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The A-Z of chicken keeping

Jeff Holman

7th June, 2011

Can’t tell your Marans from your Malays? Jeff Holman presents the A to Z guide to chicken keeping

Once seen as a niche hobby for hippies and bored country wives, chicken keeping is now officially cool. And it’s not difficult to discover why: not only are hens easy and cheap to keep, they also provide a steady supply of fresh eggs and a readymade way to recycle food scraps. ‘Chickens are easy to keep, providing your set up is right,’ says Val Moody, owner of The Chicken School in Swindon. ‘Plus they’re amusing, and unlike other pets, they give you a product that you can eat.’ Eggs are at the heart of the chicken-keeping trend, and as Francine Raymond of the Hen Keepers Association points out: ‘anything made with a really fresh egg tastes better.’ Here’s our A-Z to get you started:

A is for Australorp
An ornamental breed that comes in either black or blue varieties; the black ones have a green tint to their plumage, while the blue have a slate tone to theirs.
 
B is for bantam
A good starter hen; bantams are miniaturised versions of regular sized breeds. Since they require less space, they’re a good choice for urban chicken keepers and also make good pets. One word of warning though: bantam cockerels, like Jersey bulls, tend to be more aggressive (and noisier) than their normal-sized counterparts.
 
C is for cockerel
‘If you’re going to have a cockerel you need to extra vigilant about your hens and the eggs they are laying,’ says Francine. ‘You have to keep careful track of your eggs,’ she adds, ‘because if you don’t your hens will start hatching chicks.’ They do help keep hens organised but can be vicious if they think their flock is under threat.
 
D is for diet
Most hens will happily peck away at scraps but it’s worth investing in a supply of organic layers mash, which provides them with a comprehensive array of nutrients. Chickens also need plenty of greens, so top up their supply by including garden waste – clippings, potato tops and so on – to their diet.
 
E is for ex-battery hen
With a laying rate of at least one a day and a docile temperament; ex-battery hens are are a practical choice as well as an ethical one. The average battery hen is 18 months old when sent to slaughter and farmers are usually quite open to giving one a reprieve for a couple of pounds. They aren’t quite as pretty as the ornamental breeds, but as Jane Howorth of the British Hen Welfare Trust, points out, they are deserving cases for a little special attention. ‘They haven’t been able to sunbathe, dig in the dirt or indulge in important behavioural needs’ she says. ‘By taking these birds in, you are giving them a far better quality of life.’
 
F is for fertiliser
When properly composted, chicken poo makes excellent fertiliser, being particularly rich in nitrogen, a vital nutrient for plants. Not only is it free (for chicken owners), it comes in unlimited amounts.
 
G is for garden
‘The larger the garden and the more space the birds have to roam, the happier they will be,’ says Francine. However, it’s worth making sure that flowerbeds are fenced off and pots are out of reach as hens can wreak havoc on plants and are likely to dig up seedlings. If space permits, try restricting them to a corner of the garden.
 
H is for henhouse
 ‘Your hens need a safe and easily maintained coop,’ notes Clea, ‘with adequate ventilation but it [shouldn’t] be drafty.’ A compact coop with a run attached such as the Eglu (from £425) is great for beginners.
www.omlet.co.uk

I is for Indian Game
Also known as Cornish Game, the unusual looking Indian Game is believed to be a descendent of several prehistoric chicken species.

J is for Jersey Giants

If you are looking for the biggest bird around, look no further than the Jersey Giant; the largest domestic chicken breed. These birds can grow to enormous size – up to 13lbs for cockerels and 10lbs for hens.
 
K is for kids
‘Chickens provide a learning aid for teaching children about more sustainable food systems,’ says Francine. ‘Kids learn about where their food comes from.’
 
L is for Light Sussex
A British favourite, the Light Sussex is one of the most popular breeds for home chicken keeping, thanks to its impressive rate of egg production.
 
M is for mesh
Otherwise known as the first line of defence against escapees and fox attacks. ‘For your run, you might want to try bird-proof chicken wire plus a roof otherwise small wild birds can [get] into the run, which can carry avian diseases,’ says Clea. Val recommends weld-mesh, because it’s stronger than chicken wire and offers more protection against foxes at night.
 
N is for neighbours
If you’re planning to introduce a cockerel to your flock, it’s worth running it past your neighbours in order to avoid a community spat over early-morning crowing. Offering them some eggs from time to time will usually help to smooth ruffled feathers.
 
O is for organic
Organic feed contains natural, sustainable ingredients and is free of green no-nos such as fish or bone meal. Some purveyors - the Organic Feed Company for example - even have nutritionists to dispense advice on the sort of food your birds require, no matter the breed or size. 
www.organicfeed.co.uk

P is for parasites
‘Chickens have external and internal parasites just like all animals that will need to be treated,’ says Val. Parasites such as red mites are usually the result of a dirty chicken house, so muck them out at least once per week. ‘One person who attended my course had unknowingly killed his hens by not understanding and treating red mites,’ she continues. ‘These critters literally sucked the blood from his poor hens.’
 
Q is for quiche
As anyone with hens will know; April heralds the start of a summer-long glut of eggs and using them up can become a bit of a challenge. Top egg-based recipes include the classic Quiche Lorraine, the custard tart and the Spanish tortilla – all of which require a minimum of four eggs each. 
 
R is for run
‘If you aren’t letting your chickens wander outside the run, the greater its area, the better,’ says Francine. She also suggests hanging greens on the sides of the run for your chickens to keep them occupied, give them valuable vitamins and minerals and to colour the yolk naturally.
 
S is for softshell
Don’t panic if you discover a softshell (no shell) egg in the nest box – it’s fairly common and can be easily fixed. ‘It’s basically caused by lack of calcium in the diet,’ says Francine, ‘so increasing calcium in the feed is the answer to the problem.’ Easily available cures include calcium-enriched feed and ground oyster shells.
 
T is for The Chicken School
Run by Val Moody, the Chicken School offers courses on raising and caring for your own chickens. ‘Newcomers and some existing keepers are unaware of the care needed for their flock’ she says. ‘The Chicken School teaches them all they need to know.’
www.chickenschool.co.uk

U is for urban chicken keeping
Now more common than ever thanks to space-saving coops like the Eglu (a house and run in one) and miniature breeds such as bantams.
 
V is for vet
You can avoid most trips to the vet by keeping an eye on cleanliness and diet, but according to Francine, stress-based diseases are common. ‘Most diseases are caused by stress,’ she comments. ‘Birds are very susceptible to it.’ Bullying by other hens is a typical cause of distress.
 
W is for Welsummer
The best choice for anyone planning a totally free-range set-up; Welsummers are excellent foragers and lay large, light brown eggs.
 
Y is for yolk
Also known as the yellow part at the centre of the egg, yolks provide the nourishment for embryonic chicks as well as a treat for human beings. Bizarrely, the yellow colour is the product of greenery in the diet - the more greens the hens devour, the brighter the colour.
 
Z is for Zen and the Art of Raising Chickens
A novel approach to chicken keeping; author Clea Danaan draws on Zen wisdom for her guide to keeping happy, healthy hens.
Zen and the Art of Raising Chickens by Clea Danaan (£7.99, Leaping Hare Press) is available at Amazon

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