poor ventilation can lead to respiratory problems. Don’t be tempted to block air vents over winter in an attempt to keep your birds warm.
A coop should be secure, keeping the chickens in at night but predators and vermin out.
How large the coop needs to be depends on a number of factors, including the quantity of birds and the size of the breed. The coop manufacturer should advise how many birds would comfortably fit in any given coop. Go bigger where your budget permits, particularly if the birds have a smaller fixed run during the day. The Poultry Club of Great Britain advise, “1 square foot per bird (large fowl), or 8 inches square for bantams”.
For run size go as big as you can! Smaller runs will quickly become muddy in the winter and wetter months.
Perches are important in a coop to allow the bird to naturally roost on an evening. Ideally, perches should be higher than the nest boxes, to avoid the birds roosting in their nests and soiling them overnight.
Nest boxes are needed to give a laying bird somewhere secure and comfortable to lay their eggs. Approximately 5 hens to 1 nest box is what we suggest.
Plastic will outlast wood, is easier to clean and offers better red mite protection. However it will cost you much more to buy.
Having a coop raised above the ground reduces how accessible the coop is to rodents. Chickens prefer to perch higher up, so will favour a raised coop. It also stops rodents nesting underneath the coop.
There is lots of information online on different housing options. "You get what you pay for” definitely applies. Finding a coop within your budget is obviously important, but try and get the best you can for your money. Look for a coop that meets the birds needs, but is also easy for the keeper to access for cleaning and daily maintenance .
Chopped straw or dust free wood flakes work well. Many products marketed as horse bedding can be suitable and are cost effective.
Keeping the coop clean is important to keep your birds healthy. Spot cleaning daily helps keep on top of things, but generally you want to fully clean the coop once a week.
You want to be applying some sort of poultry safe disinfectant when you clean your coop, such as a disinfectant powder or spray. There are also a number of products that can be applied during the spring and summer months in order to prevent outbreaks of red mite.
Chickens need worming regularly just like you would a cat or dog. Consult your vet for detailed advice. We worm our birds once every 3 months using products containing flubenvet, which you can purchase either to add to their existing food or as a pre-mixed feed.
With the ever present risk of bird flu and other diseases, it is important to take steps to prevent disease entering your flock. Below are a few common sense measures to help prevent the spread of disease:
Always quarantine any new birds for at least 2 to 3 weeks in an isolated area;
Prevent access from wild birds to areas where you birds have access. Particularly preventing access to their food and water source. This can be achieved through netting, or adding a fixed roof to the birds run;
Control rodent numbers.;
Wash hands before and after handling poultry;
Change your clothes and shoes after visiting/handling other people’s poultry. This is also worth doing if you have walked near an area where wild waterfowl may be present, such as a lake or waterway.;
DEFRAs website is a great source of information on good bio-security practice ; https://www.gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu.