Practical guide to keeping poultry in a city or town
NEW TO CHICKENS
The decision to keep chickens in the garden at home is an exciting one, but now there is much to be done and things to consider. This chapter will tell you how to prepare for your first hens, where to house them and what to house them in.
HENS IN THE GARDEN
Security in the garden is paramount. You should have a good set of fencing that people cannot get over or through and if possible the same goes for other people’s pets. Lay garden shale or stones on the floor so you can hear unwanted visitors approach the house and if you have room an impenetrable and painful looking hedge inside the fences will act as a double deterrent. My own garden is only 10 metres long by 10 metres wide, but by the path at the end I have 2.5 metres of thick hedge that not even an elephant could push through.
More than anything you should put your hen hut out of sight. The less attention you draw to them the better. This will cut down worries from the neighbours and unwanted attention from youths. Most young people are wonderful, inquisitive and love to admire chickens. The idea of hens providing eggs is fascinating to young people and, having shown them, you will usually find they are not only protective and loyal but they respect the idea that hens need peace.
However, there are too many instances of vandalism and it is wise to keep your birds in a protected position.
Hens do well in bright, airy, calm conditions. They love a little shade in the summer and protection from driving rain in the winter. They like to scratch in the ground and eat insects and worms and they prefer to wander and perch. They love to explore and hunt out insects from around the garden.
Perhaps the best thing is to place the hen house behind a single screen for privacy in a place where they are not overlooked. A tree or bush will provide some shelter from sunlight.
What happens to the grass
Hens scratch in the soil – they love it! There is nothing more encouraging to see their demeanour change when they are scratching and eating insects and worms. They also poo on the grass. If you have too many hens the grass soon becomes a muddy mess.
On the other hand, the hens do build up an excess of parasites if they are on the same ground all the time. To prevent this they should either be allowed to roam over a wide area, so you need a big garden, or they should be restricted to a pit where you can remove the soil and the parasites altogether. You can make or buy a hut with a run suitable for a few hens (often enough) and the run area can be dug out and lined with pond liner. On top of this you can put any number of substrates: woodchip, compost and woodchip mixed, soil, even roll out some turf. Then after a few weeks this can be removed and composted.
Everyone knows Mr Fox, but fewer know the impact of the increased population of raptors (birds of prey) in the city. In particular the increasing numbers of sparrowhawks in the city has become a particular threat. They will have a go at bantams, which they relish, but a full-sized hen is more of a challenge. However it is a challenge they are increasingly taking up.Trees make their task harder, and a run with a mesh roof is also important.
The fox in the city is a sad beast. Anyone knowing the proud animal that leanly fleets around the countryside is saddened at their scavenging around the town, tipping dustbins and, in a fit of wildness, attacking chickens in gardens. He is best kept at bay with good security at the perimeter of the garden. Once they locate hens they will return time and again. Keep an eye out for signs of intrusion and, if you see any, be on the look out to scare the fox away.
Once challenged they are much more skittish and will eventually give up if challenged nightly.
We will look at this in more detail, but the hen house should not present any loose parts that give encouragement to a hard working paw. Make sure that the run is protected by good stiff mesh capable of taking punishment from a medium-sized wild animal, that the mesh is buried a foot under the ground and that any joins in the mesh are not only overlapped, but securely wired together.
These animals tend not to attack the hens themselves, but are more interested in the excess food. They are adept, however, at killing chicks and breaking into eggs. They are highly intelligent creatures and on their guard as to approaching humans.
At some time or other rats will appear in the garden – after all the people on our street leave much more food about than the chickens do, and there are lots of rats about the place, it’s just that we are not used to seeing them.
The problem with rats is not the animals themselves, but the diseases they carry. Everyone associates bubonic plague with rats but thankfully this no longer is a threat in the UK, though some people have recently contracted it in the United States.
