Chickens are pretty straightforward and the kind of things that make us happy, make them happy! If I had to summarise this whole section I’d tell you their happiness is dependent on three main things… having other feathered friends, access to a varied healthy diet and space to behave normally!
When you buy or are given an animal you have to take full responsibility for all aspects of its care. The ‘five freedoms of animals’ are a useful guide to help us ensure we’re doing all we can. If you’re not fulfilling the basic requirements in each section, you’re unlikely to have happy hens.
Freedom from hunger or thirst
At a basic level this would be providing clean dry layers pellets, mixed hen grit and fresh drinking water. At a more advanced level this could include…
- Hanging leafy vegetables and herbs for them to peck
- Providing a variety of fresh fruit, off of the ground
- Putting treats such as seeds, dried fruit and nuts in a feeder, a plastic bottle with the lid on and holes in the side is perfect. Just partially fill it and leave it on the ground for them to nudge around
Freedom from discomfort
At a basic level this would be a minimum of 1sq ft of inside space that is draft-free with 6-8” of perch space and 1 sq. m of outside space. At a more advanced level this could include…
- A large outdoor fenced area to allow to them to exercise, roam, stretch, flap and peck at grass or other plants
- Keeping their outdoor area as dry and mud free as possible. Putting a pallet outside their door helps. Fresh wood chippings (often free of charge from a tree surgeon) are fantastic if the area is very wet and muddy. If you have a mobile coop or fencing, move it regularly
- In very cold weather, I often mix my hens’ pellets with hot water and some seeds to give them a warm, higher calorie meal to help them stay warm
- Having an outdoor area they can use when it rains is very useful. This could be temporary such as a tarpaulin or a permanent roofed structure.
- Cleaning dirty feet or feathers that they struggle to clean themselves
- Providing ample shade in hot weather, hens can only cool down by panting
Freedom from pain, injury or disease
At a basic level this would include providing a coop that is clean, safe from predators and free from parasites. The ‘run’ or fenced area should keep birds safe from attack by foxes, dogs and badgers. Birds should be handled gently but firmly and wounds or illness should be swiftly dealt with. At a more advanced level this could include…
- Vaccinating your hens or buying them fully vaccinated
- Worming when required, preferably after getting an faecal egg count completed
- Providing a dust bath for all year round use that is kept dry and topped up
- Ensuring poisons are never used near your birds
Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour
At a basic level this would include the space requirements we’ve mentioned before as well as the company of other hens of a similar size. Hens do not need a cockerel to be content and productive! At a more advanced level this could include…
- Sufficient space for them to run, jump, sun bathe, stretch, flap, perch and peck
- A dark private area to lay their eggs such as a nest box or similar
- Using straw outdoors as a material to be scratched around in
- Bells and mirrors or old hanging CDs to prevent boredom
- Letting them help you garden! If there is an area that needs weeding, temporarily fence the area and allow your feathered tractors to get to work!
- A chicken swing. It’s not ‘normal’ behaviour but some seem to absolutely love swinging. Save your money and make one with a stick and some rope.
Freedom from fear and distress
At a basic level this would include a secure coop and fencing and being allowed out of the coop at a reasonable time of day. At a more advanced level this could include…
- Providing cuddles and stroking
- Being able to eat and drink without fear of bullying from others in the flock by providing multiple feeders and drinkers
- Not allowing children or pets to chase, mishandle or frighten them