How to: keep hens in your garden
Backyard poultry can live long and happy lives, supplying your family with fresh eggs and keeping your compost heap active. You don't need a huge garden or to live in the depths of the countryside - but beware: watching your feathered residents unearth grubs or preen their ruffled feathers can be highly addictive
Where to start
Check that your neighbours won't mind the odd cluck or cackle (stick to hens and they won't be rudely awoken by a noisy cockerel), and see if they'll hen-sit while you're on holiday. You'll need a run, as there will be times when you need to keep them contained (especially if you're not there to watch them all day). Site it in a sheltered, secure spot, as close to the house as you can bear. The main enemies are uncontrolled dogs and foxes. Think carefully about keeping hens if you live in a very foxy area - it may not be worth the heartbreak. Shop around to find a practical henhouse that you can customise to suit your garden. Hens can't see in the dark, so they will always put themselves to bed as light fades. However, you'll still have to shut them up every night, to keep them safe from predators.
Start with just a couple of hens and build up your flock gradually to a maximum of six (keep too many and the ones at the bottom of the pecking order will be bullied). You don't need a cockerel for your hens to produce eggs. Utility breeds such as Light Sussex, Marans, Welsummers and Rhode Island Reds lay best, but it's worth remembering that good layers eat more and will do more damage to your garden. The more glamorous Orpingtons, Pekins, Silkies and Brahmas are better pets but they are also lazier and lay less. Most breeds come in standard and smaller bantam sizes. Visit poultry shows to see the range available, and order birds in spring from a local breeder for delivery in late summer.
What to feed your hens
They need grain, protein, grit from the soil and a constant supply of fresh water. Your flock will also feast on kitchen leftovers (but not meat, fish or citrus fruit), and eat grass, weeds, seeds and insects from your garden (including slugs and snails). Their bedding and droppings will enrich the compost and crops will flourish. Feed them protein pellets for breakfast and mixed corn at their bedtime in a covered area, away from wild birds, and keep feed in galvanized dustbins to deter rats and mice. Vegetarian, organic or GM-free pellets are available. If you add sunflower or flax seeds your eggs will be rich in omega-3 oils. Collect the eggs daily and store in a cold larder or fridge. They'll be the most delicious ones you've ever had. All hens lay well in their first year, but as they age this season shortens. Let your old ladies live out their days (up to eight years or more); they stabilise the flock, get friendlier and lay the odd egg.
Give your birds a peaceful life, plenty of space, food and water and you'll be spared most textbook disasters and ills. If a hen is poorly or injured, isolate her in a coop with access to water and contact the vet. With a little luck, though, all your birds will live happy and productive lives, providing great eggs, cheerful company and enough enthusiasm to turn you into a committed hen-keeper.
For books and DVDs on keeping poultry, visit www.kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk or call 01359 268322.