How many hens?

Can you re­ally have too many, asks JULIE MOORE

Your Chickens - - Contents - With Julie Moore

There’s lit­tle doubt that keep­ing chick­ens can be­come truly ad­dic­tive. It’s an ob­ses­sion that silently and un­know­ingly creeps up on you. Per­haps you start off with just four hens for fresh eggs and, be­fore you know it, your flock has in­creased ten-fold and with other fowl to boot!

Mean­while, in­cu­ba­tors are hum­ming away in the spare bed­room, you read through the pages of Your Chick­ens and be­come ac­quainted with an at­trac­tive breed that you sim­ply must have, not to men­tion the hours spent trawl­ing through on­line cat­a­logues. There’s sim­ply NO es­cap­ing the temp­ta­tion — it’s all around you!

Keep­ing chick­ens can be fun and very re­ward­ing, but whether you’re new to the poul­try world or are on the verge of be­com­ing a self­con­fessed ‘chick­en­holic’, you need to step back and ask some ques­tions, giv­ing truth­ful an­swers in an at­tempt to defy the silent ad­dic­tion.

THE QUES­TIONS

How many eggs does your fam­ily re­ally use? Does your fam­ily con­sume nu­mer­ous eggs each and ev­ery week? Or per­haps you only use half a dozen eggs, in which case a cou­ple of hens should be more than ad­e­quate for your needs. Re­mem­ber, if you plump for six hy­brid egg-lay­ing ma­chines, that’s ap­prox­i­mately 1,800 eggs an­nu­ally, or 35 eggs weekly!

How much space do you have for your flock? For many, and par­tic­u­larly those liv­ing in ur­ban ar­eas, space is the most lim­it­ing fac­tor. In terms of what’s ac­tu­ally needed, the coop it­self will need to have at least the min­i­mum rec­om­men­da­tions as laid out by The Poul­try Club of Great Bri­tain (poul­tryclub.org) of 1 sq ft per bird (large fowl) and 8ins square for ban­tams (this in­cludes ar­eas to perch). You’ll also need at least one nest box per three hens. If you can’t let your flock free-range, the Poul­try Club rec­om­mends 4 sq ft per bird for the run area. Don’t for­get the ex­tra labour re­quire­ments to keep run ar­eas odour and dis­ease-free. Free-rang­ing will give the chick­ens most en­joy­ment, but they can be de­struc­tive. Let­ting a breed well-known for its for­ag­ing abil­i­ties, such as the Tran­syl­va­nian Naked Neck, loose in a small gar­den is sheer folly — flower beds and lawn will be dec­i­mated in the blink of an eye!

Which breed should you choose? Choos­ing a good lay­ing breed for your needs and sit­u­a­tion can be a daunt­ing task: hy­brids ver­sus pure breeds, large fowl ver­sus ban­tams. Hy­brids are ex­tremely ac­tive lay­ers in their first two years — some lay­ing 300 eggs plus an­nu­ally af­ter which pro­duc­tion tails off dra­mat­i­cally. Hy­brids are cheaper to buy, eas­ier to source than pure breeds and have a shorter life­span (three to five years) as op­posed to five to eight years for pure breeds. Hy­brids gen­er­ally don’t go broody — their job is to lay eggs, not be mothers! Pure breeds are the tra­di­tional breeds of poul­try. Be­ing full of per­son­al­ity, they’re gen­er­ally more docile than hy­brids and make for bet­ter pets. They lay fewer eggs, per­haps 100 to 250 per year, but will con­tinue to do so for many sea­sons with­out show­ing signs of any dra­matic drop-off. Some breeds are

known for their abil­ity to go broody at the drop of a hat, which could be a con­sid­er­able in­con­ve­nience if you’re just af­ter eggs.

Ban­tam breeds are bet­ter suited to a back gar­den en­vi­ron­ment, par­tic­u­larly if space is lim­ited. They’re also gen­er­ally less de­struc­tive in the gar­den than large fowl. Be­ing lighter in weight, they lack the strength of their large fowl coun­ter­parts and with their shorter and of­ten feathered legs, dig­ging and scratch­ing can be quite an ar­du­ous task for them.

