Introduction to Poultry Keeping

The Forsham Cottage Arks Introduction to Keeping Poultry
written by the owners of Forsham Cottage Arks

We have decided to write this section in our brochure because after having exhibited over the years at possibly a hundred shows or more, the same sets of questions keep getting asked. The potentially new poultry keeper is at a loss to get the answers to the simple question they need an answer to. Hopefully this little bit of information will help. It is not to say that our ideas and observation are the absolute way, but just our own approach to keeping a few hens for fun.

So you want to keep a few birds. You have decided to satisfy a long held ambition and keep a few hens, simple thought, can't be difficult to find out what's involved. Go down the library and get a book. There's old Harry who lives on the corner. Down to earth old boy is Harold, calls a spade a 'whatsit', he'll be a good source for information, after all he has got a few hens and has had for as long as you can remember, we'll ask him what's involved. On the first count going to the library - sounds a good idea until you get there. A shelf of books on 'Keeping Poultry In The Garden' for garden read at least ½ an acre with high security fencing. Books about 'Producing Meat For The Table', 'For Showing', 'For Eggs', books on keeping, large fowl, water fowl, rare breeds, bantams. In short there is no shortage of books, some covering specialized aspects of fowl keeping, some generalizing. But, which book gives you answers to your simple questions, like do you need a cockerel to produce eggs? Already you're starting to get confused. What is a bantam? Is my garden big enough. How many birds does a normal family need to supply eggs? Am I normal to even want to keep chickens?

So you select a book, you choose this one because it has a 'nice' cover picture. A big Kellogg's cockerel on the front (you know, like the one on the cornflakes box) with a lot of lady chickens at his feet, and set in a tidy farmyard (there's a contradiction) which fits the vision you have of your own 'Archers style Brook Field Farm'. You have not exactly got the tractor, but you do have a ride-on mower.

Now for the real fun, open it, there's an interesting section on chick development in the egg, you never even thought about the inside of an egg, now you are a baby eater. A comprehensive section on genetics and colour sexing at day old, to distinguish boy chicks from girl chicks so you can kill the boys, now you're into infanticide. Feel the panic rising when you see with help of those useful line drawings the way to 'dispatch' (and know that does not mean send them on holiday) the old birds that have served their purpose, does euthanasia mean anything to you? The pictures of up a chick's bum, and the informative pic's showing how an egg is formed inside the hen with her oviduct laid out on a slab, is a subtle mix of gynecology and your local butcher. There is that really interesting article on what to feed your birds and how to mill your own wheat and mix your own feed not forgetting to add those vital minerals, whose absence will give your hens the chicken version of rickets. The different mixes read like a recipe for down market muesli but on the grand scale. Mix 2 buckets of this, 1 scoop of that, 1lb of this, 3 buckets of something else. They give handy addresses of obscure suppliers for milling equipment, that are based in Cumbria and judging by the lack of post code, and the title 'Messrs Bloggs and Bloggs from Mongers to the Gentry' there is a good chance they ceased trading about the same time somebody called Mr Wilson was telling my mum and dad it wouldn't affect the pound in their pocket. The author suggests that a handy tip is to invest in a cement mixer. This saves time as hand mixing seven hundred weight of 'mix' is quite arduous and can take up valuable daylight hours when you could be digging the swedes or milking the goat, but suggest that milling and formulating your own feed ration can be both interesting and rewarding and make an ideal after work pursuit to while away those long winter evenings. You have got to have a serious problem if the highlight of your day is mixing chicken feed.

The section on diseases is brilliant, the things that can go wrong with a hen are mind blowing. There's fowl pest, apparently a notifiable disease, so you must inform the Ministry of Agriculture. Vent pecking, an amusing little trait when birds start to peck an individual's bum, and can turn to cannibalism. Feather pecking, this time they peck out the feathers resulting in semi-naked birds. Crop binding, the hen get a blockage in her neck which results in the food not passing through -result, hen with a fat neck, skinny body and dead. The fleas; the red mite that sucks the hen's blood until its anemic and dies, the mite that lives on the birds and causes something called scaley leg, that looks like the legs are disintegrating, on and on. Now at this stage I'm quietly confident the Enid Blyton image of keeping a few hens to produce nice fresh brown eggs for breakfast has disappeared behind a wall of confusion and an overwhelming thought that it's not worth the trouble.

