The current COVID-19 pandemic is fuelling an upturn in the uptake of new hobbies by the UK population, with many of us turning to novel interests as a distraction from the worry of the coronavirus outbreak and as a way of filling the time during this period of isolation. It seems that one such hobby is the keeping of backyard chickens, which comes with the added advantage of producing freshly laid eggs without the need to brave the supermarket.

Poultry breeders have reported a surprising surge in sales of laying birds as families try to become more self-sufficient in response to food shortages. But is this seemingly idyllic concept of ‘grow-your-own’ likely to be sustainable once our lives go back to business-as-usual? Realistically, tending to a smallholding is unlikely to fit comfortably into most families’ usual busy lifestyles and whilst an overgrown vegetable patch will come to little harm, a flock of live hens will still need the same care once normal life resumes. 

If after careful consideration you decide that a backyard laying flock is for you, the next step is to get to grips with the practicalities of caring for your new birds. There are several important care requirements that every aspiring poultry keeper needs to consider, and some of these will be especially tricky to implement under current circumstances.  

What kind of chickens should I get?

There are numerous varieties and breeds of chicken, each bred with certain features and purposes in mind. Some have been specifically developed for meat production, some for laying and others for the intention of showing or ornamental purposes. When starting out with a new backyard flock, it is important to consider your primary goal when deciding what variety of chickens to acquire. Is the main purpose of your poultry-keeping as a hobby or with welfare in mind? Or is your primary aim reliable egg production with minimal input?

Ex-battery hens

These are commercially farmed laying birds which have come to the end of their most productive days, usually at around 72 weeks of age. At this point, these birds would usually face slaughter, however charities exist which collect these hens for adoption as pets. Rehoming these hens can be very rewarding as it is a way of giving them a second chance. Many of these hens will continue to lay eggs past this age following rehoming, however, as they are specifically bred for high levels of production over a short period of time, they often have a shorter lifespan and can run into health issues at an earlier age than other varieties.

Point-of-lay pullets

Young hens known as ‘pullets’ tend to start laying eggs at around 18-24 weeks of age, known as the ‘point-of-lay’. This is the time at which is usual to purchase new birds for smallholdings or backyard flocks. Mixed-breed or purebred hens can be purchased at this point and, provided they are sourced from a reputable poultry breeder and have been vaccinated, can live long and productive lives.

What do chickens eat?

Laying birds are best fed a layers crumb or layers pellet. These feeds contain appropriate amounts of the nutrients required for maintenance of general health and sustainable, high quality egg production. Small amounts of mixed corn can be fed as well, and fresh water must be available at all times. Chickens can be very messy and can quickly contaminate food if scattered on the ground, which can also encourage pests such as rats and mice into the enclosure. Metal or plastic feeders and drinkers are most appropriate as they reduce contamination and spillages and are easy to disinfect.

Where should I keep my chickens?

Chickens are best kept in a predator-proof, enclosed coop including a sheltered nesting and roosting area as well as access to outdoor roaming space. Chickens are naturally destructive, displaying behaviours such as scratching, pecking and dustbathing as part of their normal day-to-day activities. So be prepared for a mess! It is sensible to plan a larger area than the chickens will need so that the enclosure can be moved around to allow damaged ground to recover periodically. Allow a minimum of 1m2 per chicken, preferably more.

The sheltered area may take the form of a wooden hut with bedding, perching and nesting areas, however commercially available plastic hen houses are much easier to clean and disinfect, reducing problems with parasites such as mites which tend to hide in the nooks and crannies of wooden enclosures. 

What about laying?

Laying frequency varies depending on the time of year, reducing over the winter months due to shorter day length. Laying also varies depending on the breed, age and overall health of the chicken, with production varying from around 150 eggs per year for low-yielding breeds up to 300 eggs per year for some of the commercial hybrid varieties. Over the summer months, many hens will lay an egg almost every day. 

It is important to provide your hens with clean nest boxes for them to lay their eggs, and eggs should be collected daily to minimise soiling and prevent hens from ‘going broody’.

What can go wrong?

Common health problems include:

  • Parasitic disease such as worms or mites
  • Egg-related illnesses such as egg-yolk peritonitis or egg binding
  • Sour-crop (an infection in the crop), often secondary to other illness
  • Respiratory disease and sinusitis

It is also important to understand that chickens can also present health hazards to people, such as salmonella and campylobacter infections. Practicing good hand hygiene is vital, especially encouraging children to wash their hands well after feeding the hens or cleaning the enclosure. Keeping the enclosure clean with fresh bedding and regular disinfection helps to minimise these risks.  

Are there any laws for keeping chickens?

If you keep more than 50 chickens it is a legal requirement to register with the APHA (Animal and Plant Health Agency). For those keeping fewer than 50 chickens, registration is voluntary but helpful as you will be notified of any disease outbreaks in your local area. 

It is illegal to feed food scraps from your kitchen to your chickens. This is due to the potential for spread of disease.

Some property deeds and local authority regulations prohibit the keeping of ‘livestock’ including chickens so it’s best to check this before going ahead.

How might coronavirus affect my hens?

The government has provided advice on how to safely care for animals during the coronavirus pandemic. There is currently no evidence of COVID-19 in the population of animals in the UK, and there is no suggestion that they are able to transmit the disease. However, it is advised that owners should wash their hands before and after contact with their animals, as is good practice in general.

If your chickens are kept on your own property, such as in a back garden, your usual care routines can be continued. 

Keepers with birds housed away from their private property are advised to include visits to their flock in their once-daily exercise sessions, ensuring that they maintain a distance of at least 2 metres from any other person during the trip and continuing with regular handwashing as advised. 

If you are having to self-isolate due to COVID-19, an alternative person who is not self-isolating must be asked to care for the birds on your behalf. It is sensible to plan for this eventuality by asking a friend, neighbour or family member whether they would be able to look after your birds if this situation arises. Writing straightforward instructions for them to follow and making sure they have access to these beforehand is helpful too.

Many ordering systems and delivery services will be experiencing significant delays at the moment, so make sure you order food, bedding and other supplies in advance to prevent worries about running short. 

It is also important to note that veterinary services are reduced during this time. Urgent cases are still being attended to and many practices can offer advice over the phone, however routine veterinary care will be unavailable.