Monday 29 December 2014

Join the hen party to ensure your own supply of eggs

Having your own hens is a cracking way to ensure you've a supply of fresh eggs, says Natalie Butler

Natalie Butler

Published 01/08/2014 | 02:30

Hens belonging to Mary Hallissey with daughter Bebhinn Rainey at home in Swords. Photo by Bryan Meade
Hens belonging to Mary Hallissey with daughter Bebhinn Rainey at home in Swords. Photo by Bryan Meade

'People would take the hand off you for an egg," says Mary Hallissey, who with husband Des and three daughters has a mini-Good Life in Balheary, Co Dublin, complete with six hens, a one-eyed cockerel and a cornucopia of vegetables.

"There's a world of difference in taste between a freshly laid egg from your own hen and a factory-produced egg. There's a depth of colour and flavour."

Mary has had hens for 11 years, since her youngest daughter Beibhinn was three months old and she was going through what she describes as an 'Earth Mother' stage.

"Both my grandmothers kept them when I was a child, and I loved the excitement of finding a nest of eggs whenever they laid out. We had the space here, and we thought it would be nice for the children to see food production – to see where food really comes from – and learn how to care for them."

Mary started out with two pedigree hens, but then discovered she could take commercial hens beyond optimum laying age. "Under EU regulations they are discarded after a very short laying life," she says.

So Mary rescued six factory hybrids that were "bound for the chop". It took almost a week for the hens to adjust.

"I feel I'm giving them a second life," she says.

Mary and Des started off using a rabbit hutch as a coop, and then a garden shed, but they weren't ideal as they had no perches and were hard to clean. Their six Rhode Island Red hybrids now have a large run and are given daily access to a fenced area of grass.

Mary adds: "You need to invest in a secure pen, or you lose them to foxes and dogs."

They bought their current purpose-built hen-house in the UK for "between £200 and £300". It has in-built perches, is quick to clean and allows easy access to eggs.

"And it has an automatic door – it's a great gizmo," says Des. "It can be solar-timed or put on a clock."

A 20kg bag of pellets lasts two months, says Des, but the hens are also fed scraps like crackers, pasta and rice. "Between the dog and the chickens, there's no food waste," adds Mary.

"If they're laying well, you get six eggs a week per hen, but it tapers off when the weather gets cold," she says, adding that the rescued hens have about a three-year laying life. When they stop laying, Mary keeps caring for them. "We're too soft-hearted to get rid of them."

On the downside, there's a certain amount of work involved, and hens can attract foxes, rats and dogs. "We had a massacre when we had a makeshift pen and two dogs got in," she says.

Mary's advice: "Don't spend at the start – wait until you know you're going to keep at it – and don't spend on pedigrees.

"Enclose them so they can't eat your flowers and vegetables. They lay better if they have access to grass, so those hen-houses you can move are ideal, but accept that they will wreck the ground. And consider your neighbours."

Suburban hen-keeping is a growing pastime, says poultry seller Leigh Barnwall, based in North Co Dublin. "Over the past four years I've really seen an increase," says Leigh. He sees on average two suburban buyers a week, who each take three to four hens when starting out.

Typical buyers are families with young children, older country people who've moved to the city, and older families who want to make good use of their garden, plus those who buy decorative breeds like the Orpington as pets.

Rhode Island Red is a common choice, as well as Light Sussex and Black Australorp. Leigh says the common hybrids are "the ultimate egg layers", which lay an egg daily from point of lay for two years.

He advises would-be keepers, "Ask your neighbours first – you don't want to fall out over noise or smell. Be aware of dogs, and that keeping hens is an ongoing commitment."

New to hen-keeping are Alison Clince and Kevin McLaughlin, whose hybrids Constance Bokiewicz and Henna Sheehy-Skeffington – after the suffragettes Constance and Hanna – live in a chicken ark in the back garden of their Glasnevin home.

"We're like new parents," laughs Alison.

"I had hens when I was growing up. When Kev and I decided to move house, we bought a garden and got a house attached to it! We wanted to be able to grow our own vegetables and have chickens."

Kevin chips in: "We were browsing through MyHome looking for gardens."

They've had the hens for just three weeks. Alison says: "They've settled quickly. They're very docile and quiet."

The hens were bought for €10 each from Farm Fowl in Co Wicklow, while the €270 ark came from Green Hen Works in Mullingar (see panel).

"Our outlay so far is just knocking on the door of €400," Kevin says. "The majority of that cost was the coup. We spent another €95 on food, bedding, feeder and drinker, mite powder and wormer."

A 25kg bag of organic Layers Pellets is €18; bedding is €12 for a large bale. Kevin says: "You feed 150g per day of pellets per chicken; 300g a day for two – so that's 90 days' worth of pellets. And you need a minimum enclosure of 10sqft per chicken."

"If they're too cramped, they start to pluck their feathers out – they get stressed," adds Alison.

What makes a good coop? It must be robust, easy to clean, well ventilated and allow easy access to collect the eggs, they say. They have also laid planks around their ark to deter foxes from digging in.

"Even if a fox doesn't get in and slaughter them, it can put them off laying," says Alison.

The eggs, one per hen per day on average, were small to start with. "The first one was a tiny little thing, but they are getting a bit bigger," Alison says, adding that the yolks are firmer than those of shop-bought eggs. She sees other advantages, too. "They're adorable. You come home from work and go and check to see if you've got eggs, and let the hens out. They're really sweet to watch.

"Kev has nieces and nephews and it would be nice for them to go and open the little door, have a look in and see what they can find, and have this lovely warm brown egg to bring in. They also eat the bugs off the flowers."

Their tips include starting small, in the summer, and keeping the coop clean ("chicken poop smells", she says) and taking the food out at night.

"It really is a lovely thing to do," says Alison. "You get this excitement: it laid an egg!"

Getting started

When keeping chickens, you must register with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. www.agriculture.gov.ie

The DSPCA gives excellent advice on what to look for when choosing chickens, and hen husbandry. www.dspca.ie/chickens

A wide range of coops is available from:

Farm Fowl, Co Wicklow. Tel: 0404 45930; www.farmfowl.com

Omlet. Tel: 1890 438 438; www.omlet.ie

Green Hen Works, Co Westmeath. Tel: 085 7369528; www.greenhenworks.com

Willowtree Cottage, Co Down. Tel: 048 437 68303; www.willow3.com

Old McDonalds, Co Carlow. Tel: 059 91 79548; www.oldmcdonald.ie

The Happy Hen House, Co Wicklow. www.thehappy henhouse.com

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