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Getting started with chickens - Tanya from Lovely Greens

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Farmer Liz: You will remember Tanya from Lovely Greens from the first series, she lives on the Isle of Mann and added chickens to her garden about a year ago.  You can leave comments for this post on Tanya's blog.

How many chickens (and other fowl) do you keep, what breed and what do you use them for (meat, eggs, slug control etc)?

Tanya: Around the same time that we were initially thinking about having hens another friend beat us to the punch. She went to the local pet store and bought a flat-pack hen house and chicken run combo and found a local farmer who had dozens of semi-feral chickens running around his property. One night he pulled three down from the trees and my friend took them home in a pet carrier. She named them Miracel, Carmen, and Geraldine and though they’re probably related they were all different colours. We found out later that though they’re clearly Bantams, they’re more specifically ‘Old English Game Fowl’ which is a breed used in the past for cockfighting. Though we’ve never seen them being overly aggressive, they’re not as friendly as other breeds so would have none of it if you tried holding or cuddling them.

After having them for six weeks or so it became evident that my friend and her husband were probably not that keen to have hens after all. Their pen and house needed to be cleaned regularly and they couldn’t figure out what to do with the birds when they went on holiday. Shortly after our own chicken run was complete guess who came to live with us? We were very happy with the gift, our friends were happy to have their retirement back, and the hens seemed to love their new massive run and green grass.

This is Geraldine, the little red hen we lost earlier this year
That was over a year ago now and these days we have five hens and one “quiet” rooster named Randy. Sadly Geraldine died but afterwards we brought in three more hens from the same farm (Willow, Alice, and Skinny) and subsequently found that they’re far happier living in proper flocks. You should keep three hens at a bare minimum, due to chicken psychology and hierarchy, but having four or more is better. We also found that a rooster is a worthwhile addition since Randy protects the girls, sometimes breaks up fights, and is generally on the prowl looking for threats to his ladies. I’m not too concerned about him attacking us since he’s a tiny thing and has never once tried to attack.

Our hens’ primary duties are producing eggs and manure for the garden. The girls lay between three and five eggs a day in the summer and though the eggs are smaller than ordinary eggs, the yolk is normal sized. We’ve also found that we can use up the mountains of eggs much easier if they’re smaller. If a recipe calls for two eggs I use three, and so on.

Hens will always be able to surprise you!
FL: Where did you get your first chickens and how do you now replenish your flock?

T: We don’t raise our chickens for meat so there’s no need to replenish them annually. Though we have a rooster and one of our hens is currently broody we aren’t about to allow them to produce chicks either. That’s because our hens are more pets than actual farm animals and we wouldn’t have the heart to cull any cockerels from the flock. It’s a responsibility that you have to face if you have chicks because no one wants roosters. It’s a sad reality that they’re often abandoned on country roads or at animal shelters because pet-owners aren’t prepared to take care of them themselves.

FL: Fixed chicken run or movable pen? Why?

T: We have an aviary style pen for our chickens sized approximately 10’x 12’. Inside there’s a sheltered area for the birds to get out of the rain and heat and also where we place their food. There’s also an elevated ledge that the birds fly up and down from, a jungle gym of branches, and my compost pile. The hens LOVE having the compost pile in the run and spend a good part of every day rooting and scratching around in it. Though the run started out lush with grass, it’s been difficult to keep it growing with so many chickens tearing up and pooing on the ground. The compost pile is a place where they can peck at extra greens and help fertilise the compost for next year’s crops.

Our hen house and run after it was first built. It now has a lot more internal features.
We chose a fixed run over free range because we wanted to give the chickens a lot of space but in a secure area. Since they’re small birds they’d be in danger from our cats, neighbourhood dogs, and our resident predator the locals call ‘Pole Cats’. These are essentially feral ferrets that have naturalised over the past hundred years on the Isle of Man. They’re notorious for killing hens and we know that they’re definitely roaming around the area.

Even so, we’d like to give the chickens access to the lawn and have been inspired to perhaps build a Chicken Tractor. It’s an idea that we’re still trying to sort out in our heads but I think we’ll probably have one in action eventually. Our main concern is that we’d prefer for the chickens to still have access to their run and coop while having a way to enjoy green grass. An alternative idea I’m now working on is growing grass in tubs covered in protective mesh. The idea is to discourage the hens from walking on top (and pooing inside) and to protect the grass roots from beaks and claws. It’s an experiment in progress.