This is also known as leptospirosis and is contracted via a bacterium, Leptospira interrogans. This causes a wide-ranging set of symptoms and can be controlled by antibiotics. It sometimes results in hospitalisation and in very rare cases will kill. About one in five rats carry the bacterium and they spread it around in their urine. Swimmers sometimes contract the disease and more commonly fishermen, who get it from water contaminated with rat urine.
When you are cleaning your hut or around the chickens, always wear protective gloves and clothing. You are only in danger of becoming ill if infected liquid gets into the blood, so be sure you do not work with open cuts.
If you see or suspect rats being in the area you should do something about it straight away. You can lay traps for them, poison them and keep a good ratter (dog or cat), but the numbers of rats are probably quite large, them coming from the general area. It is a good idea to raise the hen hut off the ground so that they cannot settle beneath and disguise the area by growing onions and garlic all around.
The main defence against rats is to make sure the area is constantly and scrupulously clean, with no food left around for them to steal and continued vigilance.
Simply because we are used to seeing hens kept in the most cramped conditions doesn’t mean this should be replicated in the garden. Hen housesshould allow all the birds that use it to flap their wings (both at the same time) and have a decent volume of fresh air. There are certain small pyramidal type houses, normally referred to as arcs, which would really be suitable for only a single bird. They tend only to parade down the centre of the unit where there is greatest height.
If you are going to buy such a design it is best that you get the largest you can afford. Alternatively only keep one or two birds in a small arc. The runs associated with this type of house are also quite small.
Pecking order and small huts
If you keep two (or more) birds in a confined space they will do what comes naturally and sort out who is boss and who is not. In a confined space this becomes a problem because simple clucking and pecking turns into bullying.
Pecking syndrome, which we shall look at later, often leads to the death of the victim and the birds that are doing the pecking are difficult to get out of the habit. This syndrome is exacerbated by a lack of room. If you are buying a wooden hut make sure it is made from 19 mm ply at least.
Such a lot of wood is hard to move around the garden for sure, but is enough protection for the birds against weather and predators, so long as the door is strong and tightly fitting. This thickness of wood provides thermal insulation for both hot days and cold nights. Make sure there is also adequate insulation.
Panting and small huts
Chickens, like dogs, sweat into their breath. A considerable amount of water is evaporated in exhaled breath and this tends to collect in the bedding material.
Too many birds in small huts get colds very easily, something shown by comparing birds that roost in huts and birds that roost in trees. The treeroosted birds hardly ever get colds, but too many birds in a small hut frequently are unwell.
Just to reiterate, a small hut is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you do not cram too many birds into it.
For some reason traditional poultry keepers have looked askance at plastic huts, yet more than 20,000 people have bought one model in only a few years.
There are two basic designs, a small one which is suitable for a couple of birds only, and a large one which holds around ten. There have been various outcries against these units with very little justification.
In particular, apart from being an asset in the garden, they do look good, no other unit is as well insulated and they will never need to be repaired. They provide the perfect barrier to predators because there is nothing to fall off or get scratched away.
The big thing about plastic is that it presents no little niches for parasites to build up. One of the less pleasant aspects of dealing with hens is they get mites easily. The worst of these is red mite that hides in wooden perches during the day and climbs onto the chicken’s legs at night to drink avian blood. The big problem is that wood provides hiding spaces in the blemishes and cracks, and around the edge and so on. But a plastic moulding provides no hiding place and the parasites are easily wiped away.
The old shed
Sheds are a great size for chickens to make their home. They are also easily cleaned because there is a lot of room. Make sure the structure is sufficient to keep draughts and foxes away, and the wood is firmly in place all around. Modern sheds are not made from good materials and will need reinforcing.
An example of this, if you live near badgers, they have been known to crash right through the walls of a shed to get at eggs and whatever else inside.
The interior of the hut
Traditionally poultry roost at night time and they take themselves to bed. When dusk arrives they will start to congregate around the hut, walk in, walk out, bok bok a lot and eventually they will get themselves inside and jump onto their perch. Their nights are spent more or less asleep, pooing and huddled reasonably close for warmth on cold nights.
