Janice Houghton-Wallace suggests ways to help those who help you.

When buying poultry for the first time, the last question that people think about is who will look after them if they want to go away? Clearly, the more birds you have the more difficult it is to leave the responsibility with someone else but even if you have only three for four, by law they must be cared for and protected.

Like most tasks, the more time you give yourself to find someone suitable and willing, the better the outcome is likely to be. Asking someone at the last minute is not fair on the people who might say yes, or the birds. Anyone looking after poultry that is not theirs needs to have time to learn what to do and ideally, time to shadow you on several occasions before you leave them to it and go away.

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The worst way of going about this is simply to tell them what to do and hope they remember. Hands on experience with opening up in the morning, feeding, watering and shutting up at night will give those undertaking the task more confidence in what they will be doing and give you more confidence that they are capable of looking after your birds in a responsible manner.

Accompanying you several times before they are left on their own will help them to remember things better but even so, writing a comprehensive list of what to do will be reassuring as well. Minders need to know numbers so write down the number of birds in each house, this is the only way to make sure that none are left out when shutting up at night, thereby falling foul of the fox! If they are different breeds, then describe the birds as well so people know what they are looking for.

These 'shadowing' visits will help the minder understand your flock and likewise, it will also help the birds get used to the other person. It would be quite unnerving for the birds to suddenly have someone else that they have never seen before, trying to shut them in at night. Poultry are living creatures and like other species, they thrive on continuity and routine. Therefore, ask if they can be opened up, fed and shut in for the night, at the same time that you would do it if you were at home.

If you only have three or four hens this is easy to remember but many people have one or two coops or houses with different numbers of birds in each. The numbers need to be checked, especially if they are allowed to roam during the day.

However, I would suggest that birds are not allowed to roam whilst someone else is looking after them because the minders will worry that something might happen to them whilst you are not there. If the poultry live in a house overnight and roam during the day erect a temporary pen, attached to the house where they can come out and scratch during the day but are contained. If the house is an adapted garden shed and there are not many birds, then it might be better to leave them housed if the weather is very wet or windy but this could be a problem during hot weather.

Always clean out any housing and leave it freshly littered up before your poultry minders are left in control. This will not only be better for the birds but also much more pleasant for those looking after them. Anything clean and tidy will usually be looked after much better rather than leaving the place in a mess.

Should the length of time you are away be a fortnight or more explain that it is much better for the birds if the drinkers and feeders are kept clean and if they could just wash them out every few days that would be most helpful. However, leave whatever is necessary to do that conveniently at hand so nothing has to be searched for, resulting in looking after your birds taking more time than they anticipated.

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Buy more feed in than you would do normally so that it is not possible for the birds to run out whilst you are away. You do not want the poultry minder having to travel to the agricultural merchants in order to keep your birds fed. However, it is always a good idea to let your merchant know that someone else is looking after your birds and pass on the name of the person doing it so then, in the worst scenario, if they did need anything further, the merchant would know them and this could be collected or even delivered, ensuring your birds have what is required. A similar arrangement should be made with your veterinary surgeon. If the minder knows the vet can be called upon for advice if they are concerned, it will cover any health worries. Most vets and feed merchants will be happy to sort out whatever the needs are, with you then settling payment on your return.

Buy a few treats such as apples that can be given to the birds to keep them content, especially if there is any likelihood that they may be housed.

Tell the minder if your birds are not used to children or pets. They might think it great to bring the children to help them with the birds or even the family dog but this could be very stressful for the birds.

Leave your contact details with the minder so you can be contacted in an emergency. Finally, you may well have agreed a payment to them for helping you but if they are graciously accepting nothing, do bring back a little thank you gift. Even the most generous hearted people like to feel appreciated and if they know they are then you will be able to ask them to help you again in the future.

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This article was first published in  Smallholder magazine. For more poultry expertise subscribe here, call 01778 392011, email subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk or buy from a newsagent.