Chickens in the garden

Originally we thought that more space was needed to keep chickens. Every chicken run that we had seen was an ugly building surrounded by a large patch of mud and an unattractive fence. A picture in a magazine of a very attractive hen house set us on a mission to figure out how to have chickens in a beautiful garden setting.

I did a lot of research on breeds. We settled on Pekin bantams because their feathery feet mean that they don't scratch up the garden as much as other breeds, they are very pretty and friendly, and they lay about 100 eggs each per year. It was really important to us that they got the chance to free-range in the garden: the chickens just love it, and watching them pottering around is strangely calming and mesmerising. Getting the girls made me, for the first time, simply sit in the garden and take it all in.
When I'm digging, the girls rush over and jump into the hole to clear out all the tasty worms. I find it best to start on another hole, and when they jump into that one I go back to the first to carry on. This can make planting a slow process. I could shut them in their run, but where would the fun be in that! They make little dust baths around the garden, but usually in out-of-the-way dry areas, such as the base of the apple tree, or underneath the stipa gigantea. They do eat some plants (they love creeping campanula) and will nibble the first tasty shoots of spring, but most plants cope without any problem. For those that need a bit of protection we use upturned empty hanging-baskets.

The hen house

We bought a two-story hen house to maximise space and placed it on concrete slabs so that there would be somewhere dry and protected for the chickens to shelter. Next time I will make sure that there is access under the house for cleaning purposes, because the current set-up involves quite a bit of crawling!

The chickens needed more ground space to potter and scratch, but we didn't want to lose part of the lawn. We hit on the idea of making a run around the base of a couple of shrubs that had proved impossible to underplant. We have a soak-away in the shape of a well, which the chickens had already been using to perch and shelter, so Pete enclosed the whole area in wire. This gives them lots of natural perches and places to dust-bathe. We have a flower bed around the run and it is a lovely feature in the garden. As a bonus I can sit at the kitchen table and watch the girls potter about.

I highly recommend investing in an automatic chicken door to avoid early starts in the summer to let them out (choose this first before your coop so that you get the right door design). If you are handy like Pete, you could make your own. It is solar powered and is programmed using a boiler timer. It even has an emergency cut-off switch if a chicken is in the way when the door closes!

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