The perch should be big enough for the hen to grip, around 2–3 in (5–8 cm), and you should provide a low one at around 18 in (45 cm) and another twice this height.
However, some designs of hut have bars for perching at a low level, and you need to consider this when you buy. Space saving isn’t always the best for the birds and I do believe they prefer to be higher off the ground than some huts provide for. I say this because in the wild Indian poultry roost in trees, so it must be a natural thing to get up high.
The floor needs to be absorbent because the chickens will poo when on the perch, sometimes against the wall too. If you can get a ready supply of sawdust, particularly pine sawdust, this makes an excellent material for the floor. The oils in the pine dust give the hut a pleasant aroma. Other materials include bark and wood chippings as well as straw, which I like because it adds insulation.
In an urban situation I would suggest you change your bedding at least once a month. It is compostable, but you might find you have more material than space. If you use straw as bedding it is perfect for growing mushrooms.
The nest box
In some place in the hut you should create a nesting area. These should be like hen-sized cubicles with an inviting dish of straw in them. The birds will squat in the space and lay. More often than not the hen will vacate the box and another will climb in to lay herself. The sight of the egg in the box is enough to encourage the other birds to follow suit. Some designs allow you to collect the eggs from outside the hut via a trap door.
The nesting boxes should be away from the roosting area, and if possible the entrance to the house should not go past the nesting area either, though this last point is not so important. Try to make sure that no food gets into the nesting area. The old time poultry keepers used to use orange boxes for nesting because they seemed to be exactly the right size. They should be, if possible, at the darkest part of the shed.
It is a good idea to collect eggs every day and change the straw lining every few days so that parasites don’t build up inside.
A word about bedding
The material you lay in the hut for the comfort of the birds has a multi-functional role. First it is something warm and comfy for the hen to sit on, especially when laying. Hay is probably the most convenient material for this, though in an emergency I have used ripped newspaper. The material laid on the floor might provide some insulation, but its major function is absorbance of dropped poo by the hens while on the perch. I also like to have something that will dry the feet when they walk inside. There are a number of possibilities for this and usually I rely on sheets of newspaper and sawdust. I have a supply of strong smelling pine sawdust which not only disguises the aroma of the birds (helping with predators and rats) but gives me the illusion at least that the hut is clean and disinfected. Since I clean the hut every week anyway, the newspaper seems to last that long.
Alternatively you can use hay to cover the floor or, if you have wood chippings outside, you can continue this inside too. People who keep horses have a lot of bedding solutions from pelleted paper to straw. These can be used as bedding so long as they are not too crumbly and interesting enough to tempt the birds to eat it.
Food in the house
There are some, mostly homemade, huts that have a storage area for food and hooks from the roof on which feeders can hang. As a general rule, do not feed your hens inside the hut and store the feed in some other place altogether, where rats and mice cannot get to it.
No matter how careful you are regarding food, some will be spilt and this is the major cause for rats in the garden. It will not take long for you to determine exactly how much food your birds are consuming and feed this in a tray, or small hopper outside. Make it a part of your daily regime to clean all the feed away.
The egg laying/moulting cycle is determined by the length of the day and, if your hut is in a dark position, perhaps made with wood and is quite light tight, the birds will come in to lay a couple of weeks later than if they had a good window. Similarly, ventilation is an important part of the house. A small, wire mesh window is a good idea wherever it is practicable. Pre-constructed huts should have adequate ventilation.
If your garden is secure enough then you might wish to leave your birds roaming it freely. In this case a couple of hens in a small garden should have enough space to wander, forage and poo with few problems. The absolute minimum for this should be around 8 m2 per bird, but twice this would be better.
If you do not have enough security to allow the birds free range around the garden a mesh run is second best. This mesh should be very stout and secure, with an overlap which can be either buried or weighted down along its length to stop predators getting in.
You should provide some dust for the birds to bathe in. A box buried into the soil with a combination of compost, perhaps some sieved ashes and sand is ideal for birds to come along and bathe in. This is their way of making sure the external parasites are kept at bay. If you can manage it, some way of keeping the dust box dry will extend its use.
