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Posted by Phil Weymouth
Created 20th July 2007 Chickens & Ducks

Chicken Keeping - An Ultimate Beginners Guide

Chicken Keeping the Flyte so Fancy way

Maggie's Hen Houses with Brahmas

Chicken keeping is as easy as you want to make it. Chickens are outdoor birds, ancestrally jungle birds living in trees, and survive in all weathers very well, so we believe a simple common-sense approach is needed.

We have kept many breeds over our 30+ years of poultry keeping, including ex-battery hens, and they all have different traits but we have found that a realistic attitude is absolutely essential. Every experienced chicken keeper will have their own way of doing things and dispense their advice accordingly - just as we are doing here ... 

We must stress this is really only a basic guide to keeping poultry and there are many, many books on the market with far more comprehensive guidance than we can give here. You will find The Haynes Chicken Manual an excellent start-up book.

We do ask though that you do your research into the hobby of chicken keeping before embarking on it. These are birds that need care and attention and, as with any other animals, this is a 'hobby' that should not be embarked upon just on a whim.

FSF Tip: Please check the deeds/covenants of your property to make sure you are allowed to keep poultry, in most cases you are. We also advise to just ask the neighbours if they mind as some do have strong objections to being next door to chickens.

Your hens have three basic needs: 
1. Secure, clean housing 
2. Space 
3. Food and water

With that, they will continue to produce eggs almost every day and provide hours of endless entertainment (and occasional frustration if you value your flower beds). 

Houses for Chickens

Dorset Ranger Chicken Coop

Good housing is absolutely essential to keeping your hens secure and healthy. The hen house you choose should be substantial enough to withstand all weathers and, particularly, should protect them against predators. Preferably choose one where the base/floor does not sit directly on the ground as this can lead to damp, cold conditions inside the house. This will be not only unhealthy for the hens but also a wonderful place for rats and mice to make their homes and live undisturbed.

How to choose the right size ... The hen house should be considered as an investment that will protect your birds and make your life easy. Convention says you should allow 1 sq ft of house floor area per bird in a house and it should have a large access door for you to be able to reach inside to clean it. 

Nest Boxes & Perches in Chicken Houses ... The Nest Boxes should be low down and in the darkest place of the hen house so that the hens can lay in privacy and undisturbed. Perches should be higher than the nestbox to prevent the birds from sleeping in it, and they should be removable for cleaning. The ideal perch is approx. 2 inches square and you should allow at least 7 - 8in of perch space per bird. Good ventilation is also important to prevent respiratory diseases. Take a look at our Maggie's Henhouses for example.

How to protect your chickens from foxes ...  To keep the hens safe from foxes, badgers, mink or any other predator, a secure run area should be a consideration. This can be either a wired run attached to the house, a dedicated fenced run area with the house inside or an electric poultry net that will keep them secure and give them plenty of space. We can certainly recommend Electric Poultry Netting (see our Electric Fencing for Chickens) as a solution to security as we have used it successfully for many years. A large non-electrified fence needs to be dug in at the base and at least 6ft tall, Electric Poultry Netting is about 3ft 6in tall and is brilliant - we swear by it - no digging it in (a fox cannot dig under it without getting a shock) and it doesn't look like a prison camp, it can be moved when necessary and you can make the pen any shape you want.

How to site your chicken house ...  You should consider, when choosing a site for the house, how to offer some natural protection for the hens from the sun, wind and rain. A good idea is to plant small trees in the pen to provide some shade (not bushes as they may be encouraged to lay under them) or place the house so they can shelter in the lee. For the very worst of the cold wintery weather, it may be an idea to make a sheltered place for them to keep out of the wind.

Cleaning the chicken house ...  Keeping the house clean need not be a chore with the right house. We recommend using newspaper, old feed sacks or tarpaulin on the base of the house and then a light layer of Hemp Bedding to absorb moisture. This will then be easy to scoop out and replace regularly. Weekly cleaning is preferable depending on the number of hens and the weather, and once a month clean with disinfectant and scrape the floors and perches clean. 

