I started my journey with chickens with two lovely ex-battery hens who were so friendly and were real pets. However, they made short shrift of my garden and tended to wander everywhere into other people's gardens. No matter how often I clipped their wings, they kept getting out. Although I really loved those two characters, they were causing problems for me and my neighbours. Sadly, they were stolen and so I decided to give Silkies a try.
Silkies are really cute little fluffy chickens; they are very docile in nature and do not make a mess of your garden. They don't wander far, but it doesn't matter if they get into other gardens because they are not destructive. They have five toes instead of four and are much smaller than most chickens. They lay small eggs with big yolks with not so much white, perhaps 3-5 a week. The females tend to be broody and are often used for hatching eggs from other hens and they make excellent mothers. The males are not too noisy to have in an urban setting.
With a bit of creativity and application of permaculture principles, I have been able to set up a really great little system for the chickens whilst solving some of the common backyard problems of keeping chucks.
I cobbled together a little run using posts and chicken wire, but I leave it open through the day. The chickens free range and provide entertainment for neighbourhood children who regularly come to visit and feed them.
I have planted some willow around the edges. This will grow and help to keep the area drier, especially in winter when it becomes a mud bath because of the rainfall, lots of traffic and saturated ground. The willow will also provide shade and look much prettier than chicken wire. We can then harvest the willow to make other structures. I've made a path going up to the run to try and stop the grass from wearing away and have planted lots of lavender to use in my soap-making.
Because Silkies don't eat cabbage plants, I have planted my brassicas in the coop. They keep the caterpillars and other pests at bay and fertilise the plants at the same time. They also drink the droplets of fresh morning dew from the leaves; it must be like nectar for them. Last year, I lost all my brassicas to cabbage whites, this year they are in great shape and thriving. Result.
The straw and chicken waste from spent bedding makes an excellent addition to the compost, adding much needed brown stuff and nutrients. I use an upturned hamster cage to make a mini-chick tractor.1 This way they still get the benefit of being outside and on the ground, but they are safe from neigh-bouring cats (though the adults can defend themselves from the cats) and from the family of hedgehogs living nearby. I move the cage about each day, so that they have fresh soil and grass and they fertilise the area evenly.
You don't need to spend a lot of money to keep chickens; there are lots of ways to make the equipment you need out of recycled materials.
What You Need To Start Keeping Chickens
Keeping chickens can be quite expensive if you buy all the equipment new, but with a little creativity and scrounging around, you can do it for next to nothing. Obviously, it is better to recycle anyway.
First of all you need space for them to live. If you have foxes, and most areas do, you will need to keep them enclosed and safe, especially at night. Next you will need a coop or a house. This should have a place for them to perch and to lay their eggs. There should be enough space for them to snuggle up at night. The good thing about Silkies is that they are small, so you can have more chickens in a small area.
You will then need a chicken run. These can be bought, but you can make them out of pallets or old fence panels or even a swing set. An alternative is to make a chicken tractor out of recycled objects.
Silkies don't fly very much, so you won't have to clip their wings, but if you have other kinds of chickens, you may need to.2
When making the run, make sure that you give them enough space if they are not able to free range. You will need bedding in the nest boxes and the inside areas of the coop where it absorbs moisture, droppings and smells. It acts as a soft surface for the hens' feet and provides insulation and warmth and protection for the eggs. You can use straw, shredded paper, soft chippings or shavings. Never use hay as this can cause respiratory problems. This can be used on the compost pile or as part of a hot composting system.
Then you will need to feed your chucks. Most people use pellets and grain, but Karl Hammer3 assures us that you can feed chickens on compost. You can also give them scraps from the kitchen although Silkies tend not to eat cooked things very much. You should feed them twice a day or allow them access to food all day. They will peck away at the ground and feed on insects and worms and they absolutely love meal worms.
They need fresh water at all times. A little Silkie can drink up to half a litre a day when it is hot, so make sure your container is topped up. Hens don't have teeth (hence the expression 'rare as hens' teeth') so they ingest grit into their gizzards to break up their food. If your chickens don't have access to natural grit, you should provide a little dish of it. Oyster shell is a great source of grit and provides added calcium content for stronger shells. Silkies tend to find grit easily and lay eggs with really strong shells as a consequence.
Lastly, they get bored if they are cooped up. See www.thisweekinthegarden.co.uk/50-ways-to-amuse-your-chickens for ways to keep your chickens entertained if they do seem a little frustrated!
That's it. They are wonderful creatures and will provide you with hours of entertainment
Kim Hebbourn lives in Ulverston near the Lake District with her 16 year old daughter and two collies. Her garden is her sanctuary and she writes a regular blog about it at: www.thisweekinthegarden.co.uk She has recently set up a permaculture dating site at: www.permaculturedating.com