Free range chickens

by James Alexander-Sinclair

If you have been struck by the sad plight of the battery hen recently then remember one important fact: chickens are rubbish gardeners.

Free range chickenIf you have been struck by the sad plight of the battery hen recently and wish to do something about it then remember one important fact: chickens are rubbish gardeners.

Forget the fanciful notion you had of having fluffy feathered folk strutting around your garden grazing on aphids and slugs. If you let full-sized hens into your borders then they will kick soil all over the shop and peck large holes in the emerging shoots of your most precious plants. Bantams are less destructive, but if the main purpose of keeping hens is to eat their eggs then, to be perfectly frank, a bantam's egg is far too small to bother with.

Instead you need a run or at least an area where you can enclose the birds. If you only want to keep a couple then they can easily be kept in a chicken ark (provided that you move it around) but a piece of enclosed ground would be better.

We have had many hens over the years. We have raised most of them from eggs, rather than bought them in fully grown. This is a very charming (though occasionally nerve wracking) process which involves a fair bit of anxious waiting. Firstly, waiting to see if the broody hen remains in place long enough, then waiting to see whether the number of chicks equals the number of eggs and finally waiting to see how many of the little beggars are cockerels (it is notoriously difficult to sex a newborn chick). Cockerels do not lay eggs, tend to fight amongst themselves and must, therefore, be used for other purposes - if you get my drift.

Currently we have 11 hens; eight very friendly brown hybrid chickens that are always pleased to see people and tend to cluster around pecking at your legs and sitting on your boots, one white Legbar and two extremely large pedigree hens. One is a huge Light Sussex and the other a Buff Orpington. I believe the Queen Mother was very fond of these hens (perhaps because of their uncanny resemblance to an Ascot hat) and I have always wanted one even though they are not brilliant layers and tend to become broody at inopportune moments. She is unbelievably beautiful, extremely feathery, the colour of hot fudge and extraordinarily stupid.

If you have space in your garden, keep chickens - there are few things in life that are better than the deep golden yolk of a newly laid egg or more entertaining than the antics of a coop full of hens. Find out more about keeping chickens.

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Gardeners' World Web User 22/01/2008 at 15:09

11 chickens is the problem! I keep just 3, in a large walled garden. That way I get enough eggs to keep me away from those dreadful pale supermarket offerings, but the impact on mt garden is truly minimal. oK I admit all my sunflower seedlings got eaten last year - but I shall just sow in pots and plant out later!! The joy of happy active hens (and the eggs) is worth it.

Gardeners' World Web User 23/01/2008 at 13:24

I would LOVE to keep a couple of hens, but I'm worried about the foxes. Where I live we have very long gardens, I could easily fence of say 30 foot of it, but my neighbours have done the same, but they use the end as a rubbish dump. I am sure a family of very confident and cheeky foxes live there.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/01/2008 at 13:45

We have kept chickens at the top of our garden for over ten years, varying amounts between 20 and two. We have been through all the stages, including buying rare breed eggs and letting our broodies hatch them - I agree with James, it is fraught but great fun and children absolutely love it!

We have had one visit from Mr Fox in all this time; I think having a dog helps, as they bark when the fox is about; it is important to have the chicken wire high, and loose and floppy at top 12", apparently, foxes don't like the wire moving around. It is also important to bury the wire at least 12" under the ground.

You don't get eggs all year round though, unless you introduce some false lighting, ours are just starting to lay again now.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/01/2008 at 13:45

Foxes are definitely not the chicken's friend, so I would suggest, Little, that you refrain from chicken keeping for a while.

Gardeners' World Web User 24/01/2008 at 17:43

I have had chickens since my son brought home day old chicks when he was six with the money he got from the tooth fairy. ( he is now 35 years old ) They used to roam the garden and roost in the bushes but then the local wildlife i.e. genets and mongoose discovered them and it is such a senseless death. They just take the head so I have them all caged up now.

As you say the yolks are lovely and yellow. I have people beating a path to my door for my eggs. And I can make a small profit so I can buy grain. And BOY! do they love lettuce and tomotoes.

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