Poultry housing is used by the birds for roosting, laying, and shelter. The welfare of the birds is entirely in your hands and certain principles must therefore be observed.
Floor area should be a minimum of 1 square foot per bird (large fowl) or 8” square for bantams. If you can give them more space then so much the better bearing in mind they will be spending time in the henhouse sheltering from the rain and wind. Perches should allow a minimum of 9” for large fowl and 6” for bantams and be 2” wide with rounded edges.
Correct ventilation is vital to prevent the build-up of bacteria and condensation. It should be located near the roof to ensure there are no draughts. It can be more difficult keeping the house cool than warm.
Normally located near the roof with a sliding cover to allow for adjusting the ventilation and covered in mesh. Glass can break and does not help the ventilation. One window is best as the house can then be sited with its back to the wind. The amount of light increases egg laying, 14 hours being the optimum if you are adding artificial lighting which can come on with a timer in the early morning, allowing the birds natural twilight to choose their roost.
Timber should be substantial for the frame and can then be clad with tongue and groove or shiplap or good quality plyboard. If the timber is pressure treated by Tanalising or Protimising it will last without rotting. The roof needs to be sloping to allow rain to run off. Avoid using felt if this is possible as this is where the red mite breeds (see Health). Onduline is a corrugated bitumen which is light and warm therefore reducing condensation but needs regular supports. Plywood can be used if it is treated with non-toxic pet-friendly preservative. To protect the plywood roof further, instead of felt,corrugated clear plastic can be used as it lets the light through and deters red mite which likes dark places. Square mesh is best used on the window and ventilation areas as it is fox proof. Sectional construction is best for ease of moving.
Located in the lowest, darkest part of the house as hens like to lay their eggs in secret places. Size for large fowl is up to 12” square or 8” square for bantams with one nest box per four hens. Communal nest boxes with no partitions are useful as sometimes all the hens choose just one nestbox and queue up or all pile in together which is when eggs get broken. Make sure there is outside access for you to collect the eggs. Litter in the nestboxes can be shavings or straw (not hay due to moulds).
Even for bantams, perches should be broad - 2” square (5cm) with the top edges rounded is ideal. They should be the correct height for the breed so they can get on them easily and have room to stand up on them, but heavy breeds should have low perches to avoid bumble foot (see Health). See above for spacing but allow 12” (30cm) between perches if more than one. Make sure they are higher than the nestbox otherwise the hens will roost in the nestbox. If you can provide a droppings board under the perches which can be removed easily for cleaning it will help keep the floor of the house cleaner as hens do two thirds of their droppings at night. You can also check the droppings for colour and consistency (as a guide to health) more easily.
This is a low door so that the hens can go in and out of the house at will. The most practical design has a vertical sliding cover which is closed at night to prevent fox damage. The horizontal sliding popholes quickly get bunged up with muck and dirt and are difficult to close. There are light sensitive or timed gadgets available which will close the vertical pophole for you if you have to be out at dusk.
The house must provide protection from vermin such as foxes, rats and mice. One inch (2.5cm) mesh over the ventilation areas will help keep out all but the smallest of vermin. You may need to be able to padlock the house against two-legged foxes.
Wood shavings for livestock is the cleanest and best. Straw may be cheaper but check that it is fresh and clean and not mouldy or been contaminated by vermin or cats. Do not use hay due to harmful mould spores which will give the hens breathing problems. Litter is used on the floor, in the nestboxes and on the droppings board.
Weekly cleaning is best, replacing litter in all areas. There are disinfectants available which are not toxic to the birds and will destroy many if not all of bacteria, virus and fungus harmful to poultry (e.g. VIrkon or F10).
If housing is bought from a reputable manufacturer and meets all the basic principles then that may be the quickest and easiest method of housing your birds. If you wish to make housing yourself, keep to the basic principles and remember not to make it to0 heavy as you may want to move it either regularly, or at some stage if it is not permanent. Remember to make the access as easy as possible for you to get in to clean, catch birds, or collect eggs. Occasionally, second-hand housing becomes available. Beware of disease, rotten timber, and inability to transport in sectional form.
Movable pens are good as the birds get fresh ground regularly. Some have wheels which makes moving them easy for anyone. Triangular arks were developed to prevent sheep jumping on housing in the days when different stock was kept together. The shape of an ark can damage the comb of a cockerel. A disadvantage of movable pens or fold units is the limit on the size and therefore the number of birds kept in each one.
Static or Free-Range housing needs to be moved occasionally in order to keep the ground clean around the house, but the hens are allowed to roam freely or contained within a fenced-off area. Tall thin houses are unstable in windy areas, so go for something low and broad based. If a sliding or hinged roof is incorporated there is no need to have the house high enough for you to stand up in. It is useful to have a free-range house with a solid floor raised off the ground for about 8”. This discourages rats and other vermin from hiding under the house and can make an extra shelter or dusting area for the birds. They are liable to lay under the house if their nestboxes are not adequate. When using movable pens and moving them on a daily basis it is useful to have feeders and drinkers attached to the unit so it all comes with the unit without having to take the equipment out and put it all back again.