Poultry Bedding ...  Nice thick layers of HempBed-E Bedding (or wood shavings) are good for the nest boxes and should be kept clean for clean eggs (not hay as it will encourage mould spores and lead to disease, or straw which can become smelly and a harbour for mites). We always sprinkle Louse Powder and/or Diatomaceous Earth Powder into the nest box bedding to make sure the birds get a regular covering to prevent lice.

Care of your chicken house ...  We would always recommend timber housing and there are very good reasons for this. Timber will move and breathe with the seasons and therefore provide a healthy atmosphere for the birds with the correct ventilation. It will not be damp with condensation every time the temperature changes and will not suffocate them in summer or freeze them in winter. To keep your timber house in good repair we recommend annual treatment with Protek Eco-Shield Waterproofing for Timber.

How to prevent Red Mite problems ...  With good hygiene practice, there is no reason why timber houses should be more susceptible to mites and disease than any other type. There are plenty of purpose made products on the market for cleaning to make sure your house won't breed diseases e.g. Poultry Shield SanitiserStalosan F Disinfectant. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly or wear gloves when cleaning the house and handling the birds to treat them.

Breeds to choose

Flock of mixed chickens

This is very much a personal choice and there are several considerations. Firstly, do talk to a local breeder or two, they are the experts on the breeds and their temperaments, and can advise on the suitability for you. Find local ones by word of mouth or Breeders Directories in magazines like 'Country Smallholding', 'Smallholder' or 'Practical Poultry'.

Buying as new Chicken Keepers ...  We would advise new chickens keepers against buying hens from auctions, through newspaper ads or 'rescue' hens, you really don't know what you are getting or whether they are vaccinated and could quite easily be introducing disease and lots of trouble to the henhouse. Ex-Battery/Cage Rescue hens are best obtained from reputable sources such as British Hen Welfare Trust or Homes4hens Rescue for example, not the 'battery farm down the road'. The BHWT will give you lots of help and advice to make the right decision for you and they do a fantastic job at saving thousands of hens every year to give them a better life. Purchasing from a breeder should mean they are vaccinated against coccidiosis (a type of intestinal bacteria), Newcastle Disease and Mareks Disease at least.

What type of chickens to buy ...  You need to decide whether your birds are going to be functional and just for eggs, or kept for the table, or whether they are going to be more like pets for yourself or the children. There is a large selection of breeds to choose from and we have, over the years, kept many different types - some we would recommend and some we would not!

Which breeds if starting out ...  Good starter birds are often hybrids like Black Rocks and Bluebells; or Pure Breeds like Light Sussex. Orpingtons are superb with children, Wyandottes are beautiful, Marans lay really dark brown eggs, Welsummers have a lovely temperament, and so on ...... Hybrids will lay more eggs and cost less, Pure breeds are often harder to come by and are kept more for love and beauty than egg-laying.  We once had a Yokohama Cockerel, a magnificent bird. Our daughter hatched him in the incubator and was very proud. However, as he became mature, he became more and more aggressive and when he started attacking our customers as they arrived here at the shop I'm afraid he had to go, a sympathetic friend took him in. Therefore, breed selection takes a lot of consideration. A cockerel is not necessary with a flock unless you are going to breed from them. They are beautiful birds but they are noisy (and not just first thing in the morning).

Don't buy chickens on impulse ...  Having decided on your birds, please make sure everything is in place before you collect them. We often get desperate calls because the birds have arrived, the house is still a week away and there is no food to give them. Although we can move mountains for you, magic is a little more difficult. Check on delivery times of the house before ordering the birds so that you don't end up keeping the hens in the bathroom (as one customer did), or better still make sure the henhouse and equipment are installed before ordering the hens. We can usually get our in-stock houses to most parts of the country within a few days and if not in stock then within two weeks.

