When the Celtic Tiger first fled and the recession began to take hold, one of the only actually useful pieces of advice to be bandied about was to get hens. It might seem counter-intuitive to add to your household when you really should be downsizing, but hens have many qualities beyond providing a regular good source of protein; they mean that there is always food in the house (the eggs, not the birds, this is a family show), you do not need a lot of space to keep them, they are very inexpensive to purchase and feed, and they can be a good source of regular routine and mild entertainment.
The house and territory
I stumbled across a great company at Bloom one year that made timber hen houses (or arks as they prefer) and would deliver anywhere in Ireland; CJ Sherran in Co. Laois. We bought an ark for 5-6 birds (about e400 at the time) but actually only ever kept 2 or 3 in it at a time. The reason I liked these arks was because they were very sturdy (no dog or fox could burrow in), they were fully enclosed meaning the bird run was protected at all times, and with pre-treated heavy timber they would be durable even in wet Irish weather. Friends of mine have made their own arks, which is an admirable endeavour, but to be honest they don’t look as well in the back garden and they are difficult to make sturdy enough to withstand a determined fox (they have had some fatalities).
One downside I will note against the ark (aside from the cost) is that the enclosed run is not big enough for even 2 or 3 birds long term. It takes two chickens only about a week to scratch up all the grass in that 2m x 1m area. Adding some grit and straw helped initially, but as the mud patch spread we thought we better do something. Initially we moved the ark to a new spot every week or so, but very quickly ran out of grass. Our solution was to release the birds. Thinking I could contain the madness, I enclosed a 5m x 4m area with a 3ft post and chicken wire fence, but soon learned that determined chickens can jump that (a pity, because it took me hours to build!). However, our back garden is enclosed by large 7ft walls on all sides, and our home is in the middle of a housing estate surrounded by countryside. We took a chance and figured it would be a very lost fox that would bother coming that far into suburbia for two chickens. In the four years we have had the hens, we have had no untimely deaths. That said, chickens poop *everywhere* they wander, so while it was fine for us, a childless couple with no particular affection towards our backyard, I could imagine that parents of small children or gardeners proud of their growing creations would rather keep the beasts confined to a set space. I think a higher fence would have achieved this.
Getting the birds
Once we had the ark, the next thing we needed were birds. Just like dogs there are many breeds of hens and each have their qualities and quirks. We opted for a Rhode Island Red mix as they are reputed to be steady layers. We got ours from a local organic farmer, who was kind enough to sell us hens that were already laying. It is possible to buy chicks, and some people prefer this, but not all hens lay and as we only wanted hens for the eggs (as opposed to eating them), so it suited us to ensure they were laying already. Also it is normal for hens to be sold in couples, because as they are not happy without a flock, even if it is a flock of two. Our chickens cost us about e7 each.
Doing the paper work
Once we had the chickens, we had to notify the council that we had domesticated birds, and after one quick email assuring them that we had no intention of selling the eggs or using them in food which we would then sell, we were allotted a flock number.
Having purchased organic chickens I felt it would be a waste to feed them anything less than organic layers pellets. This can be sourced in a range of places, and outside of the usual farm-supply shops, places that supply specialised equestrian feeds are your next best stop. In Dublin, the closest place that I found was Coleman’s of Sandyford where a bag ranged between e15-20 depending on the mood of the owners and their stock levels that month.
Outside of their actual feed I found chickens will eat just about everything else in the garden (except something useful like weeds) and will KILL for tomatoes. Don’t know what it is about them, but like heroin to a junkie, they just cannot get enough of them.
Hens will lay about 5 eggs in 7 days, some more, some less. Their laying life in my experience is about 2 years, again some more, some less. Our hens also always laid throughout the winter, I have read that this is unusual with some hens laying only in the warmer months. We did nothing to deliberately encourage this, other than keeping them warm (by ensuring we closed up the coop each night) and keeping them well-fed.
One other downside
Another thing that people don’t tell you about hens is that every group has a squawker. This is the hen that announces day break to the universe (I thought it was just roosters that did this, but no) and won’t shut up no matter what you fling at it from an upstairs bedroom window (we received a collection of items from surrounding neighbours’ homes). Honestly though, the squawking is no louder than a dog barking, and after a few weeks people acclimatised to it and the death threats stop. I think this would be less noticeable in louder neighbourhoods, or the countryside.