There are 6 chooks – a mixture of some bought-in hybrids and some rescue birds. They lay around 4-6 eggs each day.
Our original plan was to divide the run in two, and practice some form of grassland management – this is why the run has 2 gates and the house has 2 pop holes. However, further research suggested this was actually rather too much work for the time-being, so that plan has been put on hold. Our early research suggested that a run this size should be able to support up to 10 hens and still stay green, but that has proved to be wrong – they graze it to bare earth each summer. My current plan is to maintain the flock at around 6 birds – so when natural causes mean there’s just 4 left, I go and buy another 4.
There is an extra house in the run is for isolating hens – this needs to be done if they are sick, overly aggressive or being overly picked on. Once the flock is established, this is rarely needed. However, in summer 2013 we lost 2 hens to illness and needed the isolation space.
There are other bits and pieces in the run are there simply to add some interest for the birds. Also, a few shrubs have been planted to provide shade. Chooks are descended from woodland creatures and enjoy a wooded environment. They are let out from the run when we are working in the garden, and enjoy the freedom, but this has to be balanced against the risk of fox attacks – there is a den at the bottom of the garden and we frequently see foxes at dawn and dusk. In fact, over the years we have lost quite a few hens to Reynard, and the run is checked frequently for signs of foxes attempting to weaken it.
Future plans include the construction of a fruit cage next to the lower part of the chook run. This will be a similar construction to the run itself, and the chooks will be allowed access in winter to forage for soil-dwelling pests.
In the past, we have raised chooks for meat. This was an interesting experience, but ultimately we decided that it was too much work, when we can buy a very nice free-range bird from Cleavers Butchers in Bilton. Some things are better left to the experts. But I’m glad we did it. I blogged about it here.
The chickens are another area where pragmatism takes over organic principles. Chooks are prone to internal parasites (worms) and need access to fresh ground regularly. This is not really possible in a garden setting, and even if we divided the run I two, it wouldn’t really be a long enough rotation. The alternative is to use worming treatments. Herbal wormers are available, and I did use and rely on these when I only had 3 birds. But now I have the larger flock, I prefer the guarantee of the conventional methods – hens can and do die from worm infestations. This means a worming treatment is administered twice a year (spring and autumn). It is possible to buy organic feed for chooks, although it is rather expensive. Again, when I had a smaller flock, I did buy this, but now I buy a good quality non-organic feed. This means the eggs cannot be considered ‘organic’, but we are not particularly wedded to an organic diet and will always choose local quality foods over any dogmatic growing methods and certification.