Chickens: a beginner's guide
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. Find out more in the ‘Where to keep chickens’ section on this page.
For more detailed advice on keeping chickens visit the Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website.
You should check with your local council, and read the deeds of your
house or the tenancy agreement of your allotment plot to make sure keeping livestock is allowed. It's also a good idea to
tell your neighbours too.
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 250 centimetres squared 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 Defra 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
Find out more about foxes in the ‘Home and community’ section.
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.
For more details on the laws on feeding chickens and other farm animals
visit the Defra website.
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 4-5
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 breeds that are
easy to take care of and produce a lot of eggs, for example:
- Light Sussex
- Rhode Island Red
- Brown Leghorn
You can also get mixed breeds of chickens, or ‘hybrids’. They generally
lay more eggs than pure breeds.
There are magazines for people who keep a small number of animals, and
they often carry adverts of chickens for sale. Try searching the internet
for ‘smallholder magazines’.
When you buy chickens, try to select healthy birds that have:
- bright eyes
- glossy feathers
- a red comb (the fleshy area on their heads)
You can also rescue hens from intensive farms. The British Hen Welfare
Trust and Hen Rehomers UK websites have more information on this.
Keeping chickens for eggs
Three hens are enough to supply you with eggs all year. Some breeds lay
up to one egg per day, so you could end up with more than you wanted.
If you have fewer than 50 birds you can sell unmarked eggs at your gate
or locally door to door. If you sell eggs to someone who will sell them on,
such as a shopkeeper, you need to register with the Egg Marketing
For more details on egg marking visit the Defra 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
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
Register your flock online at GB Poultry
If you have 50 or more birds you must register your
flock. You must do this even if you only have 50 or more birds for part of
the year. If you have fewer than 50 birds you do not have to register, but
Defra encourage keepers to do so on a voluntary basis. This is to help alert
owners in case of disease outbreaks.
You can register your flock online at GB Poultry
Register or by calling 0800 634 1112.
Diseases that affect chickens
The most important chicken infections in the UK are
salmonella and campylobacter which may cause problems in people.
Other important conditions are coccidiosis, Marek’s
disease, infectious bursal disease (Gumboro disease), infectious bronchitis
Some less common but important diseases from overseas
are Newcastle disease (fowl pest) and avian influenza (fowl plague).
To find out more about these diseases visit the Defra
page on common chicken diseases.
You can also register with Animal Health to receive
alerts about disease outbreaks and advice on how to deal with them.
More useful links