Don’t dis­count their smaller eggs — with a higher yolk to white ra­tio than stan­dard breeds, ban­tam eggs are prized for their bind­ing qual­i­ties and the ex­tra rich­ness they im­part.

Ban­tams are gen­er­ally docile, so­cia­ble and easy to tame — they make great pets, par­tic­u­larly if you have small chil­dren.

When you have a short­list of favourites, ei­ther visit a show to talk to some­one about the breeds you favour or con­tact The Poul­try Club of Great Bri­tain who will be able to put you in touch with an ex­pert.

Do you need to pur­chase all their feed? Good qual­ity feed is ex­pen­sive and is the largest on-go­ing cost faced by any poul­try keeper, but it can be sup­ple­mented by home-grown food. Chick­ens like many crops we grow for our­selves so, if you grow your own, it’s easy to sow a lit­tle ex­tra for your girls. Al­low­ing your hens to for­age on grass, find­ing their own ‘live’ food such as earth­worms, snails and in­sects - which are all fresher and more nu­tri­tious than any bag from the pet store - will save you money too. If your hens can’t for­age, con­sider a flock of ban­tams — be­ing smaller birds, they nat­u­rally eat less food than their large fowl coun­ter­parts, so feed will go a lot fur­ther.

What will hap­pen to your hens when you go on hol­i­day? Chick­ens need to be locked up

You need to step back and ask some ques­tions, giv­ing truth­ful an­swers

for the night and let out in the morn­ing. They need food and fresh water daily. Eggs need to be col­lected at least once a day. Chick­ens like rou­tine and don’t like change. Do you know some­one you can ask and trust to ‘chicken mind?’ If not, can you eas­ily take your flock to a nearby chicken board­ing fa­cil­ity? Hav­ing peace of mind that your hens will be looked af­ter prop­erly is a must, oth­er­wise you’ll be wor­ry­ing about them and un­able to re­lax and en­joy your hol­i­day.

What will you do with older hens when their egg pro­duc­tion tails off or ceases al­to­gether? No mat­ter what breed you choose, the fact is that an ag­ing flock will nat­u­rally pro­duce fewer eggs — noth­ing can re­verse this process.

Whilst some peo­ple will de­cide to cull their birds when their lay­ing days are over, mak­ing a beloved pet the guest of hon­our at the din­ner table is out of the ques­tion for most.

As chick­ens gen­er­ally out­live their lay­ing days, it can be easy to be­come de­tached from the fact that keep­ing chick­ens for eggs will in­volve hav­ing to de­cide their fate. It’s vi­tal that chicken keep­ers, par­tic­u­larly those with lim­ited space, plan ahead and know the ap­proach they will take when their egg sup­ply has di­min­ished. One so­lu­tion is to stag­ger the in­tro­duc­tion of pullets so you’ll al­ways have a mix of old, prime lay­ers and young­sters in the flock. In this case, you’ll ini­tially start with fewer hens than you re­ally need.

If you view your chick­ens as pets and plan to sup­port them in their ‘re­tire­ment,’ bear in mind the cost of feed for no re­turn — don’t ac­cu­mu­late more chick­ens than you can af­ford to feed!

Once you’ve de­cided how many eggs your fam­ily re­ally needs, choose the breed or breeds you want to keep and work out how many hens you’ll need.

Make a plan and stick to it. Of course, plans can change and you may find that those ‘fresh’ eggs sit around for too long or your friends and rel­a­tives sim­ply can’t get enough of your fresh, nu­tri­tious eggs and you find that ad­dic­tion creep­ing back yet again!

ABOVE: You read through the pages of Your Chick­ens and be­come ac­quainted with an at­trac­tive breed that you sim­ply must have

BE­LOW: Pure breeds are the tra­di­tional breeds of poul­try

BE­LOW:Let­ting a breed such as the Tran­syl­va­nian Naked Neck loose in a small gar­den is sheer folly

The girls are lay­ing as fast as they can. Do you need more?

Hope­fully your fresh eggs won’t sit around for too long!

ABOVE: Tran­syl­va­nian Naked Necks are well-known for their for­ag­ing abil­i­ties BE­LOW: One so­lu­tion is to stag­ger the in­tro­duc­tion of pullets so you’ll al­ways have a mix of old, prime lay­ers and young­sters in your flock

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