Keeping a couple of hens in the back garden has loads of benefits – but it can also take an emotional toll when things go wrong!
Several years ago, during my time as a newspaper writer, I had a lovely chat with Irish celebrity chef Darina Allen of Ballymaloe House for a Q&A style piece for my environment column.
I always finished these Q&A sessions by asking the subject to provide one easy-to-follow tip for readers – Darina suggested people should have a couple of hens in their garden, and she listed three benefits:
- Having hens allows people, particularly younger family members, to learn about where their food comes from – eggs are not made by machines in supermarkets.
- Chickens not only provide eggs but they also eat slugs and other garden pests.
- Hens provide manure that can be used in the garden. Yes, even their by-product is useful!
We already owned hens so I appreciated the value of what Darina was telling me, as well as the noughties’ campaign by her UK counterpart Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to encourage shoppers to swap battery hen eggs for free range brands.
Fearnley-Whittingstall was one of the first people to expose the horrors suffered by the battery hen, living in caged conditions, with no natural light, and effectively being treated like a machine during its brief life.
Buying free range eggs is a great way to help ensure hens are treated well, but keeping your own chickens can be even better, if you are prepared for the challenges it can bring!
Hen versus predator
My family lives in the Irish countryside so we have been exposed to some hurdles that urban hen owners might not experience, or may, but on a smaller scale, ie determined predators.
I recently arrived home to find our youngest daughter tearfully picking up feathers and placing them in a precarious pile on the front step – she was too upset to notice that a strong breeze kept robbing the pile.
Our very last hen had been taken by a strange dog. As far as we know, it was the first time that any of our poultry had been killed by a dog.
We had previously had numerous visits from foxes, whose audacity can be both fascinating and frustrating. It’s always a treat to see a wild animal in close proximity, but it’s also maddening when that animal sees your back garden as a fast-food outlet!
In later discussions with other hen owners, I discovered there was a general consensus that foxes are more easily forgiven because they are hunting for food as nature dictates, but a dog is out for sport, making the killing more heinous in a way.
And of course, it’s worth mentioning that the re-emergence of the elusive pine marten is causing concern for poultry owners in many places, but be warned, they are protected under national and EU law and their persecution is illegal.
Advice on keeping Hens
We’ve been keeping hens since our daughters were toddlers so despite our recent negative experience we have decided to still have a couple in our garden.
There are loads of websites with lots of useful tips on keeping poultry for anyone of thinking of investing in some hens, but I thought I’d just jot down a few of my own, based on our own experience.
1. Do the research before you purchase. You’ll need advice on what breeds to buy and other practicalities.
2. It’s important to make sure you get a suitable house for the chickens. There are plenty of small businesses that manufacture and deliver houses to order.
3. Get some advice from your nearest animal feed store or a good pet store on the best type of food – don’t rely on scraps as they lack the nutrients necessary to encourage laying.
4. Don’t be afraid to let your hens wander about the garden – they are marvelous for eating slugs.
5. Always make sure they have clean water and store their food where it will not attract rats.
6. If you’re living in a town or city, don’t get a rooster, as you’ll only end up upsetting the neighbours, although you may do that anyway if they are particularly fussy (the neighbours, not the hens!).
7. Finally, prepare for the fact that some of your hens may not live to a ripe old age, but if they remain unmolested they could lay for at least a couple of years and live for a number more.
Here’s an article I found that you may find useful: http://thecai.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/KEEPINGHENSNov10.pdf.