A Critical Incident Reflection from the Chicken Coop

Critical incidents are occurrences that let us see, with new eyes, some aspect of what we do. The critical incident in question is the outbreak of bird flu this winter, and whilst at time of writing we seem to be emerging, to some degree, from the strict prevention orders, it has given me a little time to reflect on what has just happened.

Reflection is something I’ve been taught and encouraged to do whilst studying for a Masters however I’ve recently found it useful to apply to the poultry breeding part of my life.

You simply ask yourself three questions, what happened, so what and now what.

What happened? – Europe, including the UK, was hit by bird flu over the winter of 2016/17

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So what? – It resulted in a prevention order being implemented in December 2016, extended, and then extended with modification possibly until April 2017. This required enhanced biosecurity measures to be applied and birds to be kept indoors or in covered runs to minimise the risk of contact with infected wild birds. Not a simple task for a poultry keeping regime that relies on a free range, outdoor livestock.20170221_084210

 

The winters also seem to be increasingly wild and unpredictable in terms of their weather and it is safe to say that a husbandry technique that is built around free range and pastured rearing of poultry doesn’t work in gale force weather.

 

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Now what? – In the short term my breeding programme is at best delayed, at worst abandoned for the 2017 season. My maintenance costs for the winter have escalated and I have limited stock available for the markets and auctions; not that there have been any to sell through due to restrictions on poultry gatherings, consequently my income from poultry for the year will be hit.

In the longer term is this really a one off. or will next winter result in the same problem or possibly the arrival of H5N9? I will assume that prevention orders will the occur in future years, and as it seems that “lock downs” are the easiest way for the authorities to minimise the risk of bird flu impacting poultry, then I will spend the summer months adjusting my husbandry regime such that I can fully free range in the summer (should there be no prevention orders in place), and I can contain the stock under cover during the winter months, should bird flu and the associated prevention orders reoccur.

It will be a different way of working and I suspect there will be more to consider than just the housing, however I’m not convinced that this is the last we will see of these types of prevention measures that we backyarders and smallholders have had to implement, so I encourage you all to look back and reflect in readiness for the next time it happens.

Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens questions the viability of free range egg production in avian influenza high risk areas – Farming UK News

This might not be what people want but I can’t deny the logic behind the fact that if you can’t free range then don’t free range. It’s up to you to decide if that means don’t keep chickens, or do keep them but in a contained environment.

“UK’s Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens has said that egg producers in some higher risk bird flu areas should consider whether or not to continue with free range in future”

Source: Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens questions the viability of free range egg production in avian influenza high risk areas – Farming UK News

What about plastic housing? – a head to head with the market leaders – Part 1

Some years ago I wrote an article about this new-fangled plastic poultry house I just been sent to try out. I recall at the time thinking there was potential in the idea, there were limitations too, however I could see the value in using them particular for the back garden keeper with a flock of 3 or 4 birds. It was quite an innovation though all the same and warranted a closer look

Time has passed by and this year I decided to pull together the top four most well-known manufacturers (and their entry level sized housing) and have put them through their paces in a 6 month long trial. (Since my original encounter with recycled plastic housing there are more and more players emerging so now seemed a good time)

At the time of blogging I’ve just heard that we could well be in for a really hard winter and as such I intend to keep the trial running until next spring so I can genuinely comment on their respective performances should the weather really turn hence I’ll be release this gradually as I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, so to speak.

You might be wondering why now and why little plastic houses? Well I have been and quite be very vocal about the mass produced b*ll*cks housing that’s flooded the market over the last decade; most of it genuinely is rubbish and so frequently results in a negative experience for the keeper and often in welfare issues for the birds. Sure, you pays your money and makes your choice but by the same measure I’m a Yorkshireman and, despite that idiot David Camerons comments about us, I will say we hail from the ‘short arms and deep pockets side of things’ and will avoid excessive spending where possible. As a result though I’ve been quite keen to find out if the advantages of plastic really do mean the price tag is worth it, particularly as I’m frequently asked “what about plastic houses?”

 

The Runners and Riders

Just so we are straight on one thing, I’m not claiming plastic is the way forward just yet. If you want housing for more than 8 to 10 birds you would be better off with wood; it’s cheaper, easier to customise and easily repairable. Plus if, like me, you have multiple coops of breeders and growers then affordability and practicality will drive you down the wood route no matter what any cash rich hobbyist will claim.

This is about the one or two coop backyarder who is keeping chickens for a few eggs and the enjoyment and therefore is willing to make the investment in their housing as a balance against reduced ongoing maintenance costs. It’s because of this that at the end of the day it’s precisely why plastic beats wood hands down on these little houses. Zero ongoing maintenance and cleaning that can involve 30minutes, a pressure hose and an old bath towel even in the depths of winter. Add on the fact that purchasing one second hand has a massively reduced risk of bring pests or disease into your little flock you can perhaps start to see it makes sense.

