KNOWING YOUR CHICKENS

The urge to have something of the countryside in an urban back garden means that there may be 750,000 UK householders who are amateur chicken keepers, but what are the benefits and the downsides?

Sophie Galloway seems like a typical resident of Hove, East Sussex – young (36), professional (a GP), married (husband Rob is also a doctor) and mother to three young children (Katie, nine, Tom, seven, and Billy, two). She also has chickens in the back garden of her 1920s semi-detached house, making her one of many town and city dwellers – experts estimate there could be as many as 750,000 amateur keepers – with a hen house on their property.

Simon McEwan, editor of Your Chickens magazine, says that subscriptions are booming. “There is huge interest in keeping chickens and also lively debate about all things chicken on social media.”

Keeping chickens in urban areas brings a bit of the natural world into the back garden.
Doctor Sophie Galloway

An addictive hobby

Dr Galloway started thinking “all things chicken” about five years ago. Then a friend hatched some eggs that she had bought on eBay and the GP discovered Omlet’s easy-to-clean plastic coops and bought one – along with her first batch of three chickens. “I didn’t do a lot of research before,” she admits. “It’s sold to you as being remarkably easy. It isn’t always, and I do spend a lot of time now googling symptoms, issues, ideas for runs and how to keep the chickens clean without too much effort – but it is really fun, and they are addictive.”

The internet makes it easier. In addition to researching her birds, Dr Galloway buys many of their supplies online, including food. McEwan believes that Dr Galloway is quite typical: “Keeping chickens in urban areas brings a bit of the natural world into the back garden. People love getting fresh eggs from their birds. And they discover chickens are very characterful.”

Free-range

The eggs are an incentive for Dr Galloway’s family, although not quite as much as you might think. She says: “My husband and children love eggs, so it made sense to have our own hens. But I wouldn’t say the chickens pay their way. And in all honesty, while our pullet eggs are absolutely delicious, I can’t really tell the difference between the eggs from our adult hens and the supermarket’s.”

She says that it is the chickens themselves that are the draw. “They are so entertaining. I like letting them run around the garden where, left free-range, they pick at insects, hop up to get juicy leaves and play a game we call ‘chicken rugby’ in which they chase and tackle each other for a worm or grape.

“Our daughter Katie is very involved with them and even the cat sits there while the chickens cluck around him.”

Unfortunately, living in a built-up area does not mean your chickens are safe from foxes. Like lots of urban and suburban areas, Hove is overrun with foxes, and they can be pretty determined. “We were heartbroken when we lost our first three chickens,” Dr Galloway says. “I didn’t lock them up properly one night and when we came down in the morning there were feathers everywhere. We didn’t replace them straight away. But now we have five more.”

So far she has not had any problems with her neighbours. “Most are intrigued,” she says. “Our next-door neighbour loves them and throws them slugs and snails. They make funny cooing noises, which she says she finds soothing.”

How to have happy hens (and blissful bantams)

1. HUG A HEN.

There's nothing like going on a course and actually handling a chicken to find out if keeping them is for you says Sara Ward from hencorner.com. Take the family. There's no point getting chickens and then finding your children are afraid of them.

2. TRUST YOUR GUT.

Buy from a reputable breeder (personal recommendation is best) and always collect your chickens yourself, says Sara. Walk away if you're not happy with the state they're in, or the conditions.

3. MAX OUT ON YOUR HEN HOUSE.

Buy the best hen house and run you can afford. Plastic coops are easier to keep clean and pest free. Wood coops breathe and are less prone to condensation.

4. LET THEM ROAM.

Free range hens are happier, says Sara, and lay better eggs. A lot of urban keepers work but let them roam when they can and remember to shut them up securely at night.

5. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD.

Adding some greens to your chickens' diet gives deep yellow yolks, but remember it is illegal to feed them kitchen scraps unless you are a vegan household.

6. LABEL YOUR EGGS.

Collect your eggs as often as possible – and pencil the date on so you know which ones need eating first. Or buy an egg helter skelter.

7. KNOW YOUR CHICKENS.

Get to know your chickens says Sara. If you know how they behave when they are happy and normal you will recognise it when something is wrong.

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