Anna and I have something of a reputation (with her work colleagues, anyway) of being a bit "Tom and Barbara" from "The Good Life".
I can only presume that this came about because we used to grow our own potatoes (mainly) for a couple of years (my allotment-loving brother-in-law would disagree with me when I say - that was never worth the effort to me) and we’ve kept hens for years now – so provide her colleagues (mainly) with lots of nice eggs.
It might be also fair to say that I’ve half-avoided the rat race all my life and would dearly love to escape it (and the UK) properly one day (dreamed of it, most of my favourite books are tales of people who’ve done just that), but Anna’s colleagues don’t know me that well – so our Good Life reputation must be built primarily on our hen-keeping, I’d speculate.
But is keeping hens all pottering with a wicker basket through the daisies in the sun, up to the coop, to collect the day’s eggs? Or is it something else?
This will be a relatively short blog post today, a list - entitled:
8 reasons why you don’t really want to keep hens after all.
Or “The Good life”?
So…. Here we go then.
BEFORE you keep hens – what you will NEED is listed below – put a cross against any of the below and you may well decide that keeping hens isn’t “The Good Life” after all…
1 – Plurality & therefore space. You could happily keep one dog. Or one cat. But rather like goats (which are social animals and must be kept in numbers of at LEAST two). Hens need numbers to thrive. We have (had – I’ll come on to that later) four – that’s a good number to keep. Two is not really enough to form a healthy social structure or pecking order. You won’t have space for a dozen (unless you have a garden the size of a football field), but bank on keeping at least three – and whilst remembering that – apply that number to the points below. Times them all by three. Or four.
2 – Money. Keeping poultry isn’t expensive, not like cats and dogs again (with constant vets bills etc), but you’ll need to provide them with a half decent coop and run (not an Eglu, which seems to be all the rage these days – they’re awful things and DON’T give hens what they need to thrive). A nice-size run where they feel safe, sheltered and can jump and perch (get some height – very often overlooked by new hen owners). A stout coop in which they can lay and sleep. A coop that can be taken apart and cleaned regularly and a coop which is weather-proof.
Then you’ll need regular money for good food (my healthy girls eat about 1Kg of organic pellets each a week. Not a lot you think? Times that by four and you’ll be buying a 20KG sack of pellets every 5 weeks.
Finally you’ll need money for (lots and lots of) fencing, dietary supplements (lumpy apple cider vinegar to keep them peppy, poultry spice to keep them interested in their pellets, grit to aid their digestion and calcium intake). purple gentian spray for wound protection, vice to prevent hens pecking each other to death, detergents, insecticides (we use diatomaceous earth) and stout brushes to clean their home regularly, sacks of bedding for their coop (we use eucalyptus-soaked hemp – no sniggering at the back), hopper(s) for their food and drinkers for their water.
3 – Time. Again, hens aren’t like dogs (which are pathetic things in my mind – beasts that will simply pine and eventually die if not given constant loving-attention by their master(s)) but they do appreciate human company – certainly enough to be able to form healthy keeper-hen relationships with them. You must be top of their pecking order. Keep hens without a cockerel and you will effectively BE their cockerel – these hens will often crouch when you approach – effectively taking up the “mating position” as that’s what they are effectively doing – submitting to being mated – by YOU. Of course you won’t mate them – but they don’t know any different – that’s all they know instinctively.
You can put cats and dogs in kennels when you jet off to the Med for your two weeks in the sun – but there are no kennels for hens. Add to that the fact that whilst many kindly friends and neighbours will pop ‘round to feed your cat (if it’s not at a kennel) whilst you’re sitting at a Greek Taverna for a fortnight, those same people often baulk at sorting out your hens as well. That’s often a step too far for pet-sitters. So you’ll need to arrange something or think of something before you buy your pullets.
You’ll need to have time to regularly clean your girls’ coop and run, deep clean it often (as I did yesterday), time to clean their feeder(s) and drinkers and time to provide them clean, fresh, cool water every day or time to thaw their frozen drinkers in the winter.
Hens get up at dawn and if you’re keeping free range birds, they’ll loudly shout to be let out. You’ll need to be a lark then, rather than an owl. In the summer, right now in fact, I let my girls out at 5am. EVERY DAY. Weekend included.
4 – Wildlife in your garden. Keeping free-range hens (I’m talking proper free-range hens here, not just birds that have access to an enclosed run only) will decimate wildlife in your garden. Hens eat everything. Frogs. Newts. Mice. Voles. Dragonflies. Moths. Beetles.
5 – Your treasured plants. They’ll often be quickly destroyed by your “Good Life” hens. You’ll need to fence off pretty-well anything you want to grow for food. And much of what you’ll want to grow for looks or insects too – from seedlings (sunflowers, foxgloves, valerian etc) to pretty stout plants, which they’ll trample over and flatten whilst your back’s turned.
6 – The Mess. Anna and I are lucky in that we don’t EVER want to manage what I call a “Telly Tubby garden” – manicured lawns, perfect borders, that sort of stuff. If you want your garden to look pretty – don’t get hens. They’ll turn clay-soil lawns into muddy swamps in the winter with their scrabbling, they’ll construct dust bathing depressions into your borders and shady parts of the garden, they’ll flatten long grass, spread leaf piles everywhere and finally deposit large quantities of crap wherever they go.
