There’s an emerging trend of chicken-rearing in the city and summertime, with the school holidays and warm weather, just might be the perfect time to start a new hobby with the kids – raising chickens in your backyard.
These days, there are probably more reasons for establishing a small flock of chickens in your garden than against. No longer a practise confined to rural or even semi-rural property, keeping chickens in an urban environment is hot. All manner of well-known people, from politicians to high profile journalists and food writers (think David Cunliffe and Wendyl Nissen for starters), along with a good dollop of us more ordinary folk have become fond of domestic fowl in a way that we’d have found hard to believe just a few years ago.
And if you’ve got a young family, it starts to make even more sense. Of course, there’s the bonus of fresh eggs every day, not to mention a hand (for want of a better word) in the garden, provided the hens are kept under supervision so they don’t dig up all those vegetable seedlings you’ve been lovingly cultivating.
However, what many young families are discovering is that hens also make terrific pets, despite the bad press they’ve had for so long in terms of their brain power. Okay, so perhaps they’re not up there with dogs or even cats, but I can cite any number of young families who will swear to the affectionate behaviour displayed by their hens. They’re also extremely tolerant and will allow young children to pick them up and carry them about without getting distressed; it’s even possible to dress them up and push them around in a doll’s pram, as I’ve seen with my own eyes.
But there’s another very good reason for investing in a coop and a few hens, which is that it provides the perfect opportunity to introduce children to how Mother Nature provides for us. Too many kids these days have no idea where their food comes from.
In previous generations, most New Zealand households had a much stronger link to the land and how it provides for us; backyard vege gardens were a fact of life rather than a novelty experiment. And it was much more common for families to visit rural relatives so that kids had a basic understanding of farm animals and their role. Not so these days however.
This is where the beauty of hens comes in as they provide such a wonderful living example of that old proverb: ‘Waste not, want not’. In exchange for a household’s daily food scraps, supplemented with some commercial poultry food, you’ll get to receive the freshest eggs on a daily basis. It’s a pretty good arrangement, whichever way you look at it.
Another big plus to having a resident hen or three is the opportunity for older children to take some responsibility for the family flock in terms of feeding and cleaning, and of course the best part: collecting the eggs.
The nitty gritty
what type and where from
Once you’ve decided that hens are going to be part of your lifestyle, the next decision is where to acquire them. If you want to start from scratch (that is, buy fertilised eggs that will in due course hatch into cute fluffy chicks), you’ll most likely have to buy or borrow an incubator. Most people go for point-of-lay pullets, which is just another way of describing a young hen that is just about ready to start laying. Pullets can be bought from a variety of places – from pet shops through to specialist breeders. If the idea of giving battery hens a second chance is appealing, then visit theanimalsanctuary.co.nz. Up at the Sanctuary, hundreds of hens that would otherwise have been culled at around 12 months of age (sometimes less) are rehabilitated and rehomed to become, in most cases, happy, healthy free-range chickens that will reward their new owners with a steady supply of eggs for some time to come.
The care of chickens is a fairly straightforward business and can be as simple as providing adequate shelter, by which I mean a clean dry henhouse that incorporates some kind of nesting box. In order to avoid becoming dinner for night-time predators, hens are hard-wired to roost well off the ground (in a non-domestic environment, they’ll roost in a tree), so their henhouse should be elevated, preferably by at least 1 metre). Whether you choose to allow your hens freedom to wander around your garden or whether you keep them in a run is up to you, but it’s worth putting a bit of time into thinking about it earlier rather than later.
Another important consideration is the possibility of the aforementioned predators getting into your garden; these are not necessarily restricted to stoats or rats – a neighbour’s pet terrier (or almost any other breed of dog for that matter) can do horrendous damage to an unsuspecting hen.
The good news is that any amount of information on how to keep hens is freely available on the internet and there are also several publications offering sensible advice. Regarding the latter, I highly recommend investing $20 in a copy of How to Care for your Poultry by Nadene Hall and Sue Clarke, published by New Zealand Lifestyle Block.
* Back in September 2012 I wrote and published a book, Urban Chicks, which celebrates chicken-rearing through photographs and stories that I hope will go some way towards convincing people that chickens in a city garden really are a very good thing.