Keeping Chickens - Where Do You Begin?
The only thing you will need to begin keeping chickens is a desire to live the ‘Good Life’ and most importantly some ordinary common sense, with these all else will follow. Without them you may ‘get some chickens as pets’ but are unprepared for the care and attention they require. Chickens, like any other animal, bring with them a duty of care which must be recognised and undertaken by the owner.
There are no hard and fast rules for hobby chicken keeping, no minimum or maximum, just remember a chickens nature and cater for it... generously!
Before embarking on chicken-keeping, consider your lifestyle and available space. Chickens WILL need attention (not a lot), shelter from the elements, space to move about, to scratch and forage, regular food and constant water. In return they will reward you with beautiful fresh eggs, dispose of most of your kitchen waste, produce nitrogen rich fertiliser for your vegetable garden, clean it up in winter and provide continuous hours of enjoyment. Your ducks will even eliminate your lawn moss problems.
Chickens' original habitat was in trees; as adult birds they will need someplace to perch at night, walls and a roof to keep they dry when it rains, ventilation but not drafts, a nest-box to lay their eggs and protection from predators both domestic and wild. As they don’t have sweat glands, they will need shade from hot sun and an area where they can dust bathe. Ducks MUST have access to water.
As weather conditions change in winter, this need not become an issue if timely precautions are taken to safeguard your flock.
You can keep chickens in a small suburban back garden or in a rural setting with several acres, your choice and the number of birds you keep will be determined by the space you have available. There are domestic fowl with all characteristics and temperaments and in all shapes, sizes and colours from bantams to large fowl. You can choose from colourful pure breeds, purebred crosses or commercial egg-laying hybrids. You can even consider waterfowl such as ducks.
Some research and planning prior to the purchase is vital in finding suitable birds to match your circumstances. Read books, smallholder/poultry keeping magazines, browse the internet, talk to experienced chicken keepers who are usually more than delighted to share their knowledge and experience. There is a rich volume of information available. It would be re-inventing the wheel to repeat it here as each person’s circumstances are different.
Let ordinary common sense rule; if your hen is taking up 12 inches of perch space, then give her a little extra to move and turn around without knocking another hen off. If your hens are fouling the ground (grass is no longer growing there) then the open space is too small. Some breeds are harder on the ground than others and will need more space.
Hens eat lots of grass so allow for slow growth in wintertime.
Employing these principles, use your own reasoning when buying birds, a standard chicken coop or building your own and when it comes to establishing the number of birds you can house.
Depending on your budget, a chicken shelter can be a fancy well built chicken house for 2 – 3 hens and upwards or you can make it yourself from any suitable material you have available. Great housing can be made with some imagination using packing crates, pallets or any other material that might otherwise cause environmental or logistical difficulties in its disposal. It does not have to look ugly, some imagination, a trip to an old style hardware store, and a few euros can create amazing results. If you don’t have the materials yourself, talk to your neighbours, your relatives and friends, local retail outlets, keep an eye on www.jumbletown.ie. They will be delighted with your removal service.
Here is an example of a very sizable chicken coop made from cable wheels left over by an electricity or communications organisation.
It's been modified with timber from the local sawmill and is fitted with an automatic feeder made up of a spiral spring set in a bucket from the local deli counter.
Below is another example using similar materials but modified to suit geese...
Get to know your local sawmill owner or furniture maker for wood for the DIY chicken coop, or wood shavings for the floor (approx two thirds of bird droppings are at night when perched). Make yourself known in your local farmers co-op store who can supply your feeds, worm drenches, pest and parasite control, hygiene products and goodness knows what else. Alternatively you can take the holistic route and use natural methods rather than chemical products for all of the above.
Wherever you intend to keep your birds, ensure it is secured properly and is predator and vermin proof. The pen will need to be moved to new ground on a regular basis. Make this an easy task so that you will do it more often.
Chicken keeping is much more than just keeping a couple of hens in our back gardens. Living the ‘good life', can be costly if we focus on the financial outlay only, it’s much cheaper and easier to pick a carton of eggs off the supermarket shelf with the rest of the weekly shopping than to provide a home for chickens who, if we are lucky will give us one egg a day.
Chicken keeping gives us endless hours of pleasure watching the antics of the birds and planning their future. It gives us a reason to network, to become involved in a community of practice, an opportunity to meet new & interesting people, it enriches our lives, it makes us healthier by getting us out of doors, it helps us to slow our pace, in time it teaches us to live lightly, to be more creative and imaginative. It reduces our carbon footprint and gives us a respect for nature and the planet we occupy.
It also provides us with fresh eggs and meat with knowledge of the food chain to the table.