Keeping chickens is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the UK, not only do they reward you will fresh eggs, they are also fantastic entertaining pets especially for children and very simple to keep.
If you’re new to hen keeping then you should read the following advice before you get your new additions. It will help you prepare and prevent any unwanted problems. Please bring a strong pet carrier or cardboard box to collect your hens in and let us know if you have been to any farms for bio security reasons.
Whether you buy or make your house there are a few simple requirements. Each hen requires a minimum of 23cm perch space and the house needs to be well ventilated to prevent bacteria. Allow one nest box per 4-5 hens and these should be situated in the darkest, draft free part of the house to encourage laying. Cleaning is down to personal preference but I would recommend cleaning and replacing bedding every week but this depends on the amount of chickens you have and how messy they are. I would also recommend a good clean down every 1-2 months with a good disinfectant to clean any bacteria and bugs. Don’t let your chickens in while you do this as they think the disinfectant solution is a yummy drink! Shavings or straw make ideal bedding but no hay as it is prone to mould spores.
Chickens needs access to fresh water at all times either in a drinker or bowl. They are many drinkers on the market, which you can fill up and last a few days, they are also very good at keeping the water clean. Your water container needs to cleaned regularly also as they can become a source for bacteria.
Introducing new hens to a flock
If you have already got some hens and would like to introduce some more there are few tips to remember. If you have space introduce you new hens to a new run where they can see the existing chickens. Give them a few days to build up confidence and then introduce them. If you don’t have this sort of space or another run place your chickens into the house when it is dark with your existing chickens. Let them out in the morning and just observe their behaviour for a while. Chuck some corn on the ground to distract them. They will probably have a peck at each other as they need to establish their pecking order but unless they get really rough and draw blood leave them to it as this is normal chicken behaviour.
Chickens needs a good balanced diet and most layer mash/ pellets contain all the vitamins, minerals and protein a hens needs to produce eggs, rather like a personal nutrition plan. If you like a good supply of eggs try to buy a feed with at least 16% or more protein in it, it should say on the label. There is no difference between the makeup of mash and pellets although pellets are less messier and less wasteful, but it’s down to your personal preference and what your chicken likes!
Mixed corn can be given as treat a few times a week, and chickens really enjoy it. It also gives them something to do if thrown on the floor and they love nothing more than to scrap about and find it. Don’t throw too much down as the chickens will leave it and it will attract vermin.
Old Veg scraps especially green veg can be fed, but no raw potato can be given to your hens. Just remember DEFRA state you can Only feed veg that has not been processed through a kitchen. If you wish to feed potato you must boil it up first so it is soft beacause of the starch. Obviously do not feed your chickens any meat, and if possible let them have access to green vegetation such as grass as they do enjoy a nibble and it’s their foraging in the undergrowth for plants and bugs that give you a beautiful rich colour yolk.
Small amounts of poultry grit should be given to your hens on a weekly basis as chickens have no teeth, so the grit they find and eat helps break down and digest food in the gizzard. Oyster shell is also a good source of calcium and needed for strong bones and of course good egg shells. If you have very soft egg shells your hen could be lacking in calcium.
Introducing new hens to a flock
This is when your chicken sits on her nest and refuses move, she will fluff up her feathers when you come near her and may even peck you. What she is trying to do is hatch some eggs and unless you have a cockerel she will not be very successful! If you wish her to get off you can remove her from the nest and try to stop her returning for about 4 days to snap her out of it, failing that you can just let her get on with she will give up eventually. Always make sure she has access to food and water.
Generally chickens are easy creatures to care for, but as with any pet, they need to be properly cared for in order to fulfil their potential and lay you eggs! Get to know your chickens and their characters, and you will be able to spot a problem a mile off, and prevent it before it happens as chickens can hide illness very well! If you are new to chicken keeping please take a few minutes to read the following to prepare you for your new pets, don’t be put off though you are very unlikely to encounter most of these problems but it does not hurt to have a general understanding.
This Information is from my own experience of keeping chickens, however I am not a vet and if you feel your bird is suffering please seek veterinary advice.
This is where little mites get under the scales on the legs of chickens. The scales become raised and can cause the chicken a lot of discomfort and suffering. They can go off lay, become infertile and look very unwell and anaemic. There are many sprays, lotions and potions available to treat it, coating the legs in Vaseline also helps to suffocate the mite. I would recommend treating with a product and then coating the legs with Vaseline. This will have to be repeated every couple of days for a week to break the life cycle of the mite.
There are various products available for worming from herbal ones to the more medicated variety. The most common one is Flubenvet and ideal if you’re a back garden keeper and now comes in a pre medicated feed to make administering easier. If your hens are free ranging it’s inevitable they will pick up worms at some point so keep an eye on them. Only treat if needed and if your unsure you can send poo samples off to be tested we sell testing kits at the farm or they are available online. We have a few precious active ingredients for worming and we need to use it sensibly to prevent any resistance.
