Bird Flu and the Backyard Poultry Keeper

I recall the morning of the 7th of December 2016 as being much like any other at that time of year. It was dark outdoors as I filled the kettle and switched on the radio. The weather had turned slightly mild and damp after a nice spell of icy cold weather. I remember thinking we could have done with another week of the cold weather just to ‘clean the ground’. The poultry really do seem to benefit from seasonal shifts like that as opposed to the mild merge of muddy autumn into murky winter. Aside from that, they always look resplendent free ranging on a frosty, bright day.

Routine had the radio playing the Today programme on Radio 4 and it’s not every day that poultry makes it on to the news. No surprise then that myai-symptoms ears instinctively pricked up as the Chief Vet came on air and informed the reporters that due to outbreaks of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza which is sweeping across Europe, DEFRA have invoked a precautionary “prevention zone”. This order required all poultry and captive birds to be kept indoors for 30 days in order to reduce the risk of possible infection occurring from domesticated birds coming into contact with infected migratory wild birds. Initially this only impacted England however within days Wales and Scotland quickly followed suit and the zone became UK wide.

ai-transferIt had been on the cards. I had been following the discussions taking place between the authorities and the industry during the autumn as I recall the spectre of the AI hovering over the country a decade ago. The impact that had still resonates, but for me it is not so much from an industry perspective, but from that of the backyarder and smallholder.

I haven’t done the maths but I suspect I wouldn’t be far wrong to say that 98% of the poultry in the UK is owned by 2% of the poultry keepers and as such a large element of the risk can be managed with a plan that works for a small minority of keepers. The reverse is, 98% of poultry keepers owning 2% of the poultry and these are dispersed and relatively unregulated and unmonitored.

ai-free-rangeWe are predominantly free rangers who view a chicken coop as a place where the birds roost and lay their eggs. as opposed to a building where the flock can be contained for 30 days, and there lies the crux. Precautionary prevention zones are sensible and far more desirable than an outbreak and the subsequent indiscriminate destruction of birds that fall within that biohazard zone, and I suspect that if the action is successful (measured on the basis of no infection occurring whilst the order is in place) then they will become a more frequent occurrence.

Commercial keepers of thousands of birds have the capacity to contain their flocks within the sheds has been analysed and generally agreed as a feasible approach but what of the small scale keeper?

DEFRA have state the “The Prevention Zones requires all poultry and captive birds, including backyard flocks and other captive birds, to be housed or, where it is not practicable to do so, requires steps to be taken to keep them separate from wild birds. If you keep your birds near your home, consider housing them in alternative accommodation, such as a garden building, a garage or redundant building that could be adapted to house your birds temporarily.”

ai-game

This is sound advice for those who have such buildings and DEFRA went on to say “Remember to check for, and remove, hazardous and toxic substances such as rat bait, and make sure the birds have access to water and somewhere to perch. You must also practice good biosecurity – for example disinfecting footwear and equipment and washing clothing after contact with birds.”

Victoria Roberts, one of Britain’s leading poultry vets, and fellow magazine contributor, when asked what action smallholders and back garden poultry keepers should take said “In its most pragmatic terms, ‘indoors’ means protection from wild bird faeces, so a covered run is better welfare for chickens than being shut in a dark shed. Free range hens will need entertainment if suddenly confined, such as branches for extra perching, vegetables hung up etc. to avoid conflict.”

One twitter user asked me if wire mesh over the top of the run would be enough to keep her flock safe. I reminded her that bird faeces would still be able to drop through the mesh and that a tarpaulin cover would prevent this, but to ensure it had slight tilt on it so that rain (and snow) could run off safely and away from the flock underneath.

Victoria has also echoed this point adding “The birds need to be kept in the hen hut until the keeper can construct a makeshift run that is covered.”

It is ultimately a case of common sense as this disease is no different than many in that it is spread through:

  • movement of poultry, people, vehicles and equipment between and within locations;
  • the introduction of birds of poor or unknown health status;
  • contact with other flocks;
  • using shared equipment and vehicles, which have not been effectively cleansed and disinfected;
  • contact with vermin or wild birds;
  • birds drinking from contaminated water sources;
  • birds eating contaminated feed;
  • unsatisfactory cleansing and disinfection of vehicles, sheds, feeding troughs and other equipment.

ai-goose

The objective therefore is to remove, or at least dramatically reduce, the risk of your flock coming into contact with wild birds or their faeces. Here are some specific considerations for when a prevention zone is invoked.

 

Keep the flock indoors – if this is possible then it is the easiest option but observe the welfare needs of the birds closely by increasing your cleaning regime, providing additional items of interest for your flock, and observing a tight biosecurity plan to reduce the risk of infection being carried into the housing. It should go without saying but any proposed building must also take into account the importance of adequate ventilation.

Keep the flock runs covered – permanent indoor housing might not be possible it which case a cover over the run is needed. Small gauge mesh will only stop birds from entering the run and whilst better than nothing at all, a solid cover is far superior at reducing the risk. Consider erecting a solid lean-to on the side of existing houses, this could be a fence panelling for example, or adapting a fruit cage using tarpaulin. Creating temporary outdoor pens using straw bales and a tarpaulin roof with small gaps for light and ventilation is another option. Be aware though if bad weather is likely to be a problem, it may be necessary to erect a windbreak around your structure.

