Beginners Guide to Keeping Chickens

Keeping chickens in the back garden has become very popular over the last few years. I have had many people come up to me who I have hardly known asking whether I was ‘the chicken man'...

goldline-great-with-childrenAfter explaining that 'yes, I did keep chickens', they would go on to explain that they had been thinking about getting a few hens in their back garden but they didn't have a clue about where to start and could I give them a few pointers.

So this was how this article started. I typed out some information for a few people that were interested in learning how to keep chickens and it got photocopied, passed around a school playground or two and before I knew it, I was creating a website and posting it online.

So here it is, modified and improved year on year: The beginners guide to keeping chickens!

To Begin At The Beginning!

Not wishing to put you off in any way but remember if you live in the UK you have a legal obligation under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 which states that ... commit an offence if you don't take steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure the needs of an animal for which you are responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.                                                    The Animal Welfare Act 2006

So basically, before you start, you need to be aware that chickens need some care and attention every day, just like when you have a dog or a cat. Before buying some hens for the first time you should give some serious consideration to where they are going to live, how you will feed and water them should you go away on holiday (see Anne Perdeaux's excellent article on Chickens and Holidays for some tips) and how you are going to keep them secure from predators, mainly the fox if you live in the UK. Believe it or not, there are surprisingly high numbers of urban foxes in our towns these days.

doorkeeper-jane-peppler-reviewAll of this said, there are many ways to ensure your bird's needs are met. Chickens can be enclosed successfully in a fox proof run, neighbours are usually happy to feed the chickens for you in return for some fresh eggs and well ..believe it or not.. there are automatic ‘pop hole' openers and closers that lock up the chickens house for you at night and let them out in the morning, keeping them safe from night time predators - mainly the fox in the UK.

VSB-click-to-buyThis is an Electronic Door keeper from AXT Electronic in Germany which opens when it gets light and closes when it gets dark so you don't have to worry about getting home in time to lock your chickens up. These are a very worthwhile investment and save you losing your hens to a fox after dark. The batteries last a year or longer. I have 3 of these on my coops and they are very reliable.

So you want to keep chickens in the back garden?

1The Chicken House. Once your mind is made up that chickens are for you, the next step is to think about housing.

chickens-in-shade-of-houseA chicken coop is probably the most expensive thing you will buy and there are many different designs on the market.

It is usually a case of ‘you get what you pay for' with wood but I have been able to keep some really cheap chicken houses going for 6 to 7 years with a regular coat of wood preserver and regular maintenance (replacing latches that rusted and roof felt that blew off in strong wind!).  If you can, take a close look at the quality of the workmanship and the thickness / quality of the wood used on a coop as this will tell you whether you should be paying a higher price. Obviously the better quality the wood, the longer it will last but the more the wood will cost in the first place.

If you are looking for sub £200 chicken houses, I wrote an article on cheaper chicken houses in an article called Cheap Chicken Coops. This provides some suggestions from a number of more reputable suppliers.

Chicken houses can be beautiful or very basic. You could build your own chicken coop out of pallet wood, it really does not matter! As long as it does the intended job which should be to provide dry, draft free (but well ventilated) accommodation for your chickens.

Maggies Dozen Hen House from Flyte So FancyThe house on the right is very pretty and practical - a (slightly modified) Maggies Dozen from Flyte So Fancy. The house above-right is a DIY chicken house built from some spare wood I had. There are a few free chicken coop plans on the internet that will often give you some good ideas for building coops.

Wood should ideally always be pressure treated so that it doesn't rot in the first year and nails, screws and fittings should all be galvanised to stop them rusting. The first thing I do when I buy a chicken coop is paint or preserve it to give it the best possible chance of a long life. If you are treating a coop, remember to check that the product is animal friendly and leave it to dry out completely before allowing your birds into it. If you are unsure, give the customer service number a call (usually found on the back of the tin) and ask them for advice.

Essential features of the house are nest boxes, ventilation (ideally adjustable) and perches for the birds to roost but you should also consider how easy it is to collect eggs and how easy it is to clean.

Spending a bit more now to get a house with a droppings board and a large access door will save you hours of struggling in the long run. The bare minimum chickens need is to be kept dry, out of draughts, safe from predators and have somewhere private to lay eggs. Remember if there is no shade in your chicken run, the house may need to be used for shade by your birds during hot sunny weather too. The floor of the house can be covered with wood shavings (such as the snowflake range), straw (if it isn't too dusty) or chopped cardboard. Straw and cardboard composts far faster and gets onto my vegetable patch quicker!

2The Chicken Run. To keep healthy, chickens need to get outside. A chicken ‘run' could be the back garden, or likewise a small fenced area or pen, whatever it is, it is always advisable to have the biggest run possible for your birds so that they can get as much free ranging as possible. There are many benefits to chickens in free range set-ups, the biggest being healthier, happier birds that cost you less to keep and produce more eggs.