Red Mite & Lice
Probably the most common problem with chickens. Red mite is associated with the warmer weather but can be present all year in some cases. They are tiny little mites that like to live in the crevices of poultry houses, mainly wooden ones. They come out at night and start to feed on the chickens’ blood and turn red, hence the name red mite. Some signs of red mite include chickens looking pale and unwell, not wanting to go into the house at night or lay in the house. Also if you go into the house to collect the eggs and you feel very itchy you probably have red mite. If not treated it can be fatal to chickens.
If you think you have red mite, buy a good louse powder/spray, Diatom powder is great as it can used on both house and hen. Dust all over the house and dust the hens as well. This will need to be done every couple of days for a week or so to break the life cycle of the mite. The best treatment however is to prevent it in the first place. Before the weather turns warm at around March time or before you even put your chickens in the house, dust the house in all places the red mite can hide regularly. This way red mite can’t get a hold, and along with a good cleaning regime you should have no problems.
Your chickens will also pick up other mites that will live on them if they are free ranging. Check your chickens’ regularly especially around the vent area where lice like to lay eggs for any signs. Bottoms covered in droppings are also a good indicator of lice .A regular dusting of powder every 2-4 weeks in the warmer weather will help keep lice at bay and providing a dust bathing area such as a sand pit is their own way of getting rid of unwanted pests. Get to know your chickens behavior and character and it’s easy to see when they are not feeling well, lice can be a real burden on chickens and if not treated or left to long it can be fatal for the chicken.
There are various reasons why your hen might not be laying, it could be one of the above such as lice or worms or it could be for many other reasons. These could include the following;
Colder shorter days- hens will not lay very well in the winter months this is due to the lack of light hours as a hen laying system is influenced by this. In big commercial industries they have lighting in the sheds to promote laying.
Feeding- If you don’t feed your chickens the correct diet they will not lay. Chickens don’t lay well if they are not getting the protein, vitamins and minerals they need.
Age- If your hen is still very young she probably has not worked up to laying her first egg. Most hens come into lay between 22-26 weeks later for larger breeds such as Orpingtons. However every hen is different and some can be sooner others can be later everyone is different. When hens are older they stop laying, this can be anywhere between the ages of 5 years upwards but I have known hens to lay until they are 8 or 9! A good indication of a hen coming to the end of their lay is a very small little egg with no yolk.
Egg bound- There are a few common reasons a hen can become egg bound – one is that the egg is just too big for the pelvis, another possibility is there is not enough calcium in the diet (calcium is required for muscle retraction). Another possibility is that she might be too weak from some other condition which could be nutrition or illness related, and sometimes she may be dehydrated and the part which moves around the egg as it is laid, is too dry and stuck to it preventing it from getting out. Signs that you may have a chicken that is egg bound could be repeated visits to the nest to try lay an egg for hours and becoming distressed. Later on she may become lethargic. If you have noticed your hen acting strangely in this way you can check for egg bound by looking at, and massaging around her bottom area for an egg shaped lump. A vet will probably be able to help , but if you want to try some home treatments then you may be able to visually see a bulge, or feel that there is an egg there. If she is still walking about and relatively happy, then giving her some electrolytes will help. Apply some lubricant to the area to help the egg exit easier and give her a nice warm area to relax for a while. If she is used to being handled and doesn’t find it too stressful then holding her vent over a steaming bowl of hot water for 20 minutes will expand the area and hopefully pass the egg.
Problem with the crop
This happens when the crop doesn’t empty fully overnight and as a result the food ferments within the crop causing a fungal infection ( too much bad bacteria a bit like thrush). If you pick up the chicken and feel her crop it will feel very watery and squishy and she may even appear to be sick. This liquid needs to be drained from the crop and this can be done by holding her upside down and slowly massaging so all the liquid can be drained away ( it may be a bit smelly). This will need to be done a couple of times a day for around 3-4 days or until no liquid can be felt in the crop. Make sure the bird has access to layers pellets or mash mixed with natural yoghurt as you need to get her good bacteria levels up again and food in her tummy.
Coughs, sneezes and colds
Like us chickens are vulnerable to catching a cold. They might have a little sniffle and runny nose or start sneezing. In most cases it clears up by itself and adding Apple cider Vinegar and garlic to the water once a month for a week can prevent unwanted sniffles and clears the respiratory track. If the problem persists for more than a week you may need to consult your vet to get some antibiotics as they may have a further infection.
Compacted crop is similar in cause to sour crop in that the crop does not empty overnight but instead of feeling watery it will feel hard like a ball. The bird will be lethargic and will dramatically lose weight due to it not being able to digest any food. This is usually caused by lack of grit to grind the food so always ensure grit is available.
If you suspect your chicken has an impacted crop start treatment in the morning by dropping a small amount of olive oil down the birds throat and then gently massaging the crop to help break up the compaction and repeat this procedure in the afternoon. You can also try feeding wiggly worms or maggots which can help move the food about and help digest it. Feed a soft food such as layers mash or porridge mixed with natural yoghurt to make feeding easier and neutralise the bad bacteria.
It may take a couple of days to break up the hard lump, but if it persists for three days the compaction may need surgically removing and you may need to consult a vet.