With recent events unfolding in the new costs of food, many are choosing to grow their own. While most allotments do not allow for livestock, some do, and even with a small courtyard backyard, some homeowners are looking into having hens (or layers) for fresh eggs.
There are some wonderful places to get started with hen keeping – Omlet is a company that specializes in hens and has a wonderful online community. People can order a plastic henhouse and run (Eggloo) complete with two chickens and it can be delivered straight to the new owners’ door.
Another avenue to go is with rescue hens – ex-battery farmed hens used to be re-homed instead of being put to slaughter and they could continue to be productive for some time once they resettled. Battery farming is now illegal in the UK and EU, but large egg-producing chicken farms will still need to shed their chickens once they stop producing a certain number of eggs.
However, once a hen keeper is bitten by the hen bug (and we’re not talking about red mites), he or she will inevitably be looking out for reputable chicken breeders to add to their flock.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the different chicken breeds – each will offer something different.
Things to look out for in breeds
- Temperament: Does the chicken breed mix well with others? Are they flighty, docile, or need extra attention?
- Egg productivity: Some hybrid breeds produce more eggs over a short period, while others will be on a ‘slow burn’ and lay less but over a longer period.
- Egg size and color: Some hen keepers pride themselves on having matching eggs in size and color, while others love to mix them up. A speckled hen will produce lovely dark, speckled eggs, but they will be very small, while a warren will produce large eggs that sometimes don’t even fit into the egg box!
- Chicken size: There are lightweight and heavyweight chickens, miniature hens called bantams. Each hen house will offer a different maximum number of hens, but keepers must keep in mind that a house that offers room for four hens, will often fit six bantams (always check with the hatchery).
Once hen keepers have narrowed down what they are after, it comes down to finding a reputable breeder or supplier. Many small farms offer POL (point-of-lay) hens, which means that the hen is within a week or so of laying. However, many inscrutable breeders will claim to be selling POL chickens all the while, being several weeks, to even months away from being point of lay (age does not infer when a hen will lay, but other signs that the breeder should know).
There is also the issue of what breeds local sellers have available. If the hen keeper has his or her heart set on a Cream Legbar and only can find Wyndacottes, then he or she must decide which is more important: having a local breeder or scouring the countryside for the right breed. Also, it’s important to know what the breed being bought should look like. Many breeders claim to have a pure-bred bird, when in fact it may be something completely different. If there is a specialist group or trust for the breed, always seek their advice first.
Keeping an eye out for the best hens
- Visit the breeder first before making a decision
- Research the breeder before visiting – do they have a website that lists the breeds they have?
- Ask questions – how many weeks old are the hens, and are they truly point of lay?
- If possible, get references. If there are local hen keepers in the area, ask around to whom is the best.
- Examine the birds (never introduce just one into a flock) – do they show any signs of disease? They should not look sleepy, have crusty eyes, mites around the vent, sneezing, etc.
- Make sure the markings match the breed being sold – if the hen is supposed to be buff and you’re getting white, there is obviously a problem, but unless the keeper intends on breeding or showing the birds, there is no need to have a show-quality specimen.
All in all, chose carefully and with instinct as well as check for any obvious signs of trouble and the hens will produce beautiful eggs and be full of character. However, it may take a few weeks to integrate the new hens into the flock and expect some bullying and pecking until the new pecking order is found.