Keep moveable coops in the same place – if your birds are housed in moveable arks or tractor units then don’t be tempted to move the house to fresh ground. This will simply increase the possibility of your flock coming into contact with wild bird faeces.

Keep your access to the housing and run area to a minimum – by doing this you will reduce the risk of you contaminating the area with wild bird faeces you may have come into contact with elsewhere on your property

Keep your equipment clean – use disinfectant such as Virkon to keep equipment and footwear clean, and ensure the clothing you use when working with your poultry is washed after contact with birds.

Keep feed and water out of the reach of wild birds – make sure that drinkers are under cover and ideally put feeders in the coop. Avoid placing water in the house unless you are using nipple drinkers; regularly drinkers will get knocked over in any skirmishes in the coop.

Keep your birds contained – avoid unnecessary handling and movement of your birds on or off site, and where practical avoid visiting other poultry keeping establishments to reduce any possibility of cross contamination.

Keep a close eye on your poultry – if you have any signs of illness then seek advice from a qualified vet.

 

The 6th of Jan is when the restrictions are due to be lifted however time will tell if the pre-emptive action has paid dividends, but more over whether all 100% of the UKs poultry keepers have conformed and made their contribution to keeping the UK bird flu free.

 

 

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Guest blog from over the pond – Fencing for Chickens

Occasionally I receive content for the blog from folks around the web and this time I’ve been sent some fencing information care of Liz Greene.

If you follow any of the columns I write for various magazines then you’ll be familiar of my encounters with predators here in the UK, namely the fox, badger and a one legged escapee Harris Hawk. On reading Liz’s advice I now consider myself lucky not having to worry about bears, snakes, bobcats and raccoons!

Have a read… it’s all sound advice and thanks Liz for sharing it!

 

 

Fencing Your Chickens: What You Need to Know

Hens

When it comes to chicken fencing, there are two objectives — keep predators out and keep your chickens in.The first objective is easily the most important, as chickens have little-to-no means of protecting themselves. However, trying to herd chickens isn’t always the easiest task, so keeping them contained is just as necessary.

So what options do you have for fencing your flock?

Hardware Cloth (Wire Mesh)

Hardware cloth is excellent fencing material for chicken runs, as it’s the best option to protect against a number of small and medium sized predators such as rats, snakes, minks, and raccoons. Available in different sizes, the half inch size is ideal for creating a protected outdoor pen. Use the quarter inch size to cover smaller areas, such as the coop windows or vents. Hardware cloth is galvanized to protect against rust and while it’s a bit stiff, it can easily be bent it by hand.

Chicken Wire

Although it’s cheap, easy to install, and has chicken in the name, chicken wire should be avoided if you’re looking to keep predators from decimating your flock. This lightweight, octagonal-shaped wire will keep your chickens in, but it won’t keep the predators out. Raccoons and other dexterous animals are infamous for reaching through chicken wire and tearing apart the chickens they can grab. Chicken wire should only be used in daytime runs where you have direct supervision over your flock.

Electric Fencing

There are a few different types of electric fencing that work for chickens — two and three wire systems, electric netting, and combination electric and standard fencing.

Two to three wire systems work well to deter medium to large predators — but snakes, rats, and mice can pass right through. Electric netting keeps the lion’s share of predators out, but tends to be more expensive and trickier to maintain.

Combination fencing is the best bet as it’s an easy way to deter predators and is fairly inexpensive. Simply add a ground wire four to six inches from the bottom of your current fence and another wire along the top to deter climbing predators. Connect wires to a 5,000 volt charger to both contain chickens and stop predators.

The Fence

Whatever material you ultimately decide to build your fence out of, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Bobcats, coyotes, and foxes are fantastic jumpers and can easily clear four foot fences. Chicken fences should be at least five feet tall, though six feet is better in my opinion. Cover the chicken run with wire mesh fencing or game-bird netting to discourage hawks and owls from dropping in and grabbing one of your chickens.

Badgers, foxes, and raccoons will dig under a fence if the ground is soft enough. Bury wire mesh fencing 8-12 inches down into the ground and then 8-10 inches outward. Place bricks or gravel over the turned out wire before covering it back over with soil.

While solid fencing is a deterrent to predators, it isn’t always foolproof. It’s not enough to simply install a reliable fence, you also have to be vigilant about maintaining it. After all, your chickens are counting on you to keep them safe.

 

 

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.

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

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.

 

20141006_123847 (863x1024) 20141006_123856 (863x1024)

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.

Scottish Television on the hunt for urban pig and poultry keepers

Is that you? It could well be as I know quite a few folks who read or follow this blog fall into that urban farming category.

To cut a long story short I’ve been contacted by Will Steel of STV via Jane Perrone of The Guardian (ok, ok, name dropping… did I mention I was on Countryfile the other month? I did? Oh well my apologies) and he is developing a programme about people who have chickens and pigs in their city gardens.

As such he’s looking for anyone who has chickens in their city home who he could potentially contact about the programme? At the moment he’s just looking for some stories but you never know, this could be a fine opportunity to show your flat pack farm or backyard Bonanza !

If you are interested then contact Will directly will.steel@stv.tv