Forget growing your own vegetables – keeping chickens in the back garden is one of the fastest growing hobbies in Ireland. But how easy is it to make sure you have your own fresh-from-the-hen free-range eggs for breakfast? Caroline Hennessy shows you how on SilverCircle.ie.
Fancy having a friendly, productive pet that turns your food scraps into delicious, yellow-yolked eggs? Recent television programmes such as Richard Corrigan’s City Farm and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, which focused on the plight of battery chickens, have been responsible for a new awareness of poultry welfare. Concerns over battery farming, plus a desire to know what goes into the food that we eat, has generated a new interest in keeping chickens on a domestic scale.
The advantages are many: you get to eat fresh eggs, enjoy the chickens’ company – they are much more interesting than you might think! – and know that they are enjoying a happy and healthy life. You don’t need a farmyard or acres of land to keep chickens as just a few square meters of garden will give you enough space for a couple of productive layers. Elaine Mackey, who lives in Ballinteer, south Dublin, claims that it is even possible to keep bantams, a small neat breed of chicken, on an apartment balcony.
Mackey, who has all the fervour of the newly converted, got bitten by the chicken-keeping bug three years ago. Learning as she went along, she’s now a confirmed poultry-fancier with five hens and two cockerels in her average-sized garden, and is eager to spread the word.
Finding English poultry-keeping forum www.poultrykeeper.co.uk a helpful resource and noting the lack of Ireland-specific information, Mackey set up her own site and forum at www.keepingchickens.ie.
Now she also runs courses for suburban householders interested in keeping their own. “I want to give people a realistic view of what keeping chickens entails,” she says, “give them some hands-on experience.”
Fly the coop
One of the first things to sort out is a coop for your mini-flock. Prices vary wildly, from the cheap and cheerful wooden DIY option to the design-tastic plastic “eglu”. Whatever your choice, the most important thing is that the accommodation is fox-proof. Every poultry-owner has a sad tale of a fox taking their favourite chicken. Even in urban areas foxes can be a big problem. Make sure that the roof of the coop is covered – foxes can climb like cats – and, if it is in a static location, that the wire goes 15 cms (6 inches) underground.
Beyond that, chickens are easy to keep: keep them clean, give them plenty of water and don’t forget to feed them. You can buy specific chicken feed at any farm supplies shop but keep in mind that chickens will help to cut down on your domestic refuse charges, eating kitchen left-overs and vegetable waste.
They are also great slug-killers, turning an annoying garden pest into another source of the nitrogen-rich waste that will break down on your compost heap to make excellent fertiliser.
Mackey estimates it takes her 10-15 minutes a day to feed, water and check her chicks, with about an hour a week spent moving and cleaning their run. She also points out that, as a responsible petwner, you have to be prepared to see the chickens through from what she calls “hatch to dispatch”. This will guarantee that you benefit from eggs while they’re alive as well as afterwards, in the form of a tasty chicken casserole.
It’s lovely to hear the cluck, cluck, clucking of contented chickens livening up your garden with their antics. Once you have scooped the top off a boiled homegrown egg and revealed its sunset-yellow yolk, you will never want to go back to eating mass-produced again. Happy chickens=happy eggs.
Elaine Mackey runs regular courses on keeping chickens from her home in Ballinteer. More information is available on her website www.keepingchickens.ie or via email: email@example.com