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,

2015December Eglu GO

the Green Frog Designs Chicken House,

2015December Green Frog

the PetzPodz Chicken Pod,

2015December PetPodz

and finally the Solway Recycling Eco Hen Loft.

2015December Solway

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.

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Gardens & Chickens… Do they mix?

Mar2014 Sabelpoots

 

 

I’m an avid gardener; in fact I’ve been gardening both in terms of flowers, fruit and vegetables since I fell out of a pram, I’m not a precious gardener though who needs everything in rows unless it’s in my vegetable plot. Call me old fashioned but I like my Mar2014 Naturalistic borderonions to all be in one place, spuds somewhere else and carrots as a collective rather than scattered everywhere. On the other hand I don’t mind organised chaos taking place in the rest of the borders (or the naturalistic planting look as it could be called).

To me a garden is simply an outdoor room and like indoor rooms it should never be static.Instead it should evolve as you and your life evolves. I have a pond for example, I spend many hours sitting near it and watching the wildlife make use of it, be it the frogs in the spring, the dragonflies in summer or (without fail every year) the grey wagtails in the autumn. I gain an immense amount of pleasure from my garden and from the flora and fauna within in it so why then would I put a flock of chickens in there; especially given one of the frequently said things about chickens and gardens it is that they don’t mix?  Well this isn’t an untrue statement but then by the same measure it’s true to say children and gardens don’t mix, or dogs and gardens don’t mix.

A good garden is one where thought and design have been applied according to its use – take the pond I mentioned earlier, 15 years ago I would never have had an open pond in my garden. Why? I had 3 children under 4yrs old and the effort of keeping them out of the pond would have no doubt taken a lot of the joy out of having one in the first place.

Many of us have or have had children and or dogs romping around the garden and we’ve made compensations to allow for it, and so by the same measure it’s not impossible to have chickens in the garden, and for that mix to be enjoyable and beneficial for both the gardener and the flock; you just need to plan and design accordingly.

Why Free-Range?

For many people keeping a backyard flock is synonymous with providing higher welfare and thus being secure in the knowledge that the eggs you are collecting are not from a factory farmed source. The trouble is though that keeping the three of them ‘cooped up’ in a run 3 metres by 3 metres is in fact a stock density greater than that of a commercial free range flock. In other words they have less space per bird, so if better welfare is a motivation for you keeping chickens then you may need to reconsider the space you allow them, or look to giving them a bit more of the garden.

 

Free ranging invariably results in happier, healthier chickens in so much that their lifestyle will be much more akin to their natural habitat. In fact there’s many a ‘jungle of a garden’ out there which would make a perfect haunt for a flock of hens. In fact anyone who has observed a hen that’s escaped from a fixed run will have witnessed the vigour and energy in their behaviour (and the fact they will continue to try and escape to experience it all over again!).

For me I use chickens as helpers because for all their ‘misplaced enthusiasm’ in the garden, they are in fact quite useful. They help in the control of pests, eat weeds, mow the lawn, compost green waste and improve soil condition. As a collective they quite possibly do the work of one person in the garden throughout the year and lay fantastic healthy eggs too. I won’t wax lyrical though and claim they are no problem at all as I do need to control where they go and protect some plants and crops from the attentions, but compared to the benefits they deliver coupled with beauty and movement they bring to the look of the garden, it’s worth it.

Tip
Keep the flock size appropriate for the space you have. A 25m2 to 35m2 garden space would suit 5 average sized chickens which in turn should easily keep the average family in eggs with sufficient surplus to sell and cover upkeep costs

Your garden is an ecosystem which the balance of, to many extents, is under your control, and if that ecosystem is to remain healthy then you need to observe and understand the way it works. Adding an appropriately sized flock of chickens introduces another aspect to the ecosystem but one which is most definitely within your control and under your management. Making sure the flock compliments and contributes towards the balance of the garden is key and stocking too heavily or ranging too intensively will lead to problems, so take your time and you will find chickens and gardens can mix.

Mar2014 Brahma under a shrub

A spot of poultry podcasting with Alys Fowler and Jane Perrone for The Guardian

If you follow me on twitter or have read one of my recent blogs then you might have seen I was podcasting about poultry with two lovely folks who I’m chuffed to include amongst my friends, Alys Fowler and Jane Perrone from the The Guardians #sowgrowrepeat  . Have a listen (and hear me do a chicken impression!) and see why the only conclusion is chickens are the star pets of the garden …. although my old knuckle-head collie, Mick, does get a mention

Alys Fowler and Jane Perrone discuss the particulars of pets in gardens | Life and style | The Guardian.

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.

Why a chicken might be the perfect pet for you – Telegraph

“If you are looking specifically for pets, then focusing on the breeds with docile temperaments is perhaps the best route. If space is limited or young children are involved, then a bantam breed like the pekin can make a good starter. If you have more room and older children, then it’s hard to beat the Brahma for appeal, entertainment and temperament. However, the more docile breeds are often not usually high egg producers.’’ said I in this weekends Telegraph. I said a lot of other things too but hey at least this time I wasn’t misquoted 🙂

Why a chicken might be the perfect pet for you – Telegraph.

Blatant Book Plug – Chicken & Egg: An Egg-Centric Guide To Raising Poultry

Well it’s my blog, so why not plug my new title due out in the Spring of 2015…..?

