Guide written by:
John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge
While egg production is often considered their main advantage, hens offer a whole range of other benefits. In addition to recycling kitchen waste, chickens also provide an eco-friendly way to get rid of garden pests while also producing a rich fertiliser. Read on to learn how best to keep laying hens.
- Egg production
- Kitchen waste recycling
- Fertiliser production
- Pest control
- Advantages and disadvantages of hens
Recycling kitchen waste
Whether you're offering peelings or leftover scraps, chickens love kitchen waste and will consume all your lettuce leaves, beetroot tops, leftover pasta or rice, bashed fruit or stale bread (after re-moistening).
All of these foodstuffs can be used to supplement to your chickens' diet to help you make savings and keep your hens in good shape.
In fact, just one chicken can consume up to an estimated 100 kg of waste each year. This is a particularly good system for anyone who doesn't have an at-home compost pile for recycling kitchen waste.
In addition to lowering your household waste, you'll also save money in chicken feed. That said, be sure not to give your hens just any old table scraps: for example, you should avoid excessive amounts of meat or salt. Some types of food waste are also entirely unsuitable, such as citrus fruit skins or banana peels.
Keeping garden pests under control
Chickens love scratching the ground in search of little bugs which they will quickly gobble up. The also like to dig down a few centimetres to uncover insects and larvae. In doing so, they also help to prevent weed growth which makes them a great alternative to chemical pesticides and insecticides.
On a sidenote, it goes without saying that, if you keep chickens, you cannot use any chemical pesticides. A common complaint, however, is that hens don't discriminate between so-called useful insects (earthworms, woodlice) and plant-eating pests (fruitworms, box tree caterpillars, etc.).
Limiting your roaming hens
Hens are capable of turning your vegetable patch or seedlings upside down and your garden can quickly turn into a battle field as they scratch at the ground. What's more, chickens will also nibble at the tender young leaves of your vegetables.
To avoid this, you should encourage free roaming at the right times:
- The start of spring: before planting your first seedlings of the year, when your hens can also help to get rid of a few slug and snail eggs.
- In the autumn: over any unused bits of land.
- In the wintertime: when you do not have a lot of vegetables growing.
During these periods, your hens can be free to scratch and peck as much as they like. Additionally, they will help to keep weed growth to a minimum; while these plants are bothersome to us, they are a great way to supplement your hens' diet!
Whenever you do have vegetables growing in the garden, remember that you can protect your plants by surrounding them with a meshfence.
Limiting your chickens' movements to some extent will, however, prevent your soil from getting compacted. Despite their weight, hens do still pack down the earth and raw droppings can be harmful to your plants. Of course, this will depend on the number of hens you keep and the size of your garden.
Furthermore, it's a good idea to only let your hens roam freely when your garden is dry; chickens do stamp around which will make things a bit muddy!
While you do need to be careful around your vegetable patch, you can let your chickens roam freely around the base of fruit trees or vines without fear of them eating your produce. In fact, chickens are a really effective way to get rid of the larvae of bugs that fall to the ground in fruit.
Portable chicken runs
The portable chicken run is a fairly recent invention and is particularly popular among permaculture enthusiasts. It's a sort of lightweight chicken coop designed to be moved around regularly and easily from place to place.
As they only stay in the same spot for a few hours, your chickens can enjoy natural foodstuffs (grass, insects, worms) without trampling one area excessively and stripping back the ground.
However, most of these portable runs are only suitable for 2 or 3 hens (or 3 or 4 young chickens) maximum.
Alternatively, you can do some online research for tips on building your own model.
Advantages and disadvantages of raising chickens
There are a number of drawbacks associated with keeping hens:
- problems with neighbours;
- having to fence in your land to let your hens roam;
- attracting rats with chicken feed;
- bird droppings can beproblematic in walkways;
- you cannot leave your chickens for too long: while chickens generally get by very well on their own, they will still need fresh food and water.
That said, you can ask your neighbours, friends or family to look in on your chickens from time to time in exchange for freshly laid eggs! An automatic door can also be very useful to avoid your chickens spending the night outdoors.
And here are some of the advantages:
- having fresh, high-quality eggs (around 200 per year per hen);
- chickens bring a bit of life to your garden and bring a lot of joy to children (who will also love taking care of them);
- they produce manure that is very rich in fertilising properties, in particular nitrogen.
Choosing a chicken breed for your garden
Your choice of chicken breed depends on what you want from your chickens. Classic farm breeds aren't the only type of chicken able to live in a garden. So-called ornamental breeds are just as good at eating worms as other breeds! That said, some breeds such as Bantam chickens and Silkie chickens tend to scratch less than others.
If you are looking for regular egg production, choose a breed that also lays in the wintertime; most breeds, such as theGéline de Touraine, the Gâtinaise or the Brahma tend to slow down during this period.
If you are looking for an ornamental breed for your garden, go for Silkie, Wyandotte or Padovana chickens. For smaller gardens, miniature chicken breeds (generally weighing less than 2 kg) are a good option and some are very attractive. Bantam chickens are a great smaller breed.
Chickens are very sociableanimals and a solitary chicken will get lonely. You will need to keep at least two chickens; however, three is a better option even for smaller spaces. This will allow your chickens to socialise while protecting your plants and land from stamping feet. Quick tip: don't get a rooster unless you want all your hens to fall for his beautiful feathers!
Finally, remember that your hens have a life expectancy of around 12 to 13 years, but can live beyond 15 years, so make sure that you are prepared for the commitment.
Guide written by:
John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge, 57 guides
When I was young, I was already working in the family garden. Perhaps that is where my interest in plants and gardening came from. So, it was logical for me to study both plant biology and agronomy. At the request of various publishers I have, over twenty-five years, written many books on the subject of plants and mushrooms (a subject that is close to my heart).They were mostly identification guides at first, but shortly after they were about gardening, thus renewing the first passion of my childhood. I have also regularly collaborated with several magazines specializing in the field of gardening or more generally in nature. There is no gardener without a garden, I have cultivated mine in a small corner of Cambridge for the last thirty years and this is where I put into practice the methods of cultivation that will I advise you in as well.