When I visited Steve recently during a trip to the UK, he had a few questions about his new livestock. He had recently become an amateur poultry keeper but he had a problem: his hens weren’t laying any eggs.
Steve had been inspired to start poultry-keeping when he came across the eight hens that are kept by his children’s school as part of an “eco-school” idea. The school scheme works with the help of parents on a rota: when it’s your turn to look after the hens for a weekend, you get to keep the eggs.
After tasting the fresh eggs, Steve liked the idea of producing his own. He spent some timing researching the subject on the internet, and he bought a book about home poultry. His birthday happened at around that time, and a large parcel arrived, gift-wrapped for him by his family: it was a flat-pack hen kit. After an hour of fiddling with Allen keys and screwdrivers, it was ready: a little wooden shed with perches inside and a nest box at one end. The kit included a water drinker and a food-hopper. Steve added on a home-made hen run, made with timber and chicken-wire. He visited a local animal feed store, buying wood chippings for bedding, layers’ pellets to feed the birds, and some ground-up shells to aid their digestion. He was ready to get started.
He bought his hens from a local breeder, as “pre-point of lay pullets”. These are almost fully grown, at 16 weeks of age, but they don’t start laying till 20 weeks, so the idea was to give the birds a few weeks to settle into their new home before egg production started.
He brought his new hens home in cardboard boxes in the boot of his car, releasing them straight into the run. There was much clucking and strutting for the first few days, but the hens’ social structure soon settled down, and after a week, Steve felt they were ready to become true free-range birds. He opened the run, allowing them to explore his garden, a well fenced-in area of around a quarter of an acre.
A routine soon developed: the hens are released into the garden after breakfast, and they spend the day browsing around the garden. In the evening, at dusk, the hens seem to know that it’s bedtime: they go back into the henhouse by themselves, settling themselves onto their perches, so that Steve just has to shut the door to keep them secure. He’s never seen foxes in his neighbourhood, but all poultry owners need to take steps to protect their birds from this risk.
Steve’s neighbours are intrigued by his hens, and they have even told him that they enjoy hearing the occasional clucking noises that come across the garden fence. It would be different if he had a rooster, crowing at dawn, but as it is, Steve feels that neighbours would be far more likely to be irritated by a dog barking than his hens’ quiet vocalizations.
When I visited Steve, five weeks after the hens arrival, there was no sign of any eggs. Steve was beginning to wonder if he’d done something wrong. I checked out his set up, and it seemed ideal. My advice was simple: patience.
A week after my visit, I received an email from Steve. The first four eggs had just been laid: his egg production investment had started to pay dividends.
- Back-garden hens are increasingly popular
- There’s a start-up cost, but there’s a pay-back in the form of free-range eggs
- As long as you don’t get a rooster, hens can fit in well to a suburban environment