Over the years I have been asked the same question time and again. ‘Should I heat my hen hutch in winter?’ The emphatic answer is no. If the weather is such that the water is frozen in the waterer, the birds will need an extra feed to cope. A late afternoon feeding of milled corn usually makes the chickens hot while they digest it overnight.
While we’re on the subject we might as well look at freezing temperatures and what to do. Water is kept from freezing by adding a little glycerine. When there is a lot of snow on the ground the birds will probably venture out for a short while and then make for the warmth of the hut. Protect them from the wind, driving rain and mud. If the weather looks to be turning bad, cover the run and bring some large plants in pots near to the run for shelter. A balanced diet, some green stuff and plenty of corn will see them through the worst of the weather and I always find they look healthier and stronger after bad weather.
CRITERIA FOR A HAPPY HEN
- Is the garden secure from people and predators?
- Are the hut and run secure from predators?
- Can you move the hut to fresh land or remove the material the hens are walking on?
- Is there sufficient shade and shelter?
- Is there sufficient sunlight?
- Can the hens scratch at the soil, bark, straw or compost?
- Can the birds move their wings in the hut?
- Can the birds reach their food easily without competition from others?
- Can you clean the hut easily?
- Can you keep the hut floor dry?
- Can you get at the eggs easily?
- Has the hut enough ventilation and light?
- Have you somewhere secure to keep food?
- Have you access to friendly and good advice?
I hate talking about minimum requirements as though that’s all you are going to accumulate. But you do need a good waterer and at least a good tray that is not easily kicked over by aggressive or hungry birds. The hen hut should be as we have described, and you do need some basic disinfectant to keep the hut in good hygienic order.
We have already mentioned the regime for feed, and if you use a hopper feeder – where the food falls into a tray so the birds can eat as much and as often as they like – place a large tray beneath to catch the drops so you can easily clear away.
Waterers are easy to use; you simply fill the bucket and place the base on the bottom and invert. Water should be changed at least every two days or so. Never let the inside of the bucket get covered with algae and always take special care to clean out the base because it gets somewhat mucky.
NOTES ON HOW TO BUY CHICKENS
Let us suppose you have bought your run and found a local supply of chicken feed. You are now ready to buy hens. There is a huge network of hen breeders and suppliers out there and you should shop around for the one that gives you the most help.
Valuing advice (or not as the case may be)
Like most hobbies keeping poultry is one where you are offered lots of advice. Some will be good and some not so good. So if you have chosen a certain path, don’t be put off it by someone telling you it is wrong so long as the welfare of the birds is paramount. As long as you can fulfil the basic requirements for happy hens, take no notice. But good advice always welcome, especially if you can find people whose situation is similar to yours.
What makes a good bird?
There is something that people are good at, recognising a sick animal. We get a feeling from the way the animal looks and moves around, about the brightness of the eyes and the shininess of the coat.
Point of lay (POL) hens should be animate, they should move around, have bright eyes and peck at food with interest. Avoid birds with discharge around the eyes, birds that are listless and have their eyes closed. Their legs should have a neutral or yellow colour and they should have no unsightly, rough or scaly growths of any kind. The wattles should be soft and clean, smooth and glossy and red in colour. The comb should be intact and without blotches. It might not be bright red but it should be uniform and clean.
Plumage should be tight against the body and not rough. It should have glossy and waxy feathers with no gaps or patches and there should be not many downy feathers. The vent should be slightly moist, clean and surrounded with soft feathers.
The beak should be intact, not ‘debeaked’, and the bird should not show any repetitive movements. Constantly shaking the head, attacking other poultry, being aggressive around food should all be avoided.
Birds purchased from reputable dealers should be vaccinated by 13 weeks. There is a long list of diseases the birds are vaccinated against and you can buy POL hens that have been raised according to the RSPCA Freedom Food Standards or the Lion Mark Standards, thus guaranteeing the flock have been raised with excellent animal welfare in mind.
