Chickens are not only a great source of backyard food, they can also become well-loved pets.
First we wanted our eggs free range, so as not to support battery farming. Then we wanted them organic, without any of those nasty chemicals involved.
Now we want our eggs one stage more wholesome – fresh from the garden and our very own brood of hand-reared chickens.
Keeping chickens has grown in popularity over the last few years, much as traditional crafts and home cooking have done.
Perhaps it is the recession, or the example of TV chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, or simply our desire to get in touch with an age gone by. Whatever the case, these days you’re almost as likely to see a few Rhode Island Reds or Welsummers in the average back garden as the traditional dog or a cat.
For some, like Philippa Pickworth, keeping chickens came as part of a whole new way of life. Philippa, a former lawyer, and her IT manager husband David gave up their busy lives in Berkshire two years ago to live the good life in Llanon, West Wales.
They now keep pigs, lambs and honeybees as well as six chickens on their smallholding, Banceithin, and rent out eco-holiday cottages on their land.
Getting chickens was all about egg production for Philippa and David.
“It’s a small holding, the whole point was to have as much as possible to provide for us, and also when we do the hampers for the holiday cottages they get some free eggs and then they can buy more,” Philippa explained.
“That said, now we’ve got them, they are very good fun. Two of our original four haven’t laid very well recently but the thought of dispatching them is awful. We’ll keep them as pets now even if they stop laying completely, because you do get attached to them.”
Chickens make excellent pets, responding well to handling and becoming tame, social and even affectionate. Some varieties, such as bantams, are said to be particularly docile and suited to families with children.
After the initial set up they don’t cost very much to look after, and don’t need a huge amount of maintenance. They are also productive pets, with good layers producing up to an egg a day during their peak years.
And of course there’s the possibility of enjoying them as part of a Sunday roast – although most people find that once they’ve had their birds for any length of time, the last thing they want to do is see them on the dining table.
Deborah Longman would count herself among those for whom chickens are definitely more pets than producers. She and her husband Phil got their first chickens three years ago and now have 13 of them, including a few exotic varieties.
“I have some hybrids, some pure breeds; I’ve got a couple of ex-battery hens,” she says.
“I’ve got a real mixture of colours as well, and egg colours – brown, white, blue, green.
“We’ve always been into veg growing and things like that, so it’s about self-sufficiency but they’re pets too; pets with benefits. They’ve got fantastic characters; they really have their own personalities.
“I love it. It’s a whole new world, chicken keeping. There are shows you can go to – I don’t show my birds but I go to the shows and some of my friends show their birds so I go and support them.”
Deborah, who lives in Neath, has seen interest in chicken keeping rise even in the short time she has been involved in the scene, and she now runs classes for those who want to find out more.
“I get a mixture of people,” she says. “You’ve got people who are looking at downsizing their careers and getting a small holding, there are families where the parents think it’s good for the children to know where their food comes from.
“You get some quite middle class people coming along and then you’ve got more working class people. It’s something that’s appealing to a lot more people now.”
Keeping & Raising Chickens At Home
If you are interested in joining the ranks of those who boast a brood of feathered friends in their garden, you’ll need to decide what breeds you’re interested in. Chickens can be pure or hybrid, with hybrids generally being easier to keep.
Some varieties are bred for their egg laying capacity – such as Leghorns and Black Stars – while others such as Hubbards and Cornish-rocks make good broilers, ie they’re well suited to ending up on the table.
Good looking varieties, which make ideal show birds or simply add a touch of glamour to the garden, include such beauties as the Sumatran with its long, shiny green-black feathers, and the fluffy white Sultan, which has a wild crest and feathered feet.
It is important you remember that chickens are social animals, so never buy just one. And consider whether you – and your neighbours – can handle the noise of a cockerel. Unlike in cartoons, they don’t just crow in the morning, but all through the day.
Although it is possible to buy chicks, most experts suggest getting your chickens at ‘point of lay’, ie when they’re about 18 to 20 weeks and ready to begin their egg-producing life.
It’s worth remembering that pure breeds tend to stop laying during the winter months, between November and February, so if you like your fry ups all year round then you’re best off with a hybrid.What you’ll need
As with any pet, there is no end to the number of toys and treats you can spoil your chicken brood with, but the list of essentials isn’t all that long.
First up is a place for them to live. One of the most popular new brands on the market is the Eglu, a sort of plastic kennel that makes keeping chickens a doddle even in the smallest of gardens. At a minimum of £340 a pop though, they’re not exactly cheap, and many owners prefer to knock up a roost and a run with a few bits of timber and a roll of chicken wire. Instructions are easy enough to find on the internet.
Although some people do keep chickens as indoor pets, a garden is by far the better option. It doesn’t need to be big though, and don’t worry if you don’t have grass; as long as you supplement their diets to include greens, chickens are more than happy to scratch about on wood chip.
If you do have grass, they’ll soon tear it up, so you might want to get a mobile run and keep moving them. Whatever the case, it is important to ensure they are secure, otherwise your brood may well fall foul of predators.
You’ll also need a feeder and drinker, both of which come in cheaper plastic versions or higher quality ceramic or metal versions. Choose solid ones that stand above the ground or hang, and are less easy to knock over or to get dirt scratched into them.
Another useful piece of equipment is a grit hopper, where your chickens can access the grit that helps them digest their food.
Regular purchases include bedding such as wood or hemp chip, feed pellets (you can get specialist ones for layers or growers, for example) and, if you want to spoil your brood, treats such as mealworms and corn.
After that, it’s up to you whether you want to treat your new pets to play areas, dust baths, pecking blocks, bales of straw to climb – the list goes on!Tips from the experts
If you’re still not quite sure whether you’re well enough equipped to get started, there is plenty of information around in books, specialist poultry magazines, on forums and blogs online, or you could even do a course like the one Deborah Longman runs.
The best thing to do is to start small, with just a few chickens, preferably hybrids which lay throughout the year and are, according to Deborah, altogether easier to look after.
“With the purebreds they get broody,” she says. “They just want to hatch their eggs so they’ll sit on the eggs and get quite moody. Which is fine if you’ve got a cockerel and you want to hatch them, but otherwise the hens can lose condition and get quite ill.”Talking to other chicken owners is another great way to find out how it’s done, and you’ll discover all sorts of tips and tricks which will make your experience a lot easier, as well as finding out where the pitfalls are.
Philippa, for example, learned through experience that looks aren’t always everything when she chose a couple of attractive Welsummers.
“The Welsummers are very beautiful, they’ve got beautiful golden feathers, which is why we got them,” she says. “But they’re the ones which are laying less well now.”
She’s got a few wise words for anyone who wants to free range their chickens: “If you are going to let them free range and you want parts of your garden to survive, make sure it’s chicken proof. They will soon give your garden a makeover.
“Also, you’ll need to keep an eye on where they’re laying. I found a whole stash of eggs under the herb bushes the other day.”
But, she adds, don’t worry too much about getting it right. Chickens really aren’t difficult pets to keep.
“Neither of us had any experience with keeping chickens,” she says.
“As a lawyer I did lots of research of course, but it’s actually very easy to keep chickens. For all my reading it isn’t as complex as all that.
“They’re fairly self-sufficient, they require very little upkeep. I didn’t expect them to be so much fun. I could spend hours watching them pottering around.”
Deborah agrees: “The main things I’ve learned since I’ve got them is what incredible personalities they have and how they give you so much, not just eggs but affection.
“I thought they were going to be productive pets with the emphasis on productive, but now the eggs are a bonus.”Keeping & Raising Chickens At Home