Putting your new birds into the Chicken House ...  New chickens should be placed inside the house and kept in until the next morning, then released into a run so that they will be 'homed' to the house and therefore go back to perch at night. You may have to 'shoo' them out of the house at first but they will soon get the hang of it. Once 'homed' you can let them free-range and they will always come home at dusk. Young birds and rescue chickens may take some time to get used to perching and you can help them with this. Once they are inside the house at night, carefully lift the bird (one hand each side to hold their wings down) and place them gently on the perch. As they keep waking up on the perch in the morning they ought to get the hang of it eventually.

Note: You are only required to register your hens with the Government's Department for the Environment DEFRA if you have 50+ birds (of any kind).

Food and Water

Brahma Hens

Chickens need to have access to a purpose-made feed like layers pellets all the time in a feeder. Feeders and Drinkers do not need to be placed in the house unless the birds have to be confined for some reason. The birds will contaminate them and/or probably knock them over. They do not feed or drink once they have gone to bed i.e it's dark. 

Poultry Feeders come in many sizes and are usually either plastic or galvanised steel. Plastic feeders are much cheaper and quite easy to clean but will need protection from the rain so they need to be sited with some shelter unless they have a raincover. Galvanised feeders usually have a rain cover, are much more sturdy and less likely to be knocked over. With either, they should be slightly raised off the ground to keep the food clean.

Select one suitable for the number of birds you have or may eventually have. One hen will eat 150g-180g of Poultry Layers Pellets per day (as a rough guide 3kg of pellets would last 5 hens for 3 days) and they don't tend to overeat. Don't be tempted to get a large feeder to last longer as the food will go stale and mouldy after a few days. 

Point-of-lay birds (18-20 weeks old) should have been started on a mix of growers pellets and layers pellets before you get them, so you can continue with just layers pellets and they will be fine. Poultry pellets will contain all the proteins and vitamins that they need to produce nice yellow-yolked eggs and to keep them healthy.

As a treat give them some mixed corn, a small handful scattered in the afternoon and they will enjoy that enormously. We use a Smallholder Super Mixed Corn that contains corn, split peas plus oyster shell and grit, and find they love it. Free-Range birds should be able to get all the grit and calcium they need naturally but access to shell is always a good idea to build strong eggshells. They need grit to help break the feed up in their crops, it acts as their teeth. 

If the hens are confined to a run then you should give them grit and oyster shell as well if not already in their feeds. It is also nice to give them some greens when confined such as cabbage or cauliflower leaves. There are also many supplements available for a boost when needed e.g. during the moult or in winter perhaps. Suggestions are Poultry Spice or Life Guard Tonic.

Fresh, clean water should always be accessible so select a Poultry Drinker large enough to cope with a couple of days but do not leave it a week or so as the water will get contaminated or have a build-up of algae. Plastic Fountain drinkers are most popular and often have built-in legs but can be a bit fiddly to fill and liable to algae build up. Galvanised drinkers will last for many years, are heavier, are much easier to fill and will keep the water fresher.

Drinkers are best raised off the ground to keep the water clean. As a rough guide one hen will consume 250ml of water per day, perhaps more in hot weather. So a 4-litre drinker would last 6 hens about 2 days.

Daily and Monthly Routines

Poultry Supplies

Firstly, open the pop-hole to let the chickens out as soon after dawn as you can (even if it means doing it in your dressing gown!), as they will be ready for a drink and some breakfast. If any of them are not full of life and leaping out of the house then check for ill health at the earliest opportunity. Check they have food and water, collect any eggs. If the nest boxes are dirty do a quick clean and refresh bedding.

In the afternoon scatter some corn and keep an eye on them to check for anything unusual such as bullying, feather pecking, itching or signs of ill health. Collect any eggs. At dusk go and close the pop-hole making sure they are all inside and safe. If it is not always possible for you to open and close the pop-hole door at dawn and dusk, we have a range of Automatic Pop-hole Door Openers that you may wish to consider.