Most dealers follow a vaccination regime similar to the one below, which comes from a company called Merrydale Poultry. However, all this does not guarantee a particular hen will be free from problems.
Chick vaccination programme
Day 1 Mareks Hatchery injection
Day 1 or 2 Salmonella Lohmann TAD VacE*
Day 5–7 Coccidiosis Paracox
Day 20 Infectious Bursal Intervet Gumboro D78*
Day 28 Infectious Bursal – Gumboro Intervet Gumboro D78*
Week 5 Classical Infectious Bronchitis/Newcastle Disease Intervet MA5/CLONE*
Week 6 Salmonella Enteritidis Lohmann TAD VacE*
Week 7 Variant Infectious Bronchitis Intervet IB4/91*
Week 8 Avian Rhinotracheitis Merial Nemovac*
Week 10 Classical Infectious Bronchitis/Newcastle Disease Intervet MA5/CLONE 30*
Week 11 Variant Infectious Bronchitis Fort Dodge IB Primer (D274)
Week 13 Avian Encephalomyelitis Intervet Nobilis AE*
Weeks 15 or 16 Salmonella Enteritidis Lohmann TAD VacE* Before delivery INAC/Newcastle/Infectious Bronchitis Egg Drop Syndrome 76
How many hens should I get?
It is a cruel thing to keep a singlet hen. Of course the number of hens you keep will be determined by how much space you have, but an urban space should not be overrun by poultry. Three birds as a minimum for an urban garden will provide a reasonable number of eggs and provide enough interest. Five or six hens are as much as an ordinary garden can cope with easily, and don’t forget the neighbours!
INTRODUCING HENS TO THEIR NEW HOME
Let us suppose you have everything you need to keep hens carefully and easily. Bring your hens home in a carry box in a very well ventilated car or vehicle. Gone are the days when you can get poultry delivered through the post.
Hens are creatures of habit and if you put them in the run or just in the garden they might well decide to sleep in trees. The best thing to do is to put them in the hut with some food and water and leave them there for 24 hours, a whole day and night. This will then imprint on them that this is their home. Once they have spent a night in the hut they will stay there every night. Once they have left the hut, confine them to the covered run for a few days so they can orientate themselves before allowing them to wander more freely.
How to hold hens
You need to get hold of your hen so you can check various things, its point of lay status or so that you can clip its wings, etc. The way to do this will vary from hen to hen. It is important that the birds are comfortable with you. Feed them regularly, get a rapport. If you can get them to eat near you or even out of your hand, a trust will be imprinted between you and your hens.
On occasion offer out your hand and stroke their backs, anything to confirm that human touch is not a threat. This should be your first job with all hens.
Catching the bird
Happy hens will normally come to you. Wait around for the bird to walk by you and you should be able to reach down and catch them with a complete grasp of the lower body. If you cannot get the body as a complete whole, go for the legs. Don’t chase the bird all over the place, if you must, shoo it towards a corner, but keep it from panicking. If you fail to get the bird, bide your time because there will be plenty of other opportunities. The other birds will soon learn that having picked a hen from the ground its fate was peaceful and without threat. This will facilitate the easy and stress-free handling of the flock.
As soon as you have a grip of the bird – never the head or the wings, and never grasp for tail feathers – bring it close and move your grip underneath to grasp the legs, carefully but firmly. Never let the legs cross over, try to get a couple of fingers between them.
Try to point the bird with its rear away from you so if it poos you won’t get messed.
Hens can fly although they don’t bother too much. A hen is capable of flying onto a roof quite easily and she can get over a fence with little effort. To prevent this, the flight feathers of one wing are trimmed a third of the way down their length from the tip.
If you trim both wings, a lighter bird will simply flap harder and get into the air. Trimming one side sends them into an unstable spin and they cannot control themselves enough to fly, so they don’t bother. Eventually the feathers grow back, so you have to repeat the procedure. It isn’t painful or cruel, it’s a bit like a visit to the hairdressers – so long as you only clip a little of the wing.
