UK – The Animal and Plant Health Agency is warning farmers and smallholders not to feed catering or kitchen waste to livestock such as pigs and poultry, even if they are being kept as pets.
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 my 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.
It 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.
We 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.”
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.
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.
As another breeding season draws to a close I find myself looking back over my hatching records, and the cross section of growers I have on the go. In front of me on the wall is a ‘post-it’ note that states “No Eggs To Be Set After End Of May”. It is in my son’s handwriting, and to be fair it’s there for a good reason and acts as my annual reminder.
For too many years I’d still have my incubators whirring away in August, September and even early October only to find myself ruing the day I set the eggs. Why? By November and December the resulting hatchlings have outgrown their indoor facilities and need to go outside, but outside its cold, wet and muddy. Hands up if you too have learnt that lesson only to forget it the following year?
As a poultry breeder there is a constant temptation to set eggs.
In some years I’ve had hatchlings popping out everywhere, and it’s been a bumper season for sales, and so I’ve kept hatching well beyond my common sense threshold. The risk is though, you see it as the poultry equivalent of making hay whilst the sun shines, the trouble is ‘making hay’ is a harvesting event, setting eggs is more like sowing seeds. As a gardener you read the label, it tells you when to sow and when to harvest. You don’t get that warning when breeding poultry, so in many respects the note acts my label.
He wrote the note I think primarily because he too ends up having to help out and when the weather is poor, pushing a wheelbarrow along a path with 6 inch of mud on it, whilst the wind successful empties the contents of said barrow across the paddock, is a spirit sapping task even for the most happy-go-lucky individual. I’ve written about it before but the winters at the moment seem to be more mild and more wet, with occasional unpredictable extremes such as having a BBQ in March one year only to be under 3 feet of snow the same month the following year, and as such I’ve shifted my breeding plans at least for the time being. I’ve shorten the window of time for setting eggs, and lengthened the period of time the males are apart from the females…… and I have to say I’ve found it altogether more manageable.
As such sense is prevailing and this rather faded post-it note has served me well. It has also meant I’ve had more time in the summer to just enjoy watching the youngsters growing outdoors on the grass, rather than spending hours indoors covered in dander and dust dealing with day olds. You never know, I might even venture towards a summer holiday one year!
Breed Name: Dorking
Profile: The Dorking is a very ancient British breed believed to have its ancestry rooted back in Roman Britain where five-toed Dorking like breeds were described in texts from AD 47. It is a very heavy breed but there is no evidence as yet to suggest that, as in the case of other giant chickens, it is in any way related to the huge breeds originating from Asia. Well established in the early nineteenth century it made a significant contribution to the development of other table breeds.
Behaviour and upkeep: Because of its huge size and its loose feathering, spacious housing is required if the birds are to maintain a good look. They do not need much in terms of outdoor space and are quite content within a fixed run however care must be taken to avoid them becoming fat through lack of exercise. They can become tame if handled calmly but their size should be considered carefully if thinking of having them as pets. The hens tend only to lay during the spring and summer and fertility can present a challenge for anyone wishing to breed from a flock.
Plumage/Colours: Silver grey, Red, White, Dark, Cuckoo
Eyes: Bright red
Comb: Single, large or Rose
Feet & legs: Featherless, five toes
Large Fowl 10-14lb (4.55-6.35kg)
Bantam 40-48oz (1130-1360g)
Large Fowl 8-10lb (3.60-4.55kg)
Bantam 32-40oz (910-1130g)
Egg production – Low to medium
Egg Colour – Tinted
Classification – Heavy; Soft Feather
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 onions 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.
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.
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.
Last year one of the magazines I write for (Your Chickens) ran a competition for readers to 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.
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.
“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 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.
I guess it’s not every day you pop up in the Huffington Post 14 Creative Ways To Reuse Empty Wine Bottles.
Some nice ideas in here but really, do I need instructions on how to make a wine bottle into a rolling pin??
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
Some handy images in this article