Keeping chickens in the garden

Forget chocolate Easter eggs – Tamsin Westhorpe encourage us to have a fresh egg a day. Follow her timely advice on keeping hens in the garden.

Hens make a useful addition to the garden. Image: Tamsin Westhorpe
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Having grown up on a farm where chickens roamed freely, I always thought that they were an easy animal to care for. That was until I bought my own little gaggle of girls to keep in my garden. As with keeping any animal there is more to it than meets the eye. However, the pleasures they bring are immeasurable and they bring gardeners plenty of benefits. They’ll devour your slugs and snails and hen droppings are certainly a healthy addition to the compost heap. In return for your love and attention they will provide you with your daily boiled egg (I like my egg runny with toast soldiers).

Free range

The dream is to have your feathered friends wandering freely around the garden. This is possible if you can accept that your seedlings will be in danger of being scratched up and in a small garden your lawn and borders will soon become compacted and exhausted. I also quickly discovered that hens become very friendly and it’s a job to stop them jumping on your patio furniture as you try and enjoy lunch. You might not mind another guest at the table, but I was surprised how many of my friends feared chickens!

Safe and sound

Eggs are a happy bonus! Image: Tamsin Westhorpe

It’s vital that you are home at dusk to put them away or they will be in grave danger of the fox. In a run with head height netting you’d think they’d be safe. However, I lost my hens to a fox who simply climbed over, so whether in a run or free range you must commit to locking them in their hen house every night. This can impact somewhat on your social life. The only way around this is to build a run with a strong netting roof. Another animal that hens attract are the rats – you have been warned!

If you’re new to the habits of hens then you’ll be amazed and shocked at how quickly they exhaust a run. It is for this reason that you ideally need two runs so one can rest and have a chance to regrow with weeds and grass. A bare run is no fun for chickens.

The right hen for you

If you’ve decided to join the fanatical army of hen keepers, then you’ll need to choose the right hen for you and your family. Don’t be swayed by exotic feathers and fancy markings as it is often the ordinary brown hen that makes the best companion. Different hen breeds have different temperaments. Invest in a good hen book and you’ll soon discover that some hens lay more than others, some are calmer and cope better with children and some produce lovely brown eggs.

As for cockerels you don’t have to have one. So many first-time hen keepers assume that you need a cockerel to have eggs, but you only need a cockerel if you want chicks. My advice would be to avoid a cockerel if you have a young family or live in a built-up area. I would always advise buying at least three hens as they do need companionship. Keeping one hen is cruel.

There is a lot more to looking after hens than just building a run. You need to be able to clip their wings to stop them flying away and be prepared to clean the hen house and monitor the hen’s health. However, they are by far the best pet I have had – they are calming, fun to watch and repay you with baskets of delicious eggs.

Top hen breeds for gardeners

  • Buff Orpington – If you want a showy bird that’s friendly then these golden beauties are for you. They’re docile, large, and impressive but they won’t lay as many eggs as less showy birds.
  • Golden Comet – A hardy hen that lays very well. They’re friendly and easy birds to keep. A good old-fashioned brown hen.
  • Rhode Island Red – Good layers and hardy birds. They are known to be bossy so avoid mixing them with smaller hens such as bantams.
  • Marans – Favoured for their brown eggs. Average layers. They are not as keen on being handled as some other birds but they’re black and grey speckled feathers make them an attractive prospect.
  • Bantam – There are many different types of bantams. Some have feathered legs, others have intricately marked feathers and for this reason they are showy birds. They produce smaller eggs but will add personality to your plot.
Tamsin Westhorpe

About Tamsin Westhorpe

Tamsin Westhorpe is well known as an editor, garden writer and lecturer. However, she prefers to be known as a gardener. She was previously Editor of The English Garden magazine and lecturer at Kingston Maurwood College in Dorset. Tamsin started her gardening career at the age of 16 working for her great uncle John Treasure of Burford House Gardens in Worcestershire. Alongside her freelance work and being a mother Tamsin runs Stockton Bury Gardens in Herefordshire with her uncles and is currently training to be an RHS judge.
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