Guide to keeping chickens

Home-grown food is rapidly increasing in popularity and many are looking to turn allotments and back gardens into vegetable patches. But how about fresh eggs in the morning? If you are considering keeping chickens for just such a reason, here are a few things chicken beginners need to know.

Keeping chickens
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What breed?
Picking a particular breed comes down to what you want the birds for - breeds such as Warrens, Rhode Island Reds, Black Rocks and Marans are excellent layers but if you plan on preparing a chicken for the table, others such as Sussex, Wyandotte and Dorking are preferable.

Where from?
Your local pet shop is unlikely to sell chickens but there are often classified ads in the local paper advertising birds. If it's fresh eggs you're after, buy Point of Lay hens that should begin laying soon after they are settled in their new home. Once you have found a supplier, check that the chickens are healthy with bright eyes and glossy feathers. Always be sure to ask how old the birds are as younger chicks may need different feed.

A cardboard box with air holes will suffice as a temporary form of transport.

Essential equipment
The most important item of equipment is a coop - chickens need somewhere to roost, lay eggs and shelter from the inclement weather. It will need to be big enough for the number of chickens you decide to buy, be well ventilated and easy to clean. A nest box is also an essential as hens like a cosy, dark place in which to lay.

Choosing a coop depends largely on how many chickens you plan on getting, your budget and the available space - an ark coop, for example, is ideal for small gardens but limited on space for the chickens, a wooden-framed coop with run offers a bigger and still cheap, alternative but can be heavy to move around the garden.

Whatever you decide to buy, it is important to remember that your hens will need an area to run and peck - of course, you can let them out to range free but be sure that they can't escape from your garden or allotment. You will need to return them to the coop at night to protect them from foxes. Always ensure that your chickens are able to reach a shady patch and, to help keep parasites at bay and keep your chickens cool in hot weather, provide an area that they can use as a dustbath.

Straw, sawdust (dust extracted) or wood chippings are ideal as bedding but do ensure that the coop is cleaned out once a week using a poultry-friendly disinfectant... and don't forget to add the old bedding to the compost heap.

Obviously, you can't do without food and water - drinkers and feeders are readily available online and will ensure that your birds have a supply.

In order to give your hens a proper balanced diet, buy chicken feed (pellets) to give them in the morning. Chickens will also happily enjoy your leftover scraps but vegetable peelings and meat should be avoided. Chickens require grit to help them grind up food and calcium, in the form of crushed oystershell, to aid egg production.

Once your chickens are happy and settled, keep them that way. They will need to be let out each morning, bedded down each night and kept clean and healthy so check your birds regularly for mites or other health problems. To make your life easier, regular handling is a must. Treats such as mixed grain which can be fed by hand will help to tame your birds. Enjoy your eggs!