The decision to have some hens in your garden stems from many things such as providing your own food, giving the garden a new dimension or simply enjoying watching the chickens scratch about looking for morsels of food and insects. The benefits are endless, but it is important to understand what your responsibilities will be before you go out and choose the ones you want.

All domestic chickens are related to jungle fowl which are found on the fringes of jungles in small flocks with distinct behaviours. The chickens you want are descendants of these birds and therefore display many of the same behaviours. You need to be aware of how these behaviours enrich the chicken’s life and keep them content and healthy. The key traits are the ability to perch, forage, dust-bathe and nest. 

What kind of home?

The coop must be draught free and be able to sustain rain, sun, wind and snow. It is not essential to have a certain type of coop, just one which has a sound structure and can accommodate the number of chickens you want with a bit of room to spare. Chickens do not like being cramped and also if you are not letting them out every day into an outside run, you need to provide enough space for inclement weather.

Keep predators out, such as foxes, dogs and badgers who can dig their way in, with thick chicken wire dug into the ground (particularly on larger runs). A strong, robust run will assist in keeping your birds safe from the aforementioned predators and will prevent contact with wild birds to help reduce the ever increasing risk of Avian Influenza reaching UK flocks.

Flying high

Within the coop there needs to be a perch which should be higher than the nests and of a suitable material to allow the birds to grip it comfortably with their feet. As a guide allow 18cm of perch per bird. The perch is a need as in the wild they would be roosting in trees to keep away from predators; in captivity it fits the same purpose even if they are safe in the coop. The nest box or nests need to be large enough to enable a hen to turn completely around in the box as before an egg is laid they will carry out a nesting ritual. This includes scratching a pit, placing nesting material around with their beak and turning around a few times before the egg is finally laid. 

Ruffling some feathers

Dustbathing is a social behaviour which requires a patch of dry earth or a tray in the run containing dry soil or sand. Your new birds will love fluffing up their feathers and getting the substrate all over themselves. This will soak up any stale oil and dirt from feathers and the birds will replace new oil from the preen gland when it next preen their feathers. This keeps them in top condition.

Where do chickens come from?

Actually sourcing birds can be a dilemma, but the priority is to obtain healthy birds which will be fit and well on arrival and can provide you with abundant fresh eggs, regardless of the breed you choose. If you fancy getting rare breeds you are best to contact a breeder directly and if you are requiring hybrid point of lay birds then checking they have been vaccinated will aid in reducing disease later on. Many people want to rehome hens and the British Hen Welfare Trust can help you with this. It is advisable to get all the birds you require from the same place, so they are not challenged with either potential disease or territorial behaviour with aggression when you mix them together at home.

Good food

A feeder, drinker and grit dispenser are all essential items to put into the coop and run area. As chickens spend much of their time foraging in the wild environment, it is a good plan to keep the floor of their run or coop covered in dry, loose material so they can scratch about in it. The addition of a handful of mixed corn or wheat to the litter or soil at the end of the day allows the birds to scratch and forage for a portion of their food. This keeps them active, fit and happy. The feed you give needs to be a commercial ration rather than feeding kitchen scraps with extra corn or treats. Kitchen scraps should not be fed to poultry for two reasons; it is illegal and also gives them potential gut upsets due to the variance and irregularity of the scraps. Stick to a pelleted ration and keep treats to a minimum otherwise the birds will start to favour the treats and may become obese. Clean, fresh drinking water must be provided at all times as much of an egg is made up of water. 

Who to look out for?

Rodent control (rats and mice) is also important because they spread many diseases, are capable of eating copious amounts of chicken food and can chew holes in plastic and wood. Baiting and trapping are options you will need to consider in their control if necessary, alongside keeping feed in bins or tubs where vermin cannot access it. 

Red mites and intestinal worms are two conditions which will be an issue at some point, so reading up on these will help you have an action plan to control them. Red mites are a common problem in the warmer months and you can find many products to control them or to use as a preventative measure with good success. Worms are more of an issue when chickens are kept in large numbers on the same ground for a long time, however worms can strike in small flocks if your chickens are not wormed as a minimum in the spring and again in the autumn. You can have your chicken droppings checked for worm egg species just before you plan to worm as this will give you an idea of the level your chickens may have.

If the design of the coop allows easy cleaning and disinfection this will reduce build-up of disease, smells, flies and other insects in the coop. This not only makes the environment more pleasant for you and the birds but will reduce the risk of introducing bacterial and viral infections.

Finally, birds are intelligent and inquisitive creatures, the more interest and entertainment they receive the more content they will be and ultimately the more healthy eggs you will receive.  

Find out more at