Hen crap is pretty strong stuff. Sure, it’s not quite dog or cat shit in terms of sheer disgustingness, but it is stronger than both – it BURNS plants. Then there is there number two number two (as I call it), the incredibly pungent caecal sack deposits – orange/brown coloured foul-smelling viscous liquid. As soon as that’s produced – literally the second it’s produced, you know about it – from yards away. Again, hen crap isn’t as disgusting as duck crap, Duck crap is all mess and liquid whereas the majority of hen crap is solid – but mess there is when you keep hens. Lots of it.
7 – The behaviour. Some of Anna’s colleagues get all “gooey” when they hear about one of our girls getting broody. Maybe it’s the word “broody”? Who knows? Let me explain what a broody hen does. And why it’s a right royal pain in the jacksie and not good news at all.
Occasionally (more so with pure breeds than hybrids) a hen will get “broody”. This means she stops laying eggs, and sits on her own and the other’s eggs (or no eggs at all in our case at present, the urge is that strong in one of our girls), for days and days.
She won’t eat properly, nor drink. She’ll vigorously defend her nest from other hens, denying them their normal egg-laying spot, and react aggressively to her owners –drawing blood from hands if allowed. She’ll lose condition. Quickly. In order to deal with this, you’ll need to get her OFF the nest (tread carefully – wear heavy gloves!), give her extended cold baths to cool her down (easier said than done with a big angry bird) and as I’ve had to do (and again now, as I type) deny her access to the nesting coop by segregating her from the rest of the flock. So you’ll need more fencing, another feeder and drinker, more shelter just for this daft, angry bird who thinks she’s been mated and her eggs (or now eggs!) will hatch if she sits on them for long enough. Cute? No. Not in the slightest. I spent 5 days a few weeks ago bathing a broody hen and segregating her in a “broody enclosure” (which took some time to construct). I’m having to do the same now – something I don’t appreciate.
Pecking order. All flocks, small or large will form pecking orders – and do so quickly. You’ll have to get used to one girl being constantly picked on by the “bully”. It isn’t nice to see – but it IS quite natural.
8 - The blood, guts and eventual death. Modern hens, certainly hybrids like ours our bred to within an inch of their lives. They’re pretty hardy but they’re bred to be egg-laying machines and that’s about that. An egg a day for a year or two. This isn’t natural at all. Nor “The Good Life”. It causes all manner of problems – prolapses, eggs being laid or broken internally, shell-glands malfunctioning – a huge physical toll on these birds is the result. Of our eight or so hens we’ve kept over the years, only two have been completely healthy – the rest have had all manner of problems as they’ve aged. I’ve witnessed huge prolapses, severe frost bite, torn wattles, lots of blood, girls eating each other (once they see red they can’t help themselves – and the horrible thing is the girl being eaten appears to almost “accept it”). I’ve had the terrible sadness of finding one of our girls running around the garden in circles, bumping into things, completely blinded by a fatal stroke and making such pitiful, terrified screaming.
The two champion girls I’ve had (three I suppose) have given me great relief from what has sometimes appeared to be a constant onslaught of blood and guts – of distress, pain and eventual death from our hens. Of course it isn't constant - it just occasionally feels like that.
Now hen-keepers reading this might say well I’ve never seen any of that – it must be YOU (me) that’s doing something wrong. I’d respond in the following way – either you haven’t been keeping hens long enough, or you haven’t been keeping hybrids or you’re just NOT WATCHING your hens.
Then of course there’s the eventual death. You’d take your cat or dog to the vets to be put down wouldn’t you? Or treated for an injury or illness. You’d be charged a couple of hundred pounds or more for the lethal injection and cremation with a cat or a dog – and you’d be charged the same for a hen. Vets don’t tend to treat hens’ illnesses or injuries though – it just isn’t as cost effective to the average hen owner (farmers) as treating a single dog. The best way to treat an ill hen – and the cheapest, is to cull it as humanely as possible. EVERY time.
But. Could YOU do that? You will have named your girls of course. Could you quickly break one of your chooks necks to minimize her suffering? Would you know how? You would need to be able to, or I suppose, drive her to a willing vets, who will do it for you – but you’ll pay through the nose for that and driving a terrified hen in pain to a vets to die is hardly minimizing her suffering is it?
Finally, there’s the disposal aspect of culling one of your birds. DEFRA still have hens down as livestock (not pet), so you’ll have to abide by their "fallen stock" rules.
I think that had better be that for now, grapple fans – as I see my segregated broody girl is already causing havoc in the borders (I’ve run out of fencing and posts so had to risk a bit of damage to my plants).
If I can think of anything else to say on the subject, I’ll add to this post accordingly.
Before I disappear, if the eight points above have made you think, Christ, sod all that, we’ll not keep hens after all, then my job here is done. Keeping hens (like any animals) is a big responsibility – and if you’re not up to the job, you shouldn’t be doing the job.
So why does anyone keep hens? Why do Anna and I keep hens?
Ahhh… that’s another blog.
Basically…. They’re WORTH IT. Definitely.
But right now, struggling with another aggressive, angry, arsey, broody hen, if you were to compare hen-keeping to “The Good Life”, I’d suggest you weren’t even close!