Now it's Harold's turn. You wander down on a Sunday morning to have a word about keeping a few birds. At last Harold has got somebody interested in his hobby. You'll be enthralled with stories of birds of old that eat nothing, produced 2 eggs a day all year round, would face and back off a fox and after 7 years of laying double yoke eggs was present as the main attraction for Christmas dinner in 1953 when it fed a family of five until twelfth night, and Harold built a climbing frame for the local kids with the carcass. In those days we had real chickens, not like the 'mamby pamby' birds today. As you approach the chicken run, make mental notes on how the imaginative use of disused fire guards and old iron bed frames can be implemented to not only block off the gaping holes in the perimeter wire but to add a certain surrealistic charm to the overall concept of the domestic poultry run. Then be guided through the maze of wire and nettles, note the selection of assorted feed utensils, in this case old chipped enamel saucepans and rims of bowls gone by, sticking out of earth would make an archaeologist's heart flutter and a pink baby bath that doubles as drinker and pond for a white (at least it should be white) duck that splatters through the black grassless mud. This is a 'real' chicken run. That reminds me, do not go and see Harold if it's raining, the black stenching mud that forms the ground would give Torvil and Dean trouble in maintaining the vertical, and would give their rendition on the 'bolero' an essence of Keystone Cops. If you do go base over apex, the smell will stick by you until at least the third bath on Wednesday. Rising from the mud is the Quosimodo of the chicken house world. Before you is Harold's pride and joy, the chicken house that's built to his own design, based on tried and tested theories of poultry keeping, on lessons taught to him by his Dad (can you imagine Harold's Dad) with its special features like the hanging-off doors, the clever way the house leans and twists one way to stop the pophole shutting and combined with the torn and missing mineral felt (Circa 1965) allows the rainwater to come in through the roof across the floor and forms a handy integral drinking place. Hinges made from strips of old wellingtons cut and lovingly nailed with assorted clout nails and screws to allow the old bed head that is now the next box roof to hinge up to reveal the designer tomato box nest with their carefully arranged selection of eggs and dung. The vision and smell is reincarnated at teatime just as you take the first mouthful of real egg.

Now I've probably put you off keeping hens for the rest of your natural life, perhaps you could relent later when in later life you become senile when your nearest and dearest will acknowledge your insistence on keeping hens as positive proof you need locking away for your own protection.


NOW START AGAIN....


Keeping hens need not be one of life's major challenges. Firstly, books have their place and there are some very informative books but in my opinion it's confusing to read too much too soon.

A poultry book will tell you in great and often graphic detail of the things that can go wrong with your birds. Unfortunately not too much about the fun a few hens can be, or the taste of your own eggs. It's my contention that to write a poultry book and make it big enough to bother publishing you have to delve deep and write down every scrap of information be it relevant or not. After all there's a good size chapter to be written of disease but what can you say about a healthy one-egg-a-day bird that would take more than a line or two? I have never seen Fowl pest. Feather pecking, vent pecking, yes they do happen, and I would be irresponsible to tell you different, but they are the exception not the rule and caused by improper feeding, poor conditions, poor housing, poor husbandry and bored chickens. The fleas and mites are present but easily held in check by good husbandry. As for the feeding, go and buy ready milled feed from a local merchant, it's a balanced diet that will keep your birds in good condition without the slightest hint of rickets. Here again what mileage the would-be poultry book writer can get out of different diets for different birds, different times of the year etc. The commercial egg producer that absolutely relies on an egg a day from each bird in his flock of thousands for his bread and butter would hardly be bothered with such rubbish so why should you? So look up feed merchant in yellow pages and go buy Layers Mash (see thirteen words not thirteen pages).

