Chickens & Bantams

“a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg”.

Samuel Butler

Chickens are a fun addition to any garden, but we tend to forget the genuine good work that they can do for our veg plots and borders, and are part of the armoury of a resilient life. 

As with keeping bees and honey, we tend to focus on the egg-laying capacity of domestic poultry, and while fresh eggs from hens that have enjoyed a varied diet and plenty of fresh air and sunshine are one of life’s simple and most delicious pleasures, your poultry’s contribution to a well-rounded garden system should not be underestimated. 

Hens can be very destructive, so it’s important to channel their ability to scratch and peck in a direction of our choosing. Keeping them either in a large pen with daily feedings of weeds, nettles, diggings and fruit/veg peelings will keep them happy and occupied but safe and protected. Free ranging is wonderful for them but they will wander, and get predated, and with lengthy annual restrictions due to Bird Flu, acclimatising your chooks to a rather more confined life than they would naturally have is not a problem as long as they are stimulated and have the opportunity to carry out their natural behaviours which, if you want the best from your garden will be a help rather than a hindrance. Keep all the arisings from weeding and pruning, as well as spent compost and lawnmowings. 

If you have a moveable coop and run then set them to work in different areas so that they can fertilise, scarify, and remove pests and weed seeds from ground that needs clearing before planting or after harvest. Put them in the greenhouse for a few hours between new plantings: “tin train” them (rattle corn in an old can) so they follow you to where they need to go.

Think about bedding too. Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen so if you bed them down with something like hemp or shavings this will produce a more balanced compost which can be mixed with regular garden compost and worm casts once it’s broken down (about 6 months) to make a nutritious mulch for your vegetables requiring a high fertility. 

Chickens are also intelligent company to have while you are out tending to the garden. They can recognise faces and have complex social relationships above and beyond the pecking order for which they are famous. Roosters will help keep the hens in check and also will look out for them and ensure they stay together in a flock. Chickens have the capacity for longstanding friendships as well as lifelong grudges, and quickly learn new tricks and habits (both good and bad!).

Feeding them a good quality layers pellet will ensure enough protein for egg-laying but the addition of lots of green stuff will brighten the yolks, and make the eggs more nutrient dense, and make sure the crop bacteria remain in a healthy balance – don’t feed kitchen scraps in quantity; it’s technically illegal anyway! Hens will eat 20-30% of greens as part of their diet so try and ensure they get this whenever they can. They will keep grass down by grazing although geese and ducks are the specialists at that. Ducks are better slug-clearers than hens but will quickly destroy any area of grass so need a larger roaming area than chickens.

In the workshop we will discuss the following:

Getting started

Fox-proof enclosures

Collecting and storing eggs

Increasing your flock with a broody hen

Common ailments and remedies

Plants that benefit poultry

There will also be the chance to handle the hens to get used to catching and holding them correctly.