Annabel Kerby talks to some local chicken enthusiasts about the joy of keeping hens
FREE RANGE chickens wandering around the garden or paddock, pecking at the grass and providing beautiful yellow-yoked eggs, contribute to images of the rural idyll.
It is easily achievable, but must not be undertaken on a whim.
Potential chicken owners should read books and understand that buying chickens is not a chance to cut the weekly food bill. Instead, the responsibility of keeping chickens can offer so much more.
“Nothing beats the excitement of finding your first few eggs laid by your own chickens,” said Charlotte Carty, from Milborne Port, who admits that she was attracted by the ‘Good Life’.
“Of course I wanted to be Felicity Kendal, but actually it’s even better than that.”
All her chickens have names and she loves it when they lift their skirts and run over to her for food.
However, commitment to keeping chickens does not just lie in the financial outlay. More demanding is the necessity to let them out at dawn each day and ensure that they are safely inside their hen house before dark.
Secure and clean housing together with outdoor space, food and water will provide your chickens’ basic needs.
Houses should be substantial enough to keep all predators out and preferably sited above ground where it is dryer and less likely to attract vermin. It should have a large access door to enable easy cleaning and good ventilation. Nest boxes should be placed in the darkest area to allow hens to lay undisturbed, while perches should always be built higher than the nesting area.
“We like our chicken and duck houses to become a feature in the garden and as they are made of wood, they gain character as they age,” said Gareth Wanklin, manager of Flyte So Fancy, near Dorchester.
A secure run area is useful, provided by electric or high wire fencing, but the site must offer the chickens shelter from the sun, wind and rain.
“Birds can suffer from frostbite, so they must be encouraged to keep out of the coldest winds and they tend not tothinkof going into the house to keep warm,” said Anne Weymouth, owner of Flyte So Fancy, who equipped TV presenter Philippa Forrester with her house.
Cleaning the chicken house once a week is a necessary evil, but helps prevent occasional problems such as lice, red mite or internal worms.
Add a plastic or galvanised feeder for the pellets and provide a drinker for a constant fresh supply of water and you are ready to choose your chickens.
“I love every bit about keeping chickens, especially listening and watching them. I even don’t mind cleaning them out as it’s a very holistic experience looking after all their needs,” said Hattie Slim, from Kington Magna.
Hattie sells her eggs from a variety of different breeds, chosen partially because of their contrasting egg colours. She tries to ensure her chickens have a fulfilled and magical life and hopes their eggs reflect this. Some of her customers call their eggs, ‘little orbs of happiness,’ as they know how they are produced.
Hybrids are good starter birds for a beginner as they lay more eggs, cost less and have better temperaments than pure breeds. Orpingtons are known for being good with children, while Black Rocks, Bluebelles and Weisummers are also good choices.
“I can’t see the novelty of keeping hens wearing off for a long time,” said Charlotte Carty. “The children’s eyes light up when they crack a double yolk and we’d miss bright yellow scrambled eggs.”
What’s the best and worst things about keeping chickens? We’d love to hear.