While we are talking of feed there are a few simple rules you should in my opinion adopt:


Feed layers mash dry. Because it's called mash, you do not add water to create that mashed potato look. Water soon turns the mash our and the hens won't eat it, besides they eat dry bits and pieces they find while scratching, it's normal.

When you go to your feed merchant you will have the option of mash or pelleted feed. It's the same ration but the pelleted feed has gone through one further process to make handy bite size bits. Chickens are not the brightest of creatures, in fact, sometimes I feel God created chickens to prove he had a sense of humour. You only have to look at the available room for a brain to confirm my diagnosis. I mentioned earlier about bored chickens. The idea is to pander to the basic survival instincts of the birds and that is in the first instance, food. So if you can keep a bird's mind (and I use the word sparingly) occupied for a good proportion of the day just feeding itself, it does not have time to practice its repertoire of nasty habits. It follows therefore that if you feed mash and not pelleted feed the bird will have a greater proportion of its playtime occupied with the basics. Try eating sugar by just dipping your finger in the bowl and then by eating sugar lumps!

Feed ad-lib. Your book may well give you precise weights of feed consumed by a hen per day per month per year. But I have never met a bird that can read. They do not appreciate that they are only allowed to consume 4 ounces of feed per day and then retire from the trough to allow another bird to feed. The top birds will eat their fill and stuff the others so if you have 4 birds and weigh out one pound of feed for them to share, by the time the strongest birds have finished eating there is a good change that there is nothing left for the poor hen at the back end of the pecking order so in the fullness of time it dies.

So use a proper feeder that keeps the feed dry and make sure there is always feed in it. Be sensible though, only fill your hopper to a level so that when you go and feed the next day there is still some in the hopper, this shows every bird has had its fill. If you overfill the hopper the feed will get damp and go sour.

If you think your hens are going to be a good way of recycling table waste into eggs forget it. The hens need a balanced diet to produce eggs. If you feed rubbish you will get rubbish. It is being penny wise and pound foolish, there's no merit in having birds and a low feed bill and no eggs and besides why should the hen eat the two-day-old baked beans you don't want?

Grit. Birds do not have teeth. I know its obvious but what is not so obvious is how it chews its food. Small sharp stones which the bird pecks and holds in its crop (that's a pouch in its throat), grinds the feed as it passes through, but if your birds are confined to a run the access to grit is obviously restricted so a grit hopper is required. There is a certain amount of grit in the feed but often the feed is formulated for commercial egg producers where the hens may have limited or no access to grass, so require less grit. There is often confusion at this stage that the birds need grit to make hard egg shells, this is not the case. It is extra calcium which is derived by feeding oyster shell, but there is plenty of that in the mixed feed so don't bother.

