Is your set-up really right for hens?
We meet a lot of people through our hens and sometimes it becomes clear that not everything has been considered before some venture into hen keeping. One of the biggest things to consider is your set-up.
This information is not judgemental in any way, but we hope a realistic and informative article designed to help potential hen-keepers make decisions about how they intend to keep hens.
There are a million different books out there right now that talk about the 'ease' of chicken keeping, how anyone can do it, and how adaptable hens are to a variety of environments.
Hens can cope with a variety of environments, and yes, they will survive some pretty terrible conditions at times be that from lack of regular care, or terrible weather patterns affecting the ground. But it is not always without consequence.
The commercial systems are not 'ideal' and the hens are in a degree of constant stress, which is often why ex-commercial hens (sometimes called ex-bats) can exhibit some strange and sometimes aggressive behaviour towards other hens.
However, in commercial environments the bird is culled at 72 weeks, and whilst alive is monitored in terms of health status, the use of pharmaceuticals is also regular too as industry recognises the issues involved with their set-ups.
If you are planning on a very confined, fixed pen set-up, you will need to adopt the management principles of the commercial set-ups in terms of health and chemical intervention as a minimum.
Confined living in a back yard/garden/ allotment is not free ranging it is simply an outdoor variation on battery systems, and is not an ideal life for a hen.
Hens are not cats, dogs, hamsters and in essence are a farm animal that you are bringing into your life to treat as a pet - but they are still classified as "livestock". Some properties have restrictions about keeping livestock - be aware of whether this may affect you. A disgruntled neighbour could cause problems for you.
Not all vets accept poultry (they are livestock not pets), so check with your local vet that they treat hens prior to having an emergency (and preferrably prior to purchase).
A hen is a creature that is both active and curious about it's surroundings. Being kept for long periods of time in confinement can be a stressful situation for a hen.
Hens have legs - they are designed for actively moving around.
Confining them causes a degree of stress, this can of course be reduced by providing a stimulating environment for exploring within the confined area.
How big a confined area is appropriate?
OK, here is somewhat contentious, but allow me to give some observations. A hen without fences or boundaries will wander about, freely, and actively, often alone or with one, maybe two others. I rarely see my flock all go somewhere together or unless they hear me.
I rarely see most flock members more than 50 yards from their home (except for some breeds).
Confined areas need, in my experience, to provide at least 2 square meters per hen, the same again needs to be available to rotate onto in order to rest the ground (ideally four times per year).
Ground will quickly become poached and tired. No creature would live in such conditions naturally.
Logs to scratch through and explore for woodlice and other crawly things can provide hours of entertainment in confined conditions. But don't leave things in there to rot, this causes a potential health hazard.
Shrubs in your pen allow for shelter and attract insects. Hunting insects is one of the hens favourite pass times.
Are you being totally honest with yourself, for the sake of a living creature's life, as to how long outside of the confinement the hens will be allowed?
Are you really dedicated enough to ensure in confinement the hens have something to do?... rain or shine, Spring, Summer, Autumn... and yes the freezing cold Winter!
Imagine living on the Tube Train in London, rush hour busy... then the hens in a small run will feel the same. They are social creatures with politics not that dissimilar to people at times.
There are some hybrids more suitable than others for living a life of predominantley being confined. This is why it is so important to be honest with yourself about the conditions the birds will live.
It's easy to get carried away looking at all sorts of fancy breeds, colours, egg colours and plummage - and some sellers may be happy to sell you anything, but this is not fair to the natural behaviour of the hen. It is one of the reasons we do our 'ratings" system - which contains a 'suitability' for the type of environment each hen can cope with, without displaying stress.
For example; Feather pecking - there are all kinds of 'treatments' out there for this behaviour. Why? Hens kept in the correct envirnoment do not display this behaviour. The same can be said for a whole host of other very negative habits that hens can display if incorrect set-ups are provided. There are always companies happy to make a profit from such outcomes by selling potions, sprays etc...
If your hens have plenty of personal space, good food, plenty of water and plenty to do - then these and many other issues will not present themselves.
In avoiding entering down a slippery slope of inadequate conditions and poor confined areas, the hen keeper can avoid stress not only to their hens but also to themselves. Dealing with sick hens, smelly, poached ground and other issues is not enjoyable for anyone.
I will address parasites and 'worming' in another article shortly.
Hen House Purchasing
When looking at the various housing there are some things to bear in mind.
Here we are not looking at 'build quality' I will address that in our 'housing review' article later.
Number of Hens (stated on the house advert)
This is stated on each and every house available whether online, or walking into a shop of some description. These houses base their stocking density on commercial standards, which as we covered above, are not ideal, they are maximum standards from DEFRA.