Introducing new hens to established birds
Once you have bought and grown used to your hens it is almost guaranteed you will want to buy some more, maybe an attractive or unusual breed. New hens should not be simply plonked with established ones, even if there is room in the hut for them. Keep them separate for a week with an adjacent run so all the birds can see and get used to each other. Move their feed closer so they can eat together and assuming there are no flare-ups they can then be joined.
CHICKENS AND CHILDREN
There is not much difference between a child and a chicken. Both can be bossy, naughty, messy and noisy.
Chickens need not be a danger to your children. Apart from some cockerels, chickens are almost completely docile and safe, a complete joy for children to care for. In fact there is no better way of teaching children about caring, responsibility and the joys that the natural world brings.
Getting children to collect eggs and understand where they come from, and learning how fresh food is fantastic and good for you – there can be no better lessons in life; lessons difficult for schools to teach. So mixing kids and chickens at home is a must.
Get correct information
Don’t stumble into buying chickens without thinking through all the facts. When some of the less pleasant aspects of keeping an animal occur, it can come as a shock to our plastic-coated pristine lives. That aside, chickens are perfect animals for the home.
Protecting the kids
It is probably best if you involve your children in the process of getting chickens right from the start. Get them to think about where the hens will go, what will it be like to keep them, what they will need, what kind of housing you should get and so on. Get them to work on all the questions that go through your own minds and find solutions to problems. Who will feed them? Who will collect the eggs? Who will clean them out? How will we keep them safe? All these are questions that should involve your children.
Avoiding the big peck off
If you have young children then shy away from cockerels who, let’s face it, have nearly all the genetics of fighting game birds. But it isn’t always possible to avoid cockerels, especially if you are hatching your own eggs (another marvellous thing for children to experience). But there are some things you can do to minimise potential problems.
Acclimatise your birds to the children by keeping them quiet and locked up, allowing the children to feed and water them, collect eggs and clean them out with supervision. Eventually the birds will become accustomed to them and coexist without problem.
What makes them flip?
Many years ago while at university I did some research into sign stimuli. We worked with hens and fighting fish and discovered that both the fish and the birds would attack certain shapes and colours but completely ignore others. So a cockerel would attack a red dot but not a white one. Now there are lots of different reasons why you should not take this as gospel, but sometimes a normally docile animal will attack for no obvious reason although it may transpire that the person was wearing clothes that excited the automatic response in the animal. As far as chickens go it is the comb colour that can excite, so avoid tops with red blobs on them. You have to remember that chickens don’t look up so they first of all see at the level of a child’s knee, so it’s pants that are important.
Protecting the chickens
Children can be noisy and boisterous. A football kickabout can be a nightmare for hens, a bit like living in a war zone. Chickens love peace, a place to work out their lives and pecking orders but if they are bombarded they get skittish and are far more likely to go off laying, become ill, fight, feather peck, cannibalise and attack people. A look at the life of a hen in a crowded chicken shed should give us some clues.
Chickens which are supposed to be free range but are actually in large sheds where there are thousands of birds with around an A4 sheet of paper each, are nervous creatures and there are frequent examples of aggressive behaviour between hens. If we inadvertently recreate the conditions of the chicken shed because there are children tearing around the garden all the time, the hens will not settle well. They will become nervous, shy away into dark corners, become more aggressive themselves and not do so well.
This doesn’t mean that the children cannot play in the garden; they just have to respect their allotted spaces.
People envisage their chickens will pass on disease to their family. Talk about avian flu initially terrified the bird-keeping world, and then outraged it as the government suggested first that birds would have to be culled and then shut in.
The expected mass epidemic never really came and, generally speaking, outbreaks have been dealt with easily. These outbreaks come from wild bird populations, not poultry, so any outbreaks that do occur could appear anywhere. You are in no more danger of getting avian flu by keeping poultry than people that don’t.