Weekly and monthly cleaning ...  Clean out the bedding from under the perches where the droppings accumulate and put it on the compost (don't let the birds have access to the compost though).

We recommend a chopped hemp bedding like HempBed-E Poultry Bedding.  Add a fresh layer of bedding on the floor and completely refresh it in the nest boxes. At least once a month give the house a really good clean. Take out the perches and scrape clean, sweep out and scrape the inside of the house.

Clean all parts with a disinfectant cleaner. Dust the nest box bedding with Louse Powder and, if you want, scatter the inside of the house with either Diatomaceous Earth Powder or Stalosan Disinfectant Powder. All available in our Poultry Supplies section.

Moulting and the Seasons

Moulting cockerel

Mid to late summer is the moulting season. This is a natural loss of feathers and new ones will replace them. Different breeds will vary as to how noticeable it is but there will be a reduction in egg-laying during this time. The moult can last in some breeds up to 3 months but the average is probably one month. The birds will be particularly under the weather at this time and may need a poultry tonic to help them through.

During winter they will usually stop laying altogether and this should be looked upon as a rest period. However, if you need the eggs and are perhaps selling them, putting a light in the henhouse to simulate longer days can prolong the laying period. 

As winter approaches check the house for movements in the timber that may lead to leaks. Fill any holes/splits with silicone or Timber Creepy Crackseal and it may be advisable to give a timber roof a good coat of waterproof treatment to help keep it watertight.

During winter, especially if it is really cold, make sure you think about the number of hens in the house and how they can keep warm at night, they need each others body heat to keep warm whilst they are on the perches. Too few hens in a large house can freeze to death as, equally, too many hens in a small house can suffocate in summer.

Make sure ventilation is open and clear in summer and adjusted accordingly in winter with plenty of bedding in the house. We don't advise adding heat lamps to hen houses as large temperature changes can send the birds into shock e.g. warm inside the henhouse but freezing cold outside.

Always check their water frequently in freezing temperatures and this may be a case for putting water and food inside the house during the day. Birds can suffer from frostbite so they must be encouraged to keep out of the coldest winds.

Outside shelter from the wind and rain would be a good idea as they tend not to think of going into the house to keep warm. Birds with large combs and wattles are particularly susceptible to frostbite so rub a little Vaseline on to protect them. Poultry can cope with freezing temperatures and snow, it is the wind-chill they find more difficult so do need protection. Adding heat to a henhouse in winter is a bad idea, by the way, the shock of moving from warmth to freezing can kill vulnerable birds.

Pests and Problems

Scaly Leg Mite in Poultry

Just to mention a few common problems here, but you can have a lifetime of hen keeping and never come across most of them. Our suggestions and advice are only from experience and should not replace the advice of a vet who is qualified to deal with and treat poultry problems.

A few inexpensive products can be kept on hand as a Chicken First Aid kit. We suggest a veterinary wound powder and/or Iodine Spray, louse powder, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), Diatomaceous Earth Powder and Verm-X Poultry Pellets. Take a look in our Mites & Lice section and Chicken First Aid sections for these items. 

Another consideration is the possibility that your chickens will attract vermin because of the food readily available in the chicken run so keep watch for tell-tale signs and deal with them speedily. Again many products are available to deal with this, see our Poultry Predators page for more information.

A poorly looking hen should be separated from the flock immediately, in case of infection, but kept within sight of the main flock so that she can be returned and not attacked as a newcomer. If she does not make any improvement within 48 hours or, if you suspect an infection, veterinary advice should be sought.

Any wounds should be cleaned and treated with veterinary wound powder or antiseptic spray; Gentian Violet or Iodine Spray are good old-fashioned products. Wounds should be treated immediately and you should watch to make sure the other hens do not attack a wounded bird; if they do she should be separated until recovered. 