The title might sound a little corny however the focus of the book is in fact “eggs”. The origins and science of eggs along with the ways to get the best out the breeds you choose with particular emphasis on a number of the key laying pure breeds, all beautiful illustrated in the loose water colour style of that exceptional artist, Kate Osbourne . I’ve yet to see the finished product but if it’s anything like the previous title I worked on with Ivy Press then it will be exceptional and well worth owning…. and I’m not just saying that because I wrote it, but because the other book genuinely is a cracker 😉

New title due out in Feb 2015

New title due out in Feb 2015

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.

SAMSUNG

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

 

 

 

“How much is that Hen?” – The True Cost of Incubation

Perhaps you’re a new chicken keeper wanting to get into breeding, or perhaps you fancy rearing some replacements for your aging flock as opposed to paying the price for POLs, or perhaps you have a granddaughter or nephew who has some pet chickens and you think it might be nice for them to hatch some chicks of their own. Whatever the reason is, it’s likely you are thinking along the lines of buying an incubator to pop some fertile eggs in… but make sure you go into it with your eyes wide open.

I’m not talking so much about the range of models on the market but more the total cost. There is quite a variety of incubators around and whilst there are some very reliable brands, there are equally ones that tempt you with a cheap price tag and/or a small capacity. Success in using an incubator can be a bit of a dark art and although it is quite possible to take the incubator out of the box, turn it on and have a 100% hatch 21 days later, this isn’t usually the case. They are precisely calibrated pieces of technical equipment that are trying to simulate the natural know how of a mother hen. Many are quite capable of creating an equivalent environment, but operator error is not uncommon, not only in terms of the initial setup but through inexperience and a lack of understanding of the environmental factors at play during the incubation of an egg. Ultimately though you want to avoid the disappointment of having no chicks hatch, or worse still a single chick hatch, which aside from the obvious trauma of being alone, can mean it has the potential to be the most expensive chicken you have ever raised. Why? Well the incubator is only a part of the cost; newly hatched chicks need heat for the first few weeks of their life, and in the absence of the mother hen you will need to provide the heat source instead, 24hrs a day. They need shelter too, so a space indoors is essential. They will be too small to manage your regular chicken feed so specialist feed will be needed and quite possibly an appropriately sized drinker. Even when they no longer need heat it will still be a good 3-4months before there is any opportunity to introduce them to the rest of your flock, so additional housing and separate run space is another cost consideration.

This might sound like I’m preaching to the converted however it’s surprising just how many people I’ve spoken to who hadn’t considered the end to end cost. A cost incidentally that only really gets recouped if the investment is used more than once, and the investment could easily be in the region of £500 even if it’s only an entry level incubator that’s purchase.

Let’s take that £500 investment and do a bit of reverse engineering on it. Let’s assume it covers the cost of a 20 egg incubator and all the paraphernalia and running costs you’d need to raise the chicks to point of lay. Fertility as I’ve mentioned before is not 100% guaranteed nor is hatchability, but using a conservative estimate for the purpose of illustration let’s say 80% of the eggs are fertile and 80% of those go on to hatch and survive the early days. That means the 20 eggs will become 12 chicks. Not a bad result so far, however of those twelve it’s statistically likely that only half will be female. So £500 results in 6 hens, that’s £83 per pullet (a figure many a breeder could only dream of charging). Obviously you have some tangible assets that could be sold on but even if those recover half of the investment then it’s still over £40 a pullet, not so cheap is it?….and then there’s what to do with those six cockerels that have just started crowing….

Hatching your own chickens... but how much is that hen?

Hatching your own chickens… but how much is that hen?

10 things you wanted to know about chickens but were afraid to ask – 7#

Do Dogs & Chickens Mix?

If you have ever been to visit me then aside from seeing the various flocks of chickens I keep you will no doubt have met my faithful hound, Mick.

Mick has been around for almost 12 years now, in fact he’s knocking on a bit himself having arrived as a rescue dog when he was only 2 years old. His history was unknown having been found as a stray in Cardiff. The only thing that was known was his jaw had been broken in 3 places (and reset wrong), he’d been partial castrated and shot. His fear of sheep would suggest to me that he’s a failed sheep dog however it’s no surprise he was somewhat depressed when I met him at the Dogs Trust at Roden

When he arrived all those years ago he was ‘tested’ to see if he would settle around the chickens and ducks and much to my delight he paid them no attention what so ever.

Now if you have visited and met Mick then you too will know he pays no attention to the livestock at all but that doesn’t mean he tolerates them totally or that he’ll sit at the bottom of the pecking order as this photograph illustrates.

I was doing a spot of gardening and as usual that results in the assistance of the nearest flock of chickens and of course the presence of Mick. This is not normally an issue but it was high summer and having been for a walk earlier in the day Mick had grass seeds in his hair which attracted the attention of this particular Sussex pullet. Mick had allowed her to ‘pick over’ his coat and I thought a photo of this odd grooming activity might be interesting… she foolishly decided the grass seed on his chin needed pecking just as I focused the camera.

Mick

 

 

You will be pleased to know that the chicken was not injured and Mick looked at me afterwards with such an apologetic look that you had to forgive him for the response to a sharp peck on the chin. The two of them still encounter each other but a wide birth is given by both. Do dogs and chickens mix, yes, but even the most trusted of dogs can react, or the most confident of chickens come unstuck so be careful.