So who are the runners and riders? They are

the Eglu Go UP from Omlet,

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the Green Frog Designs Chicken House,

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the PetzPodz Chicken Pod,

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and finally the Solway Recycling Eco Hen Loft.

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The price of each can depend to an extent upon the optional extras but in many respects they all land within £100 of each other when bought new other than the Solway house which tends towards the most cost effective end of the market (however doesn’t come with a run option.)

Check back soon when you’ll find out who fairs best in the field trials on the Welsh/Shropshire borders against a set of criteria that I think will sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The UFO & New Blog Sponsors

Last year one of the magazines I write for (Your Chickens) ran a competition for readers Smiths Logo 2to design their perfect chicken house. I was asked to be one of the judges of the entries along with to-be manufacturers of the house, Smiths Sectional Buildings who are based on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border and are known for the range poultry housing, mobile field shelters, horse stables, goat houses and bespoke timber buildings they produce.

Philippa and the crew there made me feel most welcome (the cake was to die for!) as we set about reviewing the designs. In fact it was a bit of an honour for me to be there as I’m the proud owner of a Sherwood 100 bird house  which has served me well (and its previous owner) for the last 20 years, so to see the roots from which it emerged was great.

In fact whilst I’m on the subject of Smiths Sectional Buildings I’d like to say firstly welcome to them as a new sponsor of my blog and secondly that, whilst I can be quite guarded about what I will and won’t recommend I have no issue at all in recommending these guys. They know their poultry housing and ensure the basic needs (which I frequently rant write about) are incorporated. The result is a functional and practical product that in my experience provides two decades and counting of service – not to be sniffed at given the stack ‘em and flog ‘em cheap poultry products that litter the market these days.

Anyway back to the comp. As would be expected there was quite a range of designs submitted but what we were looking for was something that broke the mould a bit, something that would be worth prototyping, something that perhaps we could learn about or pick up new concepts from. The result was certainly conceptual and took quite a bit of construction and design skill to bring together.

Dubbed “the futuristic hen house” or “UFO” (Unusual Feathered Occupancy) I think you’ll agree it’s not like anything seen on the poultry market before.

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Designed as a four pen four house ‘high-rise’ its primary purpose in the brief was to provide a way of keeping four groups of bantam fowl for small scale breeding or exhibition stock rearing.

 

 

 

 

20141006_123832 (863x1024)The designer and winner has had the house for almost a whole season now and when asked for a progress report they replied

“I love my coop, it’s working really well. At the moment I have a hen and her chicks in the bottom layer. Quail in the highest layer, and the other two have had growers in until earlier this week when I released them to free range.

I love having all the pens so close and organised. And it is great for teaching chicks to use a ramp as you can start them on a low one then gradually move them up…..it is a 20141006_123847 (863x1024)brilliant coop that has become invaluable to me this summer. It is quick and easy to clean out and I know the chickens are always safe in it.“

Obviously it was a prototype and head room in the lowest coop is an issue as is the steep nature of the top coop but like any design, it’s a process of reflection and refinement.

Will we see it on mass production? Not yet but who knows, a tweak here and there might just mean we see a few more UFO’s in our countryside.

 

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Worst protein source for climate change..Chicken or Cheese?

As a mixed meat eating and vegetarian household we quite frequently debate the ethics of food and food production, not in an attempt to convert each other but because putting aside the ethical motivations surrounding the eating of meat, both forms of ‘diet’ create a demand on the planet, and both have the capacity to unsustainable. Recently one such discussion had us posing the question that assuming the very best current practices regarding environment protection and ethical treatment of animals were being adhered to then as a source of protein, which is more environmentally costly; dairy products such as milk and cheese, or eggs and meat from chickens?

The Dorking. Better for the environment than Dutch Edam?

The Dorking. Better for the environment than Dutch Edam?

There are so many variables at play in the production of diary versus poultry protein that I was glad I stumbled across an interesting piece of research the performed by the Environmental Working Group. They looked at the lifecycle total of greenhouse gas emissions for common protein foods and vegetables and expressed them as kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalents per kg of food product. Unsurprisingly the production of lamb meat and beef sat at the top of the pile producing 39kg and 27kg of carbon respectively per one kg of product. It also came as no surprise that lentils sat at the opposite end producing 0.9kg per one kg of product. What did surprise me though was where diary sat in relation to poultry.