What kind of house and/or run. This is a problem for most new keepers who want the birds to have freedom but know they are going to have to secure a boundary at some size. If you give the birds complete access to your garden, given time they will destroy it. They love the newly dug flowers border to scratch in, they make dust baths in your lawn, and there's the little matter of the droppings on the picnic table, path, lawn mower handle etc. If you decide a permanent run is the answer read the section I wrote earlier about Harold, and before doing anything cost it out, and what about the time it is going to take burying the wire, a trench is required. Electric fencing is an option but not if you have small children and what happens the first time you forget to switch it on? The size of the run is academic unless you are talking about six birds in a half-acre run, the bigger the run, the longer it takes the birds to destroy the place and instead of a small patch you have fenced off for the chicken you have a smelly eyesore that the neighbours complain about and you're facing a divorce if you don't get it sorted. So stop thinking game park and start thinking chickens. I maintain that if you restrict the birds to a movable ark they are perfectly happy. If you move it every or other day the grass does not suffer, in fact the scratching and the droppings do the grass good. You know where your birds are, the wild birds are not eating their feed and they are secure from the fox that may give you a day visit. The ark can be moved all around your garden. In extreme circumstances it may even go on a hard standing and if you choose one of the Boughton range of hens have the added advantage of a covered run giving shelter from the rain and shade for the sun. A lot of new keepers want to let the hens out at some time during the day, my advice is don't. If you let the birds out they will fret to get out at your every approach. If you keep them confined they will have no concept that there is an outside. In fact you could, after a period leave the door off and the hens would not even notice. The birds' every need is catered for inside the run, but you must give them constant changes of grass, and remember the fox because he remembers you. If you still want to give your birds and extra run there are two options, bearing in mind you won't have to spend out on wire, posts and gate hinges. You could buy a bigger ark and put less birds in it, this also gives you expansion room, or you could add on the optional extension run which when used for example in conjunction with the 902/a gives more than double the run area. Something that may not have occurred to you is what happens if you move house. With an ark they go too, so no panicking about building a new run. When you go away for a few days how much easier it is to ask a neighbour to look after your birds in exchange for the eggs. If there is no worry about all the birds having 'come home to roost' and they do not have to put their wellies on, you could even carry the ark round to them. The fox is a major problem. Foxes are patient; they will give you a regular visit, because he has only got to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time. With a fixed run he has time on his side to discover the weak point in the wire fixing, or to dig under, or to jump the wire using that handy wheelbarrow that you parked full of garden waste down by the run and don't think foxy won't go over the fence if there is no way out he will, and worry about the escape route after the kill. In an enclosed ark and run, the hens have protection day and night. I have watched as a fox walked along the ridge of our ark looking down at the birds with no idea of how to get at them, although the hens were scared they lived to tell the tale. The other advantage of an ark is that providing the house is stood on turf and not the freshly dug vegetable garden the fox is unlikely to excavate a hole he can use to get into the run and when the next night he's back for stage 2 his scratchings are four foot from the run, because you have moved the ark, try doing that with a fixed run.

What kind of hens? As you have no doubt worked out I want to keep poultry keeping simple. This applies to the hens as well. The potential new chicken keeper has often got no idea what kind of hens they want, but when asked, rather than say I don't know, he will often quote a breed that he has heard of like a Rhode Island or if he really wants to impress, a Rhode Sussex cross, but ask why and the blank expression says it all. The names quoted are often dredged from past conversations with Harold types that will not sanction the new breeds of commercial birds except to say they aren't really hens. So when deciding what you require from your hens decide if you want hens that lay, hens to eat, something dramatic to look at, or small bantams. The fact is that if you want something to look at you can forget regular eggs and expect to pay at least double the price of hybrid birds, and if you want to have potential table birds then forget it and go and see Mr. Sainsbury. Bantams can be fun; you still won't get vast numbers of eggs and those you get are small but the variations of breeds are enormous and more readily available than the large fowl because of their popularity, as for price a few pounds each for cross or heavy money for show quality true breeds you can suit your budget. Another assumption of the new keeper is that you have to have a cockerel or you won't get the eggs. Chickens lay eggs as part of a normal body function. The only time you need a cockerel is if you require fertile eggs, other than that they can be a real problem and indeed can actually be quite vicious. The breeders of traditional hens and bantams will often not sell you just hens, you have to buy the cockerel as well, usually in a trio that's one cock and two hens. If you do not want the cock you may still have to pay for him, but he stays with the breeder to await his fate. With hybrids you can't buy a cockerel so no problem. We had a very large Maran cockerel once that my daughter christened Gorebash. He was so tall he could walk through the potato helms and see the hen in the next row. One afternoon I watched as he strode down the row, stopped, turned his head and gave an angled one-eyed glance over the mature helms, jumped the foliage and tried to give our ginger tom cat the benefit of his manhood, needless to say cat was less than impressed and legged it. Gorebash, not one to be upset by rejection, investigated the 'nookie' potential in the next row.

SO RELAX, ENJOY YOUR BIRDS - WE DO.

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