3-strand-electric-fenceThe run needs to be secure - keeping the fox and other predators out whilst keeping the chickens in. If possible, bury wire netting at least 20cm into the ground to stop predators from digging under the fence and cover the roof of the run over.

Larger runs can have an electric fence where foxes are a problem. The one shown here has 3 ‘strands' looped back and forth - the first at low level stops foxes digging underneath, the second and third stop the fox from climbing over.

There is more information on fencing chicken runs here with the different options for small backyard runs and includes electric fences around larger enclosures whilst this article on Electric Poultry Netting written by the author of the Haynes Chicken Manual and long time poultry keeper Laurence Beeken discusses the use of electrified plastic poultry netting that can be erected quickly and moved around easily. Jeremy Hobson has also written an excellent article on fencing which is well worth a read: Proper poultry pens give piece of mind.

3Feeding Chickens. Chickens like all other animals need a balanced diet. During times gone by, many people fed their chickens on the household scraps and let them forage for as much as they could to get the rest. There are a number of people who tell me "My grandfather used to keep chickens and feed them on scraps alone, they'll be alright" but the reality is that most of the time, chickens won't be alright if fed only on scraps as they won't get the correct balance of nutrients they need.
Fortunately these days, there are feeds that have been created that contain the correct balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. If you want healthy birds and a good quantity of eggs, it is advisable to feed one of these all in one feeds. They are available as pellets or as a powdered mash. The mash is slightly cheaper although the chickens will usually only pick the bits out that they want, leaving the rest to go bad so all in all it is usually better to feed layers pellets. Chicks or young growers will require chick crumbs and growers pellets.

Feeders-Click-to-BuyThere are a number of feed dispensers available. Personally I prefer pastic hoppers over galvanised. They can be hung up inside the coop, or plastic rain hats can be bought if you want to leave feeders outside. They have little plastic bars around the feeding ring to stop them ‘flicking out' the bits they don't fancy. There is very little waste from these hoppers. Remember to allow enough feeders for your birds. There is a pecking order in chickens and sometimes the birds at the bottom of the pecking order will find it hard to get to the feeder if the others can stop them.

According to DEFRA, you shouldn't feed kitchen scraps to chickens but if you do feed scraps, keep an eye on the quantity. Feeding more than 20% or so scraps runs the risk of egg production decreasing... and fat hens don't lay eggs. Common plants / foods that are poisons for chickens are avocado, potato plant leaves and rhubarb.

Mixed corn can be given to them as a treat - but don't overdo it, maize (the yellow bits) is fattening. A handful per hen per day as a general guide is enough. Again - fat hens don't lay eggs! If you need more information or are in any doubt, we have a page on feeding chickens here that should help.

Flint grit and oyster shell grit are also required. The first helps them grind down the food (hens don't have teeth - or at least I'm told they are rare!) and the second is full of calcium to help them make strong egg shells.


4Water. Lets not forget water! There are a number of water containers available and a wide variety of sizes suitable for young chicks to a large flock of hens. Galvanised containers are strong, plastic can break easily but it is useful to be able to see how much water is left in a container and you can also add supplements like Apple Cider Vinegar to the water if you have plastic containers. The most important factor though is that they should always have fresh water available and there should again be enough drinkers available for the birds at the bottom of the pecking order.

5Breed selection and numbers. Now comes the hardest part - selecting the breed(s) of chickens you want to keep! Try looking through our Chicken Breeds section for ideas but keep in mind you may have to travel to get some of the more rare breeds. Think about what you want them for, what space you have and how many can be comfortably housed. Think about what size of birds - Large fowl, or bantams. Unless you have a fairly large set up then it is advisable not to mix different sized birds so that there are fewer problems with pecking. It is also best to buy all of your chickens in one go from one breeder where they have been kept together if you can, this ensures they all get along well and they will settle in faster. Introducing new birds is rarely pleasant as they re-establish the pecking order. There is an article here that lists the pure breed chickens found in the UK.

Further Reading

Our Keeping Chickens FAQ section contains a lot more information. I can also recommend you read the excellent Beginners Guide to Keeping Chickens website which contains lots of useful information on how to keep chickens.

chicken-manual-jacketThe Haynes Chicken Manual by Laurence Beeken.
This is one of the best books I have read that covers absolutely everything you'll ever need to know as a newcomer to keeping chickens and I can highly recommend it. I certainly wouldn't be without it on my book shelf as it is also a very good reference book that explains everything clearly and I can definitely say it is money well spent.

Finally, have fun. It's a great hobby and one that is very productive...If you are keeping chickens in your back garden you will certainly enjoy the eggs I'm sure!

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