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What to Consider
IN considering your choice of species and systems of management, you need first to be clear about your aims. You may have had a long-time ambition to keep a certain breed of chicken or bantam, in which case your choice is a simple one and the only problem will be finding out where to obtain some stock.
If you just want good egg layers then you might find all you need in the 'classified section' of your local paper but why not consider a pure breed - after all, they cost the same to keep as a commercially bred bird. Furthermore, with standardized breeds you will know beforehand of their likely characteristics and be able to choose a type that fits in with your location and lifestyle.
Profit or Self-Sufficiency Are you interested in profit or self-sufficiency, or do you only want to keep poultry for the pure pleasure of doing so? How much time and space have you at your disposal - little of either will not necessarily preclude you from keeping a small pen of bantams, but it will certainly remove large, feather-legged and potentially more demanding varieties from the equation.
The theory of free-range poultry is wonderful but the practice is not always quite so simple. Whilst the ideal is to have poultry running around the back door, picking at scraps and living a contented life, in reality, things could be very different.
In the garden, free-ranging poultry will eradicate insect pests and slugs, but some of their habits may be unwelcome to an enthusiastic gardener. Chickens and bantams love nothing more than a good dust bath which helps rid them of parasites: unfortunately, a well-prepared seedbed is considered by them to be an ideal place for dusting and the bark mulch carefully placed around the roses is, to their mind, perfect scratching heaven.
Confinement or Freedom?
Even though you might not like the idea of confining your poultry to a pen, it is worth it for piece of mind - they don't need to spend all their day in there, but keeping chickens and bantams confined for the first half of the day is not a bad idea, as mornings are when the majority of eggs are laid and temporary incarceration will prevent them from wandering off and laying in places other than the nest boxes. A well-constructed run protects your birds from the unwanted attention of the neighbour's dog and also from any predators when you are away from home.
How much pen space is needed is likely to depend on whether your chickens can be given free range, but generally, a pen should be as big as practicable. In the interests of hygiene, two runs could be advantageous: one in use; the other 'resting' - this would, of course, double the area needed.
For just a few birds, a movable combined house and run is probably your best option, but have you sufficient space to keep moving it onto fresh ground before the run area becomes a mud-bath? This is particularly important during the wet winter months.
And what about other forms of housing?
Purpose built poultry sheds, fold units and fancy aviary-type constructions are easily obtainable, but they cost money, sometimes quite a lot of money.
Existing outbuildings are a possibility and the most suitable can be easily converted into poultry accommodation. It needs to be light, airy, well ventilated and fox-proof. A coat of paint on the interior walls will reflect any available daylight and it's surprising how much extra light is gained by the simple expedient of brushing away generations of cobwebs and washing the windows. The door should open and close easily, as it will be necessary to use it several times a day and there is nothing worse than dragging a heavy lump of wood half hanging from its hinges, backwards and forwards in an effort to gain access. A shed 1.5 x 2m (5 x 7ft) is adequate for about six large hens and up to twelve if there is a decent sized run attached.
Although chickens and bantams do not need a lot of time spent on them, they do appreciate a routine when it comes to letting them out of the house and at feeding times. A regular daily pattern is important and it is vital that you consider what seems to be the relatively simple task of shutting them up and letting them out.
In the winter months many people leave for work in the dark and therefore, before the birds come down off the roost: will anyone be at home to let them out once daybreak comes and if so, can you rely on them not to forget this simple chore? In the summer there may be problems at the other end of the day. Surrounded by a secure pen this might not be a problem, but if free range, there is a very strong possibility of them being taken by a fox or other nocturnal predator if the pop-hole is left open all night.
Ideally, they should be fed little and often. In a busy household, however, this is not always practical, so a morning and evening feed is the best that can be hoped for. Other parts of the daily routine may include scraping last night's faeces from the 'droppings' board, which is often positioned under the perches, checking that no eggs have been broken in the nest box and changing the damp litter around any internal drinking vessels. In the winter, drinkers will need emptying in the evening and filling in the morning as, although it might add a minute or two to the daily routine, it is preferable to trying to de-ice one that has frozen solid during the night.
Although none of these chores take too long, there is no point in choosing to keep chickens if you cannot spend some time watching and enjoying their antics. In addition to being a therapeutic relaxation at the end of a busy day, some time spent leaning on the gate is essential in order to keep a check on their well-being.
What happens when you are away?
