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Keeping Chickens in the Garden
Chickens are a great low maintenance easy pet to have in your garden. They will supply you with eggs that are lovely and fresh and taste great. All they need is fresh clean water and food.

Feed them with a constant supply of pellets to ensure a balanced diet and give the occasional treat of pasta, cake and rice. Do not however give them meat. If they do not like something that you have given them they will leave it, you will soon get to know what they fancy and if they are not hungry they will not eat. Chickens love slugs so preparing a slug salad for them is a wonderful treat. Add the slugs to a handful of lettuce leaves and sweetcorn. Too many slugs though may cause a spot of diarrhoea so keep an eye on their intake.

There are a wide range of breeds available all with different egg laying capacities. Keeping more than one chicken can create a bit of animosity which the chickens tend to sort out themselves. Once the pecking order is decided they should live together peacefully although the ruckus may return if a new bird is introduced. Do not interfere in the scuffles as they will settle down in time. If you see a bird being edged out and denied food or water place another supply for it away from the other birds.

A broody chicken will try to hatch her eggs sometimes which will obviously not happen if she has not been near a rooster in the previous 7 days. Keep removing the eggs and her urges will go.

A Light Sussex breed hen
A Light Sussex breed hen

Woman feeding free range chickens in her garden (Photo -  Edward J Bock 111 | Dreamstime.com)

Use their droppings in your compost or on your vegetable patch for a fantastic and inexpensive way of getting some nutrients back into your garden. Clipping their wings will also prevent them from flying away. Research this or simply take to the vet to have it done. Collect your eggs daily to ensure freshness, allow your chickens to roam in safety as much as possible and maintain their runs with fresh hay or straw and your relationship with your bird will blossom.

 

Life span

The life span of a chicken depends entirely on how they are being kept and for what purpose. A chicken left to live a natural life can survive up to 11 years depending on their breed. Chickens that are bred intensively for their meat can only live a maximum of 6 weeks. A chicken that is bred to be free range or organic will live up to 14 weeks. Hens bred especially to be good egg layers will churn out anything up to 300 eggs a year. This number starts to decrease after about a year and that is when the hens are used for meat. This meat is used in processed meals, pet and baby food etc. A free range chicken and an intensively farmed chicken will start their lives out the same way. They will both be moved by conveyor belts and packed into crates where someone will have the job of deciding which farms the chicks will go to. Its the luck of the draw as a chicken as to whether it will be free range or intensively reared. Any chicks found on the conveyor belt to be in a less than perfect standard are sent to sleep on site as they are not viable produce.

A free range black and white Wyandotte mother hen with four cute little chicks ( Martine De Graaf | Dreamstime.com)

Buying chicken for meat

The variations of chicken products that we buy are, Standard, Cornfed, Organic and Free range. These chickens are reared in different ways and produce different tasting meats. Standard birds are intensively reared, cornfed birds are predominantly fed on corn which gives them a yellow appearance when bought as meat. The corn provides the bird with essential nutrients it needs to provide a tastier meat. Organic and free range birds have the ability to roam free for half of their lives which provides them with stimulation. Choosing which meat to buy can be a daunting task not simply because of the degree of choice but the fact that we are not informed fully on the label what it is we are eating. The general rule is the cheaper the product, the more things have been compromised to make it that price.

 

Intensively reared birds

95% of the chickens bought are reared this way. They are the cheapest birds, always on offer in supermarkets. To the majority of the public when a chicken is seen on a shelf at such a low price it never crosses the mind as to how that chicken lived or in what conditions. These birds are crammed into tight spaces at a density of 38kg/m2. This is approx 19 birds per metre. They spend their short lives eating constantly to get up to the weight they are desired to be. Faeces and ammonia from the urine that they are subjected to stand in all the time causes blisters to their breasts and feet. Health problems occur and if a bird is found to be lame they are culled immediately. After six weeks of constantly eating, lack of natural sunlight and nothing of interest to stimulate their senses they are collected into crates to be slaughtered.

 

Free range and organic birds

These birds have more freedom to move around at a density of 27.5kg/m2, this equates to approx 13 birds per metre. When they are 2 weeks old they are allowed to venture outside for air and sunlight. Chickens bred to be free range or organic have more in common with their jungle fowl ancestors in that they are allowed freedom and are able to perch and be surrounded by their natural habitat. Intensively farmed birds get none of this. 

 

Consumer Choices

The decision to go organic or free range obviously depends on a lot of factors. It is not just simply about wanting to do what is best for the birds. A lot of the general public are on extremely tight budgets and may feel their only option is to choose the cheapest meat to eat. A free range bird will cost more to buy than an intensively reared one but for the sake of a few pounds extra we can all feel that we are doing our bit for animal welfare. Free range meat tastes better because the bird gets all the added benefits of natural food and sunlight. Try to buy the best welfare bird with your budget and make sure it is local. If a chicken in the shop has the RSPCA freedom food (see below), Assured Food Standards or the Soil Association logo on it then you can be sure that that bird was looked after. 

Cut down on the amount of chicken you eat a week and research new recipes that will make your chicken go further. Steer clear of packaged chicken breasts as this is an expensive way to buy the meat, instead buy a decent whole chicken that could last for two meals.  Also think about what eggs you buy. Instead of buying eggs from caged hens go for free range as the price difference is barely noticeable. Eggs from caged hens are also used in other products such as mayonnaise etc.

With our consumer power we can try to get our supermarkets to label these products appropriately so that we know exactly what we are buying. Certain supermarkets have already realised that their chicken and egg products needed a rethink. There are supermarkets out there that will only sell free range eggs, or ensure that their processed meals such as pies and pastries only contain free range eggs. Others are still of the view that the consumer needs to be given a wide range of products to choose from, this would be okay if the products were clearly labelled. Certain packaging can be misleading and it is not always easy to ascertain exactly what you are reading. The answer is to ask. The more questions we ask about the food we are buying and eating the more they will sit up and listen. Making informed choices about our food is our right and to make these choices we must have all the information. Animal welfare is an extremely important subject and something must be done to ensure government guidelines are being set to maintain good welfare. The standards in which intensively reared birds are kept is simply not good enough and to make any changes we ad consumers must argue this. By supporting the RSPCA Freedom Food and buying food with the label on and signing their petition we as consumers can really make a difference. Lets support our local farmers and aid them in providing better welfare for the animals that we are eating.

 

Chicken Facts

The chicken (gallus gallus) is a domesticated fowl kept predominantly for its food source ie meat and eggs.

There are more chickens in the world than any other bird. 

The adult male is called a cock or rooster, cockerels are males under the age of one.

A female adult is called a hen and infant females pullets.

The babies are known as chicks and it is the meat that we call chicken.

Roosters are usually identified by their different colourings and plumage.

 

Links..

Chicken Coops - Give your chickens a luxurious and secure start with this fine range of chicken coops from Gardening Shop UK.

RSPCA Chicken Welfare - The RSPCA has publicly challenged all British Supermarkets to pledge to only sell 100% welfare-friendly chicken by 2010.

Battery Hen Welfare Trust - The aim of this site is to inspire as many of you as possible to do all you can to help them achieve a better future for the 20 million battery hens currently in their cages.

The Poultry Club - A registered charity which exists to safeguard the interests of all pure and traditional breeds, both in Great Britain and throughout the world.

 

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