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Testing the good life: owning a chicken coop

Continuing our series on becoming self-sufficient one step at a time, we look at one of the most talked-about features of this lifestyle... hens

Many people dream about becoming self-sufficient but going the whole hog in one go is not practical for most. Moving gradually is easier.

Last month, we looked at preparing your soil and planning out planting and this month we are thinking about eggs, looking at the best ways to approach keeping hens.

Firstly, in order to have happy healthy birds you need a proper home for them and there are various points to consider. Hens do not like being cold and wet – who does? – so you need a waterproof, well-insulated hen house equipped with roosting perches and laying boxes. It must be out of the wind but also in the semi-shade if you live in the south of France.

They will also need outdoor space where they can scratch, have dust baths and forage for insects; plus access to plenty of clean water, as well as food and grit, which can be supplied by giving oyster shells to eat.  

There are lots of prefabricated hen houses on the market, some of them equipped with doors which open and close automatically, saving you the job of shutting them in every evening and letting them back out every morning.

These devices can be bought separately but only work with ‘portcullis’ type doors that slide up to open them.So, if you are contemplating building your own hen house, make sure to make this kind of door for the hens.

The internet is awash with free hen house designs, and there is also a lot of information available about keeping chickens safe from foxes.

A recent innovation is a mobile hen house and run. Moving the hen house every few weeks helps to provide fresh grazing and allows the land to recover. The run attached to a static hen house soon becomes bare earth with little to peck at.

As for hens, advice from amateur site poulespondeuses.com suggests opting for typical farm hens if you want eggs and hens that eat kitchen waste.

There are 50 odd varieties with poule rousse, poule noire, poule blanche (often called Sussex), poule grise cendrée and poule coucou. They can be found at markets or online but make sure they are at least 16 weeks old.

Expect to pay €10-20 and there is no need for a rooster – unless you want chicks... and, if you live in or near town, legal wrangles with neighbours. 

Self-sufficiency is the aim of David and Teresa Clay who recently moved from a small flat in West Sussex to an old school house with land in the Gers. Connexion is following their progress. Share your tips on self-sufficiency with us via news@connexionfrance.com

 

“Despite wet weather, which has left the soil too water-logged to be dug over, we’ve got ahead and planted our onions and garlic in modules filled with our garden compost,” said David. “Once they have rooted we will plant them out, but this just gives them a better start.”

Seeds he and Teresa ordered have arrived, so they are making a planting plan according to the space available as there are still crops in the ground.

“Rotation is important to prevent the build-up of diseases and maintain soil health, so a patch that had brassicas last year will have onions this year, fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers the year after, then squash for example, making a 3-4 year cycle.”

They are also digging over new beds and starting to plant, using the inventory they made of all their seeds, both bought in and saved from last year.

“We use notes of last year’s planting, plus a planting schedule, and stagger planting to avoid gluts. Staggered planting is also a precaution against bad weather or predators like slugs. But we have toads, hedgehogs and plenty of birds in the garden so we haven’t had too much slug damage.”

David and Teresa are also considering hens. “We’re still at the research stage. “It’s important to protect chickens from foxes and martens, and we have to protect the garden from the chickens. Our neighbour has a two-metre tall electric wire fencing with the bottom part buried and the top overhanging on the exterior side. Other deterrents apparently include human hair hung up in bags and men’s urine!”

They like the idea of the ‘virtuous circle’ formed by chickens eating garden and kitchen waste like dandelions, apple cores, carrot tops, blanched potato peelings, blackberries and brambles. They turn this in to eggs, and their manure can be composted with their bedding to produce fantastic fertiliser for the garden.

“What we’re currently grappling with is killing chickens,” David said.

“To be self-sufficient in eggs, either you have to let them have chicks and then kill the males for the table, or you have to buy in new stock and kill the old hens. Or if they get sick or injured we might have to kill them.

“In principle we don’t object to giving animals a good life and a good death and then eating them. But if we aren’t able to dispatch our chickens ourselves, we might have to go vegetarian because why should we expect other people to kill animals for us?”

Getting chickens involves quite a big initial outlay, notes David, and with each chicken laying around 300 eggs a year, recouping the outlay is not quick. “But it would be great for our B&B because we make our own bread and cakes, plus some evening meals. So we’re considering...”

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