I’ve been researching chicken keeping for over four years now and I still haven’t taken the plunge.
I could easily buy one of those cheap flatpack coops off the web, or splash out on an Eglu if I’m feeling flush. So what’s holding me back? I’m convinced of the benefits of back garden chickens: endless supplies of rich manure to boost my compost heap, the entertainment of watching the birds, teaching my children the responsibility of looking after animals, and of course the fresh eggs.
It’s the downsides I am worried about - greedy chooks trashing my veg patch, the ever-present threat of fox attacks, and the extra drudge of feeding and coop cleaning on top of the domestic demands of looking after two kids under five, for starters. And the myth that I am going to save money keeping hens is quickly dispelled by adding up the setup costs: hundreds of pounds for a decent coop and run, not to mention the cost of feed. (From my years of research one good piece of advice I’ve often received is this: don’t buy one of those cheap flatpacks - mites love setting up home in the felt roof and they’re far too flimsy.)
Then there’s where to put them. There is an obvious spot in my garden, tucked behind the office in a sheltered corner, at the moment just rough grass in the wake of our building project. But that will mean careful design to make it look good. I guess there's the option of putting them on a putative allotment plot, like Ryan, but I don't think I'd be able to get up there enough to keep them fed and watered (Ryan, how do you do it all - haven't you got a horse too?) And I need to be careful in my choice of breed, too – ideally I want something that won’t be able to negotiate the 1m-tall picket fence into the veg patch. Brahmas, or Buff Orpingtons, maybe? Any other suggestions welcome.
I did take a detour for a few months into the world of quail, after noticing that Omlet, who make the Eglu, also do a version for these tiny birds. But there seemed to be so much contradictory advice out there – some said they’re noisy, some reported them to be quiet as mice. Others warned of cannibalism and other nastiness between birds, but some found they all rubbed along nicely. The main attraction was that unlike chickens they weren’t amenable to free ranging, and they were rather more low maintenance. But the very helpful @Chickenstreet on Twitter persuaded me in the end that if I was going to go for poultry keeping, chickens were far more interesting and rewarding.
Chicken keeping has grown hugely in popularity in the last few years, but are some people leaping into this hobby without fully absorbing how grim they’ll feel getting turfed out of bed at 7am on a rainy Sunday to feed and water their charges? I’d guess a fair number of the secondhand Eglus for sale on eBay are being sold by people for whom the work involved outweighed the fresh eggs.
And me? I still plan to become a hen keeper, but I think I am going to wait until my toddler has realised that bird poo isn’t one of the major food groups.