It was Edwina Currie who set the cat amongst the chickens by famously saying that the UK poultry population was endemically infected with E. coli. This bacterium is responsible for dreadful digestive disorders that can kill. Children especially are susceptible to this problem.
It has to be said that the problem is still there and probably always will be because chickens do have a propensity to collect E. coli from their environment. But, and it is a big but, the bacterium settles mostly in the membranes between bone and meat. As long as the chicken is properly cooked, it is perfectly safe to eat. The only other possible route that the bacterium can get into people is via chicken poo.
Thankfully, this presents an excellent opportunity for education. Children can shift poo so long as they wear gloves and overalls and wash their hands afterwards. You need to get them into a regime of washing their hands whenever they handle the chickens, their litter or their eggs in any way.
Thankfully, E. coli is not robust enough to cope with good soap and water. And of course, as we have already shown, poultry can be immunised against it, so check with your supplier.
COPING WITH HORRID JOBS
There can be some horrid things to do when you keep chickens. With the best will in the world they are going to get red mite at some point in their lives, especially if you bring in birds from other flocks. They can get lice and so many other insect problems that might put children, especially children who are approaching teen years, right off the idea of keeping them.
Similarly, there is the eventual probability that you are going to have to cull, or at least get someone else to cull, your birds. This isn’t a problem in itself, it is something that every pet owner has to think about, but most of the vets I have known have never been able to help when my hens were sick. However poultry lice do not affect humans, so although they are pretty horrid in themselves, there is no worry about them infecting your children.
HOW TO KILL A CHICKEN
The needs of the commercial poultry grower are beyond the scope of this book, but we will briefly look at the law concerning killing of poultry.
When hens are killed for meat there is a three-stage-process involved. They are first attached, upside down on an overhead conveyor, and within a couple of seconds they are electrically stunned. This does not always kill the bird, but it does render it completely unconscious. Once stunned the bird feels no pain at all. Then a sharp blade is inserted in the mouth to cut the arteries of the neck and the bird slips into death without knowing a thing about it.
The law states that animals killed for meat have to be killed by a competent (licensed) person and that the animal has to be stunned before it is killed. The stun can be either percussive, using a bolt, or electrical.
There are no exceptions to this apart from two areas. The first is killing chickens for humane purposes. This takes the form of rapidly killing the hen by neck dislocation. The second is killing a single hen for personal consumption by the same method. The law is somewhat hazy about whether it is then legal to feed this hen to your family. Personal consumption has been interpreted by some as ‘only by the person that killed it’.
The only other way it is legal to kill chickens – or any other animal for that matter – is by a free bullet. But you still have to be licensed if you want to then sell the carcass or the cooked meat.
What is absolutely sure is that you cannot keep hens, kill them yourself and cook them in a restaurant or farm café, or sell the meat in any way unless you are a properly accredited person with the right equipment and have gone through the various hoops required by trading standards and health inspectors. But there are times when we have to kill a chicken either because it is sick, in too much pain or there are no veterinary services available.
What not to do
Don’t chop the head off with an axe. This is a dangerous thing to do as far as the human is concerned. You get all worked up to do the job, the bird is held tightly and you chop not realising your finger is in the way. Secondly, you miss the neck and have to start again with a second blow, or a third and the worst case scenario is you have an injured bird, only seven fingers and a writ from the RSPCA.
Do not use a pole.
A common method is to place a pole on the ground with a ‘v’ notch to take the bird’s head. The bird is laid on the floor, the pole placed on the head in the appropriate place regarding the notch, and the feet are placed on the pole to hold it steady. The bird is then pulled backwards until the neck breaks. Frequently the head is pulled off. The bird isn’t killed but just chokes or gets a severe strain of the neck.
Should you use a wall-mounted killer?