DEFRA set these to determine the number of birds that a 'producer' can put in one measured area, it takes no account of the true well being of the birds, but provides a regulatory guideline for producers.
This "space" has a very different meaning to the backyard keeper, who isn't only keeping their hens until they are 14months and then culling them pre-first moult.
I would say, from personal experience, that a house that is described as "suitable for 6-8" should house 3 hens, but this recommendation is subject to the ground management/space/rotation.
The issue is not about the area that the hens sleep or lay eggs. The issue starts with regards to the 'free space' run area of these houses. We have a house here where we also purchased the 'extended run' option, it is meant to be for 9 large hens - I would not stock more than 3-4 in it. I actually use it for off-heat chicks.
The ground space for freedom of movement, allowing for squabbles, scratting about and generally being a hen is vital - give them as much room as possible.
Hens do have squabbles and bicker over things, and in a cramped run this is a very stressful situation which unaddressed will lead to health and/or behavioural issues. This will lead to a reduction in productivity, we are not productive when stressed, nor are the hens.
Your Space - this is VITAL
Keeping hens in the garden is perfectly possible, HOWEVER...
Have you stopped to consider the implications?
You may section off an area to put your hens, which starts out nice and green, but after a couple of months (or even weeks) becomes poached and worse, covered in faeces.
The top layer will be mostly the hens droppings trampled in, and this will be what they are scratching through. This top layer of droppings can become inches thick after several months and is in itself a health hazard for the hens and humans.
This will not smell particulary pleasant on a warm sunny day after a period of rain
Having a pen that never moves means your birds will not rest the ground, it will be more difficult to control parasitical activity in terms of what the hens pick up from the ground and the rate of re-infestation.
Ideally - if the hens are to live in a small 'house and run' - like those you can see on the internet - then you need enough space to move this on a regular basis. Once a week, at least, for an average house that houses 3 hens is a good start, more frequently the better. This is recommended by both growers and vets alike, and based upon the birds having little or no free time outside the run.
This also preserves your ground, and also allows the hens access to fresh ground. The hen keeper who can offer regular fresh ground, but limited free-range time actually does a better service to their hens than one whose pen is not mobile and the ground becomes poached.
The hen keeper ought to be able to walk through the run area without being covered in hen poo, if your ground is covered it's poached, it needs a rest.
If you are honest with yourself, you are being honest with your birds and this will reflect with their health, shine and laying activity.
Are YOU right for hen keeping?
This chapter may seem daft but there are some fundamental things to understand about poultry before you leap head first into chicken keeping.
This article is designed to help you ask yourself some questions, do some research and take a sensible, mature approach to decision making.
A hen is not like a cat or dog -it is not classified as a pet and has different health and welfare issues, and also LAW surrounding it... do you know what these are?
By law, hens can not be fed 'kitchen waste' - this is a health hazard, yet most chicken keepers break this law.
Why is it illegal? - Because kitchens harbour all kinds of horrid things from E.coli to Salmoella - and as a hen is a food production 'unit' of livestock, it's food by law, must be managed free of such contaminations, ultimately for the protection of the human beings that eat it's produce, whether meat or eggs. So if you intend to sell any of your eggs - you have been warned!
Ailments & Disease
Do you REALLY understand the common issues surrounding poultry?
For example... What is MycoPlasma? How will it affect your hens?
Stress is one of the biggest triggers of a lot of issues, so what stresses a hen?
Hens needs to feel safe and secure. Excessive handling to a hen who is not accustomed can be very stressful.
Excessive loud noises and movement around a hen in a new environment.
Mixing newly acquired hens with an existing flock is massively stressful and a huge risk for health issues. 2-3 weeks seperate confinement for any hens that you wish to introduce is mandatory really to ensure all are healthy, that the stress of the journey hasn't triggered issues such as Mycoplasma.
Yes, you can collect a very healthy hen from a breeder/seller, and the whole stressful process of the move, then of being put into a confined area with an already established flock, on poached conditions can be enough to trigger health problems.
Do not rely upon self proclaimed 'experts' on forums!
ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF A QUALIFIED VET IN RELATION TO HEALTH AND WELFARE ISSUES OF YOUR POULTRY.
Whereas your poultry may be relatively inexpensive to buy, vets fees and medical costs could be high in relation to treating ailments that may have been avoided with pre-purchase study and understanding.
This article is a 'work in progress' , we hope that it helps potential poultry keepers do abit of research and enter into the joy of poultry keeping in confidence of their own knowledge and ability. We are here to help, please do ask questions!