Eggs generate 4.8kg of carbon per kg of food and chicken meat sits around 6.9kg of carbon per kg of food. Milk came in at an impressive 1.9kg and in fact creates less of a carbon footprint than broccoli at 2kg and potatoes at 2.9kg per kg of food. But what of cheese? With a whooping 13.2kg of carbon per one kg of food produced it ranks amongst the highest in terms of carbon footprint when analysing the common protein foods sitting above pork, turkey and fish. Needless to say this threw up all manner of side debates but it does serve to illustrate that things are not always as they might appear.

Chicken & Egg by Andy Cawthray and James Hermes | The Womens Room

The first review of the new book and hopefully the first of many positive ones too 🙂

Chicken & Egg by Andy Cawthray and James Hermes | The Womens Room.

Forces of Nature

I’ve kept chickens for quite some time and living in a rural area means that the threat of the fox is pretty much something I have to live with.

I have a railway not too far from the property which provides a perfect “motorway” for them and on the opposite side is a large estate where game birds are reared. In between are various copses and fields with hedgerows and rabbits. Foxes are simply a fact of life.

I’ve had day time attacks from foxes. Sometimes they have struck when I’ve been away from the property. I’ve had other instances where a fox has been waiting for me to open the coop door in the morning and no sooner had I turned my back it ran out and grabbed the first thing it could. I’ve had foxes run through a flock of 20 free range birds, clear a fence and grab a bantam Orpington from the lawn where it was preening no more than 6 foot from where I was sat reading the paper.

Given the freedom I give most of my chickens it means these sorts of attacks I can do little about in the first instance. A fox that bold is either very hungry, fearless or inexperienced. Such encounters that involve the risk of close contact with humans are infrequent in a rural environment and not as regular as the urban situation. Note that I stated “I can do little about in the first instance”. A fox that attacks during the day will invariably return in the day again. Its predictability is frequently its downfall.

Night time however is a different story, foxes can and do wander around my place every night. I see evidence of their footprints (sometimes on top of coops!) and they are simply doing what is natural, they are looking for food, they can smell it’s there and so they are looking for a way in, just as I would try the door of the local fish and chip shop if I could smell the fried food inside.

It’s my job to make sure they don’t get a meal and so without fail I lock my birds away every night. Any fox visiting overnight will find nothing out and they will just have to rattle the doors of the chippy so to speak.

There is however one factor that has resulted in a fox killing birds overnight and that’s the weather. Some years back I had a very promising flock of Araucana. I had a down selected a suitable breeding group from the birds I’d hatched that year and brought them together in a pen in the December. It snowed. It started around 3pm and it was heavy. We had quite a job locking up at dusk, the snow was deep by that time and snowballs needed to be thrown. Come the morning there was a beautiful white covering of crisp snow…. spattered in blood and feathers. The Araucanas had not encountered snow before and unbeknownst to me they took shelter under the coop at 3pm. I didn’t check they had gone in when I dropped the door. My failing and the opportunity handed to the fox.

Yesterday morning I took this photograph. These are retired and random chickens that happily wander around freely in the field having their feed. It made me smile.

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We had some rather stormy weather last night, the wind was gusting and it whipped the door open on the front of the coop during the night, this is a photo of the same birds 24hrs later once I’d found (most of) them

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Which force of nature is to blame? The fox or the weather, or do I just accept that these things happen? It’s a tough one to answer sometimes.

 

Quick Tip – Checking for Red Mite

Ok, the web is littered with commentary on red mite and how to deal with it. The crux though in my experience is catching it early. Spot it early on and you have half a chance of defeating it…. let it go unseen and you will rue the day, and so will your chickens.

If you are new to chicken keeping then you may not yet have encountered the poultry keepers Nemesis, the Red Mite. You may however have read all about it and have a good grasp of the pain in the proverbial it can be but unless you have actually witness the cigarette ash like droppings they leave, or that microscopic tickle as they crawl over your arm or through your hair, then you might well not know whether mite is there or not.

So grab a handful of drinking straws, tie them into a bunch and then place them in a dark corner of the coop or nest box.  When it comes to mucking out the coop each week remove the straws, blow down them on a piece of white paper and if the resulting detritus gets up and starts walking around then you might have mite to deal with.

Drinking straws can help in detecting red mite early

Drinking straws can help in detecting red mite early

Housing essentials 1#

I’ve been sent quite a few chicken coop designs and prototypes over the years to put through their paces and do some field trials on.

Some are quite innovative and you can see how the designer has applied themselves to a particular problem or niggle poultry keepers have commented on. Frequently you encounter solutions to these problems that genuinely do work however the coop design fails because the basic essentials have been omitted.

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Ok, a roof and walls tend to be essential but what else? Well here’s one, perches should be higher than nest boxes. Why? Because chickens will invariably perch on the highest point in the house when they go into roost, and when they roost, they poo… a lot.

 

Needless to say this coop failed its field test