A small flock of birds is not likely to cause too great a problem when you go away, but several different breeding pens, incubators and rearing cages are time-consuming and it is probably too great a responsibility to expect a neighbour or family friend to keep an eye on things. If you only ever have an annual holiday, this can coincide with the least busy time in your particular poultry year, but if you are regularly away, then the size and demands of your flock should reflect this.
You should bear in mind the logistics of asking other for people's assistance. If you live amongst like-minded neighbours, it is not too onerous a task for one of them to pop round morning and night, but it is not so simple if you live down a lonely track out in the country, in which case, you will probably need to ask someone to stay in your house whilst you are away.
Plan the pen and poultry shed layout with others in mind - you might not mind a gate that falls off its hinges and traps your ankle every time you go through it, but you can be sure that an outside helper will be a little less enthusiastic the next time they are asked to help.
Consider setting up an automatic watering system: there are several on the market that are cheap, easy to install and will save both you and your friends some time. If you are of a creative nature, it is an easy matter to design an automated pop-hole that raises and lowers by the use of a small motor and a timer but if you do, you will still need someone to check that the system hasn't failed and the birds have been locked in all day or, worse still, locked out at night.
The initial costs will be those of housing, wire netting, fence posts, feeders and drinkers. If you intend breeding more than the odd clutch of eggs (which can normally be done very successfully when one of the hens becomes broody), you might need to consider the acquisition of a small incubator and artificial brooder.
Looked after well, there is no reason why such equipment should not remain sound and serviceable for a good twenty years or more and so the cost of what business people would term 'capital equipment' is minimal when broken down over this time.
There are cheaper alternatives that may not last quite so long but it is worth weighing up all the options: metal galvanized drinkers and feeders are expensive, but will outlive the cheaper plastic ones - plastic is, however, easier to keep clean.
Prices of stock will vary depending on whether commercial hybrids or pure-breeds are chosen, the latter usually being the more expensive. Ex-intensive layers, which are only kept for their first laying season and yet have many more years of egg-laying capabilities, are virtually given away and would be a cheap option if eggs are all that is required. Obviously, 'point-of-lay' stock will cost more than youngsters than need bringing on, but consider the extra time and food required to raise them to maturity.
Pay attention to hygiene Provided that you maintain a reasonable commonsense attitude towards the question of hygiene, it is unlikely that your flock will encounter any serious disease problems that might require the services of a veterinary surgeon, but there is always the faint possibility that expensive vet's bills could be encountered at some point.
Daily running costs are cheap and the purchase of pelleted feeds, cereals, grit, vitamins and floor litter will generally mount to very little. You might want to have electric lighting in the sheds during the winter months or power points from which to run an incubator, so remember to factor in the initial cost of installation as well as the additional costs to your quarterly bill.
There may be local authority or other regulations in force that prohibit the keeping of poultry, in which case, your project is either doomed to failure or you will have to consider moving house! Normally, however, there is no problem, especially in rural areas.
Control Vermin A few rats and a noisy cockerel might not be a problem in the countryside, but to allow the same in a back garden surrounded by urban dwellers is a good way of ensuring your unpopularity with the neighbours and a visit from your local environmental health authority.
Rats and other vermin must be kept under control by the use of traps or poison and it is far better to take preventative steps from the outset rather than wait until any complaints from the neighbours are officially registered: once this happens, the chicken owner may be legally forced to get rid of their stock, and if they fail to do so, are quite likely be prosecuted under a particular government act.
Likewise, the owners of a loudly crowing cockerel could find themselves subject to a noise abatement order. Remember that a cock bird is not essential unless breeding is intended and that hens will lay the same without the presence of a male; in fact, in some instances, a cock bird can be a deterrent to laying.
Do you need planning permission?
Depending on the size of your intended set-up, it may be necessary to obtain local authority planning permission if you want to construct a combined chicken shed, veranda, food store and even showing/isolation pens. In most cases, it all comes down to overall size; whether the new building is to be attached to an existing one and also its close proximity to any neighbour's boundary.
Any fencing around your property must be good enough to prevent your birds wandering off your land. In most countries, it is a legal requirement to protect other people's property from your livestock. Whilst it is true that the owner of a boundary fence is in certain circumstances, under what is called a 'prescriptive obligation' to maintain the fence for their neighbour's benefit, there has never been such obligation where poultry is concerned.
Good neighbours It is important that you explain your plans to any immediate neighbours in order to keep on the right side of them otherwise you might find yourself involved in a court case and a neighbourhood quarrel that no amount of eggs offered as a 'sweetener' will rectify.
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