Some of you might find yourselves either disagreeing with this information or somewhat worried that you have one of these pieces of equipment. The concept of fitting a bird’s head into what is essentially a pair of pliers is, to my mind at least, cruel. The bird feels pain as you pull the lever over its neck and there is stress involved in getting the bird in position in the first place. It is the stress question that makes me shy away from putting birds in one of those inverted ‘killing cones’ so popular in the USA.
How to kill a chicken by hand
Get someone to show you how to do this properly. Always treat the animal with the utmost care and respect.
This eventuality starts the very day you get chickens. Get them used to being handled, picked up and held firmly by the legs. This allows the bird to be completely stress free, even if you are completely stressed out because of what you are going to do. There is nothing wrong in killing a bird, especially if you do the very best and most caring job you can. It should be hoped that you will be able to do this job without any suffering on the bird’s part. Remember that if you are killing a sick animal you are doing it a good service. The alternative is to put the bird in a cage and take it either to another poultry keeper, or to a vet. Both of these involve time and discomfort, something the bird doesn’t deserve.
The other aspect to all this is a moral one. You are not a barbarian by killing an animal in a humane manner. Get used to the idea that if you keep chickens there will be times when this is an important job of work.
If you get the opportunity, withhold feed for the last few hours, but not water, which should be freely available.
Pick the bird up and hold it firmly by the legs. Cup the head in the palm of the hands with the middle fingers pointing away from the beak, and the top of the head in the palm of the hand. Carefully and forcefully pull downwards on the head and twist. You will feel the bones break as the neck is severed. The bird now feels little or no pain because the messages are not getting to the brain. The bird starts to flap violently – this is a spasm and doesn’t mean the animal is in pain. Within 15 seconds the bird is dead.
When you ask poultry fans what are the best chickens to keep, you are almost guaranteed a million different responses. You will often find that one person has never had a single problem with a particular breed but another has had a litany of difficulties with them.
I would say that from the outset you should not mix children who have never been in contact with poultry and rescue hens unless you are completely sure the children will behave quietly around them, at least until they have become used to their new surroundings and have regained their strength and stamina. Of the breeds out there, and there are a lot of them, Silkies, Wyandotes and Buff Orpingtons are fantastic birds for the small family. They seem to chuckle along all day without any real problems and are friendly and robust. Warrens also seem to be quite happy amongst children. All these breeds give a good egg supply and are fairly clean in their habits.
Bantams and young children
An average chicken is a big animal to a five year old, comparable to an adult trying to cuddle an ostrich. So why not try keeping bantams which are smaller but in all ways the equal of their larger counterparts? Most large breeds have a bantam equivalent, and there are what is known as ‘true’ bantam breeds.
Some bantam males can be quite aggressive but their small size makes them much easier to deal with. They lay quite prolifically and whereas the volume of a bantam egg is much smaller, the nutritional content is largely similar.
You might have the friendliest dog or the laziest cat in the world, but your hens will not know that. When first introduced your birds will have to be carefully protected for their own sake and know their runs and coops are secure. Do make your runs cat-proof by having netting over the top as well as the sides.
One of the more unpleasant aspects of keeping a dog is that they tend to urinate on everything and poultry find this unpleasant and intimidating to say the least. If your dog cocks his leg on the chicken house, keep him away, even if it means an extra fence around the coop and run.
Of course other wildlife will look at your birds with a hungry eye too. Most towns are heavily populated with foxes and unfortunately the stories of Mr Fox killing every chicken in the garden are quite true. Once he has found them he will return night after night. It is important that the hens are securely enclosed.
Rather magnificently, though just as deadly to the hens, the increase in raptors (birds of prey) in suburban areas has become a threat. I have seen chickens taken by sparrowhawks while eating on the ground and my neighbour’s collection of pigeons has been attacked more than once.
SO, SHOULD I KEEP HENS?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes! There are difficulties, no one can deny it. Hens are a singular species and one that refuses to becomedomesticated on any other terms than its own. At times they display habits that are unpleasant and you have to have a good regime of cleanliness and care for the birds and your family. But the truth is that your lives will be enhanced beyond measure by the simple act of keeping poultry.