Whether due to an urge to produce our own food, or simply to enjoy keeping chickens as pets, keeping backyard poultry is a growing hobby with birds kept not just in backyards, but in gardens or allotments.
Some people just keep a few while others will keep a fair number (if you do have more than 50 birds in total then you will need to go on the Defra website and be added to the Poultry Register- this enables them to contact you and warn regarding any disease outbreaks). Some are kept as pets while others are kept as egg-layers or for showing or simply breeding to preserve some of the older rarer breed (there are, in fact, a considerable number of breeds and these birds come in a vast range of colours and sizes; not just chickens!)
They are relatively easy to keep free-range although they are liable to destroy your garden unless fenced away from “nicer” areas and if you have close neighbours the birds should be regularly wing-trimmed unless they are penned. They don’t roam far and will tend to return to their roosting house each night but it’s best not to allow them to enter other peoples’ gardens! Nowadays it is also possible to get some luxurious houses and pens in a range of shapes and sizes which restrict birds while allowing sufficient space that they can perform normal behaviours and also give sufficient security from dogs and foxes
This last point is very important, especially in Winter and in the Spring breeding season when hungry foxes will enter gardens to attack poultry if fences are not sufficiently secure Feeding too is simple as layers' pellets are ideal. Adding too much variety tends to lead to more problems. Remember that corn-fed chicken for eating are not supposed to live for a long time nor lay eggs. Supplementing the pellets with other foods (or just allowing birds to free-range and forage (they are fantastic at reducing numbers of garden pests!)) is fine but the pellets should comprise at least 90% of the diet. Do not feed kitchen scraps - this is illegal as poultry are classed as food-producing animals and all their food must be bought purposefully for them, rather than our leftovers.
Pedigree birds can be obtained from breeders and, in general, we would advise you to buy direct from a breeder where you can visit and obtain the birds directly rather than through an agent. Once you have found a good source, then try and stick with them - there are a number of infectious diseases circulating and buying from multiple sources (or from shows or the internet) is a good way of introducing disease to your flock.
All birds bought should be quarantined from your other birds for a minimum of one month. That way anything they bring with them will not affect all birds.
Breeders can be found in local papers, specialist magazines or Poultry Clubs. The nearest to us is the Salisbury club http://salisburypoultryclub.com/ If keeping ex-battery birds then the ex-battery feeds (or vitamin supplements) are specially supplemented to help these “tired” birds (it is also worth remembering that, unlike buying chicks or point-of-lay birds, these ex-batts are at the end of their production lives and often will only live a further year or two. They will often produce relatively fewer eggs, and may stop laying altogether soon after you have them. The important thing is that we are giving a good quality life to birds that would otherwise be euthanased), and so are very rewarding birds to keep- just seeing how their plumage improves in the first few weeks is amazing.
One major “don’t” is keeping cockerels. Obviously they are needed if you plan to breed your birds but they should never be penned together or they will kill each other - instead create trios of a cockerel with two hens. If you have neighbours then I wouldn’t keep one at all; the crowing at 4am is very hard to control and, after a while, extremely annoying! Neutering is possible though very difficult, very expensive and results in a loss of all those fantastic feathers that make the rooster so attractive.
The most common diseases we see in these birds are egg peritonitis where egg yolk is laid into the abdomen resulting in an infection, egg binding where the egg cannot be laid and Mareks Disease, a viral condition where nerves become swollen and the bird is paralysed.
One important factor when medicating these birds is that there are legal considerations in dosing birds producing eggs for human consumption. Please do not be upset when your vet advises you to throw away eggs for a period after medicating! In some cases (eg using an unlicensed drug) this advice may be that you can never eat the eggs again. It is therefore always worth discussing these issues with the vet before giving any drugs. If eating the birds’ eggs you should keep an Animal Medicines Book where all drug use is recorded – these are easily available from vets or farmers’ merchants
The other legal issues surround the notifiable diseases- Newcastle Disease and Avian Influenza (AI). The latter is very important, especially at the time of writing when there are national disease controls for the latest AI outbreak. In general in such outbreaks, poultry keepers are advised to bring their birds inside, or to keep them in covered runs. This is to prevent contact with wild birds and reduce the chances of infection. In other words, if you keep poultry, you will need a contingency plan where you can do this and protect your bird in the event of problems. As ever, it is always worth knowing where to get help before you need it. Not all vets are comfortable seeing birds (other than emergencies) and it is worth finding a chicken-friendly vet before the birds are ill. It is also a good source of advice regarding husbandry before you buy! Overall they are fascinating birds to keep and it is possible to get a lot of pleasure from keeping them as well as a good source of fresh eggs! However, if thinking of taking up this hobby then talk to experienced keepers and vets first and, above all, think of the neighbours.
John Chitty BVetMed CertZooMed MRCVS