Raising Your Own Chickens | Ask the Expert
Ever thought about owning your own chickens in an urban setting? As the founder of Hen Corner and with a family history of keeping hens in London that stretches back to the First World War, Sara Ward knows as much as anyone about how to keep chickens in urban areas. We picked her brain to give you the answers you need if you’re thinking of getting a flock of your own.
1. How much space do you typically need to keep chickens?
Sara: You really don’t need much space at all. We keep ours in Omlet chicken coops, which give the chickens all the space they need in a really small footprint - they’re about 1m x 2m. That size coop can hold up to four standard-sized hens, which makes keeping chickens in small gardens, on roof terraces or even on a balcony really quite feasible.
2. Do chickens need to go out for walks?
Sara: We do like to give ours a chance to free-range around the garden, but they don’t actually need to come out - you can keep them in the coop all the time if you haven’t got the space to let them out. You might just want to give them a slightly larger run, so they have more space to stretch their legs if they’re staying inside their coop all the time.
3. Could you bring your chickens inside for a cuddle on the sofa?
Sara: Some people do bring their hens inside, but I don’t know of any chickens that are completely house trained. So I’d just be careful - when ours potter into our conservatory we do need to mop up after them on a regular basis!
4. Just how much cleaning out do chickens need?
Sara: You’ll need to clean out your coop every week or so, but it’s a really easy job - it’s just a case of pulling out the tray and tipping it into a bag. It’s just like cleaning out a cat’s litter tray. The best thing to do is pop it all in a composter, but if you don’t have a garden it’s probably easiest to just pop it in the bin - and it’s also probably worth having fewer chickens so there’s less poo to deal with!
5. Are there any tech or gadgets that can make it easier to raise chickens?
Sara: There’s lots of tech out there these days - lights for the long dark winter months, automatic doors for coops, cameras for inside your coop so you can keep an eye on your hens - but I really don’t think you need any of it. For me it’s all about using traditional skills that people have been using for thousands of years. But one advancement that makes a huge difference are fox-resistant runs.
If you’re keeping chickens in a garden, then a fox-proof run is really important. They have a steel skirt that comes out at a right angle to the wall of the run to lie flat at the ground. So the fox goes at the run wall and can’t get in, and then goes to dig down and can’t dig under the fence either thanks to this L-shaped skirt. It really makes a huge difference to keeping your hens safe from urban foxes.
6. Aside from foxes, is there anything else to watch out for?
Sara: My general rule of thumb with keeping chickens happy and healthy is just make sure they seem happy and healthy! Their needs are quite basic - regular food, clean water and being cleaned out regularly.
Your hens might have had vaccinations for diseases like salmonella or they might not, depending on where you get them from. Hens in your back garden are at a much lower risk of disease than intensively-reared hens though, so I wouldn’t worry too much about whether your backyard hens are vaccinated or not.
One thing to watch out for is bird flu. Backyard chickens can catch bird flu from wild birds if they poo into their run. When the risk of bird flu is high, it’s best to reduce the risk to your hens by keeping them inside their run and covering it with a waterproof sheet. There hasn’t been much bird flu around for the past few years, but if you sign up with DEFRA as a hen-keeper, they’ll let you know if it reappears.
7. Where can (or should!) people get their hens?
Sara: First, it’s better to buy hens than hatch chicks. Chicks are cute, but they’re a lot of work and you’ll end up being stuck with some boys. Cockerels are noisy and aggressive, so it’s anti-social to keep them in urban areas. It’s much better to buy adult hens from either professional or hobbyist breeders.
You might also want to consider rehoming ex-battery hens. It’s a fantastic thing to do, but only if you can give them a good home. Be aware that you can’t put them in with an established flock as they’re very vulnerable and will have more complex health needs than other hens. It’s also expected that you’ll take at least 4-6 hens, rather than just one or two, as there are so many that need rescuing at once.
8. Are there any community groups where new hen keepers can go for support and advice?
Sara: There are loads of poultry groups on Facebook which are really active and really helpful, and there are also some other community groups out there, like the Omlet community forum. They’re a great place to ask any questions you might have and they’re really supportive.
9. Are there any social dynamics to watch out for?
Sara: Chickens are flock animals so they like being together, but they have to have order - so they do that through the pecking order. One of the hens will be in charge, and will peck the others to let them know she’s boss. The only thing to watch out for is that it doesn’t get too aggressive, as they can end up hurting one another. That usually happens when you’re introducing new chickens, as they don’t know their place in the pecking order yet.
10. What's the one piece of advice you'd give someone getting chickens for the first time?
Sara: Good planning. If you plan and do your research in advance then you’ll have a great time - don’t just rush into it and bring them home one day. Good luck!
Did this answer some of the questions you had about owning chickens in the city? Let us know in the comments below!