Feather pecking by aggressive birds can occur in any flock and the victim should be treated with antiseptic and removed for a while. If removal is not an option then spray with an Anti-Pecking Spray or gentian violet to deter the aggressor and treat the wounds. This should break the habit and allow recovery. Boredom is most often the cause of feather pecking so hang up some greens or a Pecking Block (available in our Poultry Feeds & Treats section). They may be pecking each other due to lack of proteins in their diet too (feathers are pure protein) so a change of feed to a higher protein one may be an idea. See our Feather Pecking page.

Lice are the most common problem you may come across. They are small greyish insects found in clusters at the base of the feathers or crawling on the hen. Most hens get these at some point in their lives and a simple dusting of louse powder or Diatomaceous Earth powder will help, and then repeat in seven days. A regular dusting, whether you think they have lice or not, will not hurt. Northern Fowl mite is a brown mite easily visible around the head and is particularly irritating and stressful for the birds. It lives on the birds and should be treated with an anti-mite product such as Battles Red Mite Powder.

Red Mite, however, can kill the birds if not treated and as our summers become warmer and wetter this is becoming more common. These little devils live in the crevices of the henhouse, not on the bird, and then come out to feed on the hens whilst they perch at night. Always keep an eye out for them. If the hens are suddenly very reluctant to go to bed at night and are standing outside the house in the dark, this may be a sign.

If you find the house is infested treat it immediately with a product like Poultry Shield Liquid which acts as a detergent, this will help to eradicate the mite and their eggs. Clean the house out thoroughly; really drench the house with Poultry Shield especially in the perch sockets (their favourite place), in all the crevices and cracks between the timbers. Put fresh bedding in, sprinkle generously with MitePro Powder the hens can go back immediately but treat again in 6-7 days. There are much stronger chemical solutions in aerosols available e.g. Ardap Aerosol or Total Mite Kill Aerosol.

Scaly-leg (see image) is perhaps less common but is very irritating to the birds. Microscopic mites burrow under the scales of the legs and create white crusts and raise the scales. Keeping them on fouled ground can sometimes cause this, they should be moved to fresh ground and clean the house thoroughly. Treat the ground with a Ground Sanitising Powder and treat the birds with a Scaly Leg product like Net-Tex Scaly Leg Spray. If there are crusts on their legs you could coat them with petroleum jelly (Vaseline), which should suffocate the mite and ease the itching. This will take time and maybe a week or so before any change can be seen.

Internal worms can often be a problem for poultry especially if they don't have fresh ground regularly as the area can become infected with parasites and worms. Free-ranging is better for the hens from this point of view but then they may pick up snails that can also host parasites. Worms can kill a bird if left untreated, especially Gapeworm. Tell-tale signs of internal parasites are very messy bottoms and pale combs and wattles, and with Gapeworm they will be continually stretching their necks and gasping (as if trying to take a breath).

There are some herbal products on the market like Verm-X Herbal Pellets and Net-Tex Gut Conditioner either of which you can use regularly as a preventative but this does not prevent all kinds of worms. If you suspect a bad infestation of intestinal worms, ask your vet for Flubenvet which is very effective, and also a licensed anthelmintic for poultry worms.

Bacterial or viral infections are for the diagnosis of a vet and can be treated with antibiotics. If this is suspected then isolate the bird immediately and contact a vet with experience of poultry - not all town-based vets have experience in this field so perhaps call first to check.

My goodness, this is becoming a long page! I could ramble on further, but there are so many good poultry books to read. We recommend The Haynes Chicken Manual.

Basic Poultry Keeping comes down to a strong, secure house, plenty of space; keeping everything clean, including the ground they are on and, with good food and clean water, you will then have happy hens. But we ask again that you do not approach this without research or on a whim - please!

Happy Chicken Keeping!

Beginners Chicken Keeping is ©Flyte so Fancy 2007. Updated 2021. Author: Anne Weymouth. Reproduction of part or all of this text is only possible with the express permission of Flyte so Fancy Ltd

Download Chicken Health Checklist

Download Chicken Health Checklist.