The Chicken Chronicles

Every year, more and more people, lured by the thought of fresh, delicious eggs for breakfast and baking, decide they want to keep chickens in their back garden. So how hard can it be? We asked Britain’s most noted authority on henkeeping, Francine Raymond, to tell us all how she does it, in a quick and simple guide for those of us with little time, maybe little space and little experience.

My chicken wisdom – by Francine Raymond

Hens are really easy to keep. Obviously, like any living creature, they need feeding, watering and cleaning, but this should only take a 15 minutes morning and evening. As is the case with all animals (and people) the more time you put into a relationship, the more pleasure you will get out of it.

Before you start keeping chickens, you should answer a few questions truthfully. Do you have a safe environment for them? Is it safe from foxes, mink, badgers and other peoples’ dogs? Do you have space for your birds to enjoy a free range life? And do you have the time to care for them?

Hens don’t spend much time in their houses awake, they like to forage around, free range if possible. At night they hutch up – so a square foot per bird with plenty of space above head height for ventilation is essential. Give them as much space as you can during the day. If you have a small garden, just keep a couple of bantams. You must keep them safe and out of other people’s gardens.

Foxes that visit during the day are hard to dissuade, maybe keep doves instead if foxes are a real danger in your neighbourhood. Nightime visits can be avoided with good fencing and safe houses.

Every day, I visit my birds first thing. They will wake at daylight. I let them into their run and feed them, making sure they have fresh water. I’ll take the top layer of newspaper from the floor of their house and shred it into the compost heap, and then they’re out into the garden for the day, nipping back to lay their eggs, which I collect. They can’t see in the dark so they will head for bed at dusk, when they’re fed and locked up. Neighbours have always been happy to repeat these simple steps when I’m away, in return for eggs.

If you choose breeds like Orpingtons, Brahmas, Pekins and Silkies, you’ll find they don’t destroy your garden if left completely free range. The downside is that they’re not the best layers. It’s a compromise I’m prepared to make. Birds that lay for Britain will certainly also eat for Britain, and if what’s on offer is your garden they will just help themselves.

Really heavy laying commercial hybrids have a hard life, and it takes a toll on their longevity and their reproductive systems. Obviously, new growth and certain vegetables have to be cloched or caged. The ideal spot is an orchard, but not many of us have that sort of space.

Young pullets will lay right through their first winter, so I hatch out  a couple of new birds each year. They take the place of older ladies who drop off the perch. I don’t think that keeping hens on this sort of scale makes sense commercially, but there are so many other immeasurable pleasures to be taken into consideration.

Choosing your very first birds is worth a little thought. Here is my advice for various scenarios that might present themselves:

Do you have space and conditions for good layers? Then go for Marans, Welsummers or Light Sussex chickens.

If these factors are not a problem and you want lots of eggs, then go for commercial hybrids.

If you want garden pets that will be part of the family, garden and general lifestyle, I recommend smaller breeds, but visit poultry shows, breeders and read the poultry press for breeds you like the look of, avoiding the really rare, really extreme and really expensive.

I love birds, and keeping hens gives you and your family the opportunity to be part of their lives, and of course, there is nothing better than a really fresh home-laid egg. If you want to learn more, then do join us for a hen rearing course. Here are the details, which can also be found on my website:

C O U N T I N G   Y O U R   C H I C K E N S 2011


Spend a day with us on the road at a venue near you and learn all there is to know about keeping hens: with hands-on advice, practical tips and a fabulous slide show. Francine Raymond and writer and hen fancier Martin Gurdon will instruct and regale on all matters poultry. Meet our travelling hen and see the resident flock in action, plus on-site hints on how to garden despite your hens. Sit round the table and discover tempting recipes for all those delicious eggs, topped off with lunch, a glass of wine and a question and answer session with assembled experts. Take home a goody bag full of useful information, after sharing an enjoyable day with a small group of like-minded henkeepers. The courses cost £75.00 per person and include lunch.

Course dates & Venues 2011

Assington Mill, Assington, Sudbury  Sat April 2nd 01787 229 955 Blackthorpe House, Rougham,

Bury St Edmunds Wed April 20th 01359 270 996 Personal appearance, talk and stall at The Grow Your Own Show, Loseley Park Sunday & Monday May 1st & 2nd 01483 444789 for tickets Oak Studios, Hampstead, London Sun May 22nd [email protected] Much Ado Books, Alfriston,

East Sussex Sat   June 4th 01323 871 222

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