Keeping chickens - what you need to know
Many people keep chickens to supply eggs or just as pets. There are laws around keeping chickens and selling eggs. If you are thinking of getting chickens, find out what you need to get started and how to keep your new brood safe and healthy.
What chickens need
Like all animals, looking after chickens takes some time and effort. You also need enough outside space for a chicken coop or shed and an exercise space.
You should check with your local council, and read the deeds of your house to make sure keeping livestock is allowed.
Where to keep chickens
Chickens should be kept outdoors in a coop or shed. You can buy chicken coops from home improvement stores or online, or you could build your own.
Your coop should have:
- at least 1,100 square centimetres floor area for each bird
- a perch for them to stand on while they sleep
- an exercise space, or ‘run’
- a nesting box filled with wood shavings for the hens to lay eggs
You should clean the chicken coop every week and put out fresh bedding.
You can find advice for commercial farmers on the welfare of chickens on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) website. This is also useful for smallholders.
Keeping chickens safe from predators
Most people who keep chickens have some experience of predators – usually foxes – getting into the coop.
Foxes can climb over or dig under fences, and squeeze through very small spaces. Some tips to keep your chickens safe are:
- use wire mesh fencing all the way around and above the coop
- fix wooden boards to the base of the fence
- check the coop regularly to make sure it is secure
- shut the chickens into their coop at night
Feeding and watering chickens
You can buy ready-made food that has everything chickens need to keep them healthy. It is illegal to feed chickens with waste food from your kitchen, including vegetable scraps.
Grit is also an important part of a chicken’s diet. The tiny stones help them break down and digest their food. Keep a supply of grit available and the chickens will help themselves to however much they need.
Chickens need a constant supply of clean drinking water. Try to choose a container that the chickens can’t step in or knock over.
Choosing your chickens
You can buy chickens of any age, from chicks that are still in the egg to mature birds. Young chicks can be difficult to look after, and you would need special equipment and food to hatch your own.
If you are new to keeping chickens you could start with hens of four to five months: they are just starting to lay eggs and are easy to look after.
Breeds of chicken
There are many breeds of chicken to choose from, and different breeds have particular characteristics. Many people start off with Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red and Brown Leghorn – they are easy to take care of and produce a lot of eggs.
You can also get mixed breeds of chickens, or commercial ‘hybrids’. They generally lay more eggs than pure breeds.
Local farming newspapers often carry adverts of chickens for sale or you can search the internet for 'chickens for sale' in Northern Ireland. When you buy chickens, try to select healthy birds that have:
- bright eyes
- glossy feathers
- a red comb (the fleshy area on their heads)
Remember that ex-commercial sector hens are often a good buy if you want lots of eggs.
Keeping chickens for eggs
Three hens are enough to supply you with eggs all year although most hens will stop laying during the winter unless you provide them with artificial light. Some breeds lay up to one egg per day, so you could end up with more than you wanted.
There are a number of regulations (rules) about selling eggs, for example:
You can sell eggs at your 'farm gate' or locally door to door and, if you have 50 or fewer hens, at markets. If you sell eggs at markets and have more than 50 hens or sell to someone who will sell them on, such as a shopkeeper or a bakery, you need to register with DARD’s Egg Marketing Inspectorate.
For more details on egg marketing rules, visit the DARD website.
Keeping chickens for meat
If you want to keep chickens for meat, you must be prepared to eventually slaughter them. The Humane Slaughter Association runs courses on how to kill chickens while keeping their distress to a minimum.
If you don’t want to do the job yourself, you could contact a local slaughterhouse. An internet search of abattoirs in your area will turn up a few options.
Hatching your own chicks
Once you’re used to keeping a few hens you might consider raising some chicks. This is more work than looking after hens, so you should research and prepare beforehand. One thing to consider is what to do with male hatchlings if you only want hens for laying.
The Poultry Club has advice on hatching chicks.
Registering your flock with DARD’s Bird Register
All keepers of birds, other than pet birds kept in cages indoors are required to register their birds. You must do this even if you only keep birds for part of the year
For more information on registration or to download an application form, contact:
- Bird Register - DARD website
- phone: 0300 200 785
- The cost of contacting 08 and 03 telephone numbers (contacts section)
Diseases that affect chickens
The most important chicken infections in NI are salmonella and campylobacter which may cause problems in people.
Other important conditions are:
- Marek’s disease
- infectious bursal disease (Gumboro disease)
- infectious bronchitis and lameness.
Some less common but important diseases are:
- Newcastle disease
- Avian Influenza
These are notifiable diseases, which means that if you suspect your chickens are showing signs of these diseases, you must notify the Local Divisional Veterinary Office. These are serious diseases which can cause major losses to the poultry industry and are controlled by DARD.