Siting your compost pile inside the run is a good idea for you and your hens
FL: How do you integrate your chickens into the rest of your garden/farm?

T: Aged chicken manure is one of the best kinds of organic fertilisers you can use in the garden. It encourages lush green growth and a little goes a long way. Though I’ll occasionally rake dried chicken poo into the soil direct, it mainly makes its way into growing spaces through the chickens’ access to the compost pile. Their manure speeds up the composting process and makes the resulting compost even more nutritious for plants and soil organisms. I’ve also experimented with putting mucked up old straw in my potato towers this year and it seems to be working a treat.

FL: What is your biggest chicken challenge at the moment?

T: Sick and broody hens. As mentioned previously, Willow is broody and very moody. We flush her out of the coop throughout the day and take all the eggs but she’ll still sit there on a bare patch of hay. It’s not good for her to be ‘cooped up’ all day without eating or drinking so we hope she breaks out of the habit soon. She’s also been keeping the other hens from coming in to roost at night by sitting near the entrance and hissing at them.

The other issue we’ve had recently is Miracel’s great egg mystery. A few weeks ago I had to take her to the vet since it looked like an egg had burst inside of her! Since then she’s laid quite a few rubbery shelled eggs and we’re still concerned that she’s not completely healed. We hope she starts laying hard shelled eggs again soon but if she doesn’t she’ll still have a happy life roaming around with the other hens.

Sometimes a poorly hen will need to be taken to the vet
FL: What is the best thing about keeping chickens?

T: A lot of people might say it’s the home-grown eggs or meat but for us it’s the life they add to our home. Chickens really are bird brains but they’re funny little creatures and seeing their separate personalities and group dynamics will definitely keep you entertained.

FL: What is your advice to new chicken owners? What do know now that you wish you knew before you got chickens?

T: First understand why you want to have chickens and how much space, time, and effort you’re able to give them. Like my friend who gave us our first hens, if you’re not prepared to make a real commitment to them then you might want to reconsider your motives. It’s also perfectly okay to have chickens as pets but with that also comes a different set of responsibilities to those involved in rearing them for food. For example, ours incur extra costs in treats, vets, and very likely the future expense of a kennel for when we go on holiday.

If you’re certain that hens are for you then one thing I’d recommend is reading up on chicken ailments and diseases and what you can do to address them. Within a year we had the mysterious death of one hen followed by Miracel’s egg laying issues. Chickens are living creatures and will get sick and die like people do but it helps to be prepared with either knowledge, a good chicken-owner support group, or both. I’m a member of a Facebook group called ‘Chicken Chat’ and it’s amazing how much I’ve learned through other people’s experiences, posts, and photos.

Winter time chicken treats! Hot oatmeal, dried fruit, and meal worms
FL: What is your advice to people who would like to keep chickens in the suburbs?

T: Give your hens the most space you can offer – they love green grass, scratching around in the soil for insects, and being able to flap and spread their wings. I feel terrible for hens stuck in small pens and don’t see much sense in keeping chickens unless they’re somewhat ‘free range’. If you don’t have space for a good sized pen then housing the birds in a chicken tractor might be a good solution. You can move that type of pen around the garden so even if the interior is relatively small they still have fresh forage and live happy lives. If you’re interested I recommend you look at Liz’s posts on chicken tractor construction and usage.

Another thing you’ll need to consider in a suburban environment is neighbours. We’re very lucky to have no trouble with ours but Randy’s quiet crows are getting louder by the day! We keep the chickens in the coop until a decent hour and it does help in muffling the noise but some neighbours might not be as sympathetic as ours. Chat with yours and/or place your pens far from boundaries and fences of people who might take offense at an early morning crow or an excited post-egg laying cluck-a-thon.

If you’d like to hear more about our spoiled little flock then come visit them at Lovely Greens. All of my chicken related posts can be found at this link.

The best part of our run is the sun deck we built for the chickens last year
FL: Thanks Tanya!  Great advice!  The compost in the chicken run is an excellent idea.  I also love that the farmer pulled your chickens out of a tree, they must be very hardy and suited to your climate!  To leave a comment or ask a question, please head over to Tanya's blog.

Sign up for my weekly email updates here, you will find out more about soap and our farmlife, straight to your inbox, never miss a post!  New soap website and shop opening soon....

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

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