From growing your own herbs to growing your own vegetables, the ultimate has to be producing your own eggs! A while ago I went to visit friends in Linlithgow (about 30 minutes by train from Edinburgh) who live in a farm cottage and keep hens in their garden. They collect eggs daily a few steps from their door and go to the farm shop for vegetables and sausages. It was so satisfying carrying a warm egg from the garden to the kitchen and poaching it for breakfast. The yokes were bright orange which is uncommon in mass produced eggs. I have since had romantic ideas of keeping hens so I asked my turf to table friends, Chris and Archie, to tell me all about how to keep them.
Firstly a home for the hens! There are many types of hens so the space needed will vary according to their size and how many you want to keep. The space you have will probably dictate how many hens and what type you could keep. For example, Bantam hens are very small so you don’t need too much space, but bigger birds like Orphingtons need a bit more space and larger houses. If you want three hens the house should be about 4 feet by 3 feet. Inside the house you need boxes so the hens can nest. Chris and Archie use old fruit crates and wine boxes, so for three to four hens two boxes are adequate. Along with the boxes you need straw bedding (not hay) and some perches. You need to change the straw bedding every week. Chooks (slang for hens for those in the know – not me, I had to look it up) roost at night and will perch and poop while they sleep so you need to line the bottom of the hen house with newspaper and change the paper every week. If you want to free range the hens you need a decent sized garden with either hardy plants or lots of space otherwise you should expect your borders to be ransacked!
Then you need a run and a water dispenser. Chris and Archie’s run is about 12 feet by 3 feet and slots into the house. There are water dispensers that look like an inverted bell which are great as the chickens can’t get the water mucky. Some hen keepers use food dishes but Chris and Archie found that their hens just tipped them over so it was unnecessary. You also need a waterproof and mouse-proof container to keep the feed in so it’s wise to find one made from metal.
Next: food! You can use a mix of layers pellets (a mix of wheat, oats and vitamin supplements) and grain. Kitchen scraps are a real treat for hens. Potato peelings need to be boiled and onions can make their eggs smell (!), but pretty much anything else is fine. You should leave the scraps in the pen for a day or two but hens can be picky eaters so the leftovers should be removed. They also need a bit of grit in their diet and calcium for making good shells. Chris and Archie crushed up mussel shells every time they cooked them at home (great excuse to buy mussels and oysters!) and threw them in a dish for the hens, but you can buy calcium rich grit.
Now for the eggs! A POL (Point of Lay) hen should give you an egg a day. In the winter this drops to almost nothing but you can keep them laying by putting a light in their house so they think it’s still summer. If you obey nature’s seasons you will get eggs from about February to September or October but by November when days get dark they pretty much stop. Chris and Archie’s hens were a bit older (over 2 years at least) so they got an egg from each one every other day. You can get rescue hens which are past their prime for commercial laying (around 70 weeks old) but are actually still fine for laying eggs and keeping at home. There is a charity based in Norfolk that collaborates with farmers to re-house hens with families when they would otherwise go to slaughter: http://littlehenrescue.co.uk
Amazingly you can freeze raw eggs in an airtight container for baking over the winter so you can always use your own eggs for baking and more. When hens are young they produce really sweet ‘baby eggs’ for a while. The yolk is a normal size but the egg itself is quite dinky. Bantams also produce small eggs but as they are small birds this is normal. Orange yolks tend to be a good indication of a well balanced diet, with plenty of variety, but hens can be picky. One hen that Chris had loved apples but another would ignore them and their eggs looked different. The shell and yolk colour alter according to what they eat, so if you give the hens lots of foodie choices you could get some very different looking eggs on the inside and on the outside. Breed has a bit to do with it as well but even within the same breed the eggs can look very different. Chris could tell who had laid and who had not just by looking at the eggs! Neat!
Chris and Archie had no real problems with illness but if a bird became unwell it was usually due to old age. There are little things that you can have such as scaly leg (just brush the legs down with surgical spirit) or a hen can get egg bound. They recommend giving a little mix of olive oil and grain every now and then to help prevent it. Foxes are a real issue for them because of the farm and fields that surround their home. They are particularly present in spring when the chicks are born and in winter when they are hungry and food is scarce so you need to ensure that the hens are locked up at night.
Roosters are great for keeping your hens in line. They are not really necessary as the hens will lay without them, but they do keep the peace. A hen can become dominant and start acting like a cock and sometimes go off the lay. She can get mean, but so can an unkind rooster. Their rooster was great and kept the girls from hen pecking each other as they really can be cruel. No wonder people use the term “hen-pecked”! But roosters are also noisy and a mean one can get pretty scary when his spurs are out so it is best to start with just females to see how it goes. Their rooster is, however, the most tame and if the hens don’t go into the house for the night Chris can grab him and they all follow, so she is quite fond of boys but there are certainly those who disagree!
So, there’s a rough 2 minute guide to keeping hens! Sticking to the egg theme and brown sugar appreciation the next recipe I will post will be brown sugar meringues…coming soon!