The aviary system of keeping poultry is another method, but does depend on a larger garden. The aviary can be one free-standing or a line of them with rotational access to grass. The principle of an aviary is that it is spacious, at least one side has mesh, the roof is solid and the walls can be either solid or mesh. The birds are protected from the elements and have plenty of fresh air without contamination from wild birds. The floor can be covered in straw, sand, gravel or wood chippings to provide drainage. There should be a shelter with perches at the back for roosting plus laying boxes, feeder and drinker. Furniture can be provided for entertainment such as branches to climb on.
Some houses come with a detachable run or you can make your own. Preferably with a net or solid plastic roof to deter wild birds from defecating near your poultry. If movable, then the grass stays in good condition and is fertilised. If static, beware how very quickly the run can become either a sea of mud or bare of vegetation, so make it larger than recommended or divide into two so that one side can be rested on a regular basis. If the area is a bit small, consider placing square, strong, 2.5cm (1?) netting over the grass so that the hens can still eat it but do not destroy the roots. They will appreciate a separate dustbath if this method is used as the netting will prevent this natural activity.
Some people put down wood chips (not bark as this harbours harmful mould) to maintain free drainage. A large run should be netted over the top to prevent wild bird access. If this is done, then the feeder and drinker can be put outside, otherwise feeders and drinkers should be inside the house to discourage wild bird access - not only does DEFRA consider wild birds a risk to domestic poultry due to disease, but wild birds will steal a huge amount of the chicken food and magpies will quickly learn to take eggs, even from inside the henhouse. If you are doing some gardening, then the hens will love to help you find worms and insects, but they are best let out under supervision as they have a tendency to try and replant everything. The very small bantams do least damage. Free-range in a domestic situation usually means daylight access to grass, not necessarily total freedom.
Beware poisonous plants (see the side menu), but if you have children you won't have these in your garden anyway. Daffodil bulbs are toxic, so be careful of these, although most poisonous plants taste horrible to hens. Unless the covered run is a large area, don't attempt to plant shrubs inside it as the hens will soon dig these up. Clematis, honeysuckle, berberis, pyracantha or firs can be grown on the outside of the run both for shelter and to enhance the area.
If wanting to weed an allotment, use a fold unit which is a house and run combined and can be moved to a fresh piece of ground as soon as the hens have done their job, possibly daily, which means any droppings can be incorporated immediately as there will only be a few. If the hens are contained within the fold unit (feeder and drinker hang in the run part) they will efficiently weed and manure an area of your choice and leave your precious vegetables alone, plus being protected from the fox.
If you already have a stone or brick building which you want to use for hens it can be adapted by following the above principles. Indeed, many poultry keepers have permanent poultry runs which cannot be moved, and others incorporate their poultry into the garden. You can adapt poultry housing to suit your conditions, space, and chosen breed but it is always important to make the welfare of the birds the prime consideration. Click here for a diagram of equipment best placement in a static building.
When choosing poultry housing go for the basic principles but remember ease of access - if a job is easy to do it is much more likely to get done.
Commercially produced specialised feeders and drinkers are readily available and help keep feed and water clean by not allowing the birds to defecate in it. They are made of plastic (cheaper but not very long-lasting) or galvanised metal (more expensive but last for many years). Remember to use only plastic drinkers if providing cider vinegar in the water (see Health).
It is important that only balanced feeds from reputable sources are used and that the correct ration is fed for the age of the birds: chick crumbs to 6 weeks then growers pellets to 18 weeks then layers pellets for example. Cheap feed will be of poorer quality. Feeding scraps tends to upset the balanced ration which has been proven over many years, but green vegetable matter is appreciated in the winter and to be able to call the hens over with the reward of a small piece of fruit or stale brown bread will be very useful. The compound rations can be fed either as pellets or meal/mash. The meal can be fed dry (this may be wasteful and sticks to the beak making any water quickly foul) or as a wet mash. When mixed as a wet mash it should have enough water added so that when pressed in the hand and released it should just crumble away. Pellets and dry meal can be fed in ad lib feed hoppers but wet mash must always be fed freshly mixed as it goes rancid very quickly.
If birds have access to grass they will not need extra greens but if in the winter there is not enough grass, hang up some cabbage stalks, nettles or brussels sprouts plants in their hut. A swede cut in half and impaled on a blunted nail previously driven into a block of wood will provide much entertainment for the hens.
Clean water and mixed grit should be available at all times. Empty drinkers in hot weather are as bad for the hens as frozen water in winter ? they dehydrate quickly. Flint (or insoluble) grit is needed to assist the gizzard in grinding up the food, especially hard grain. From 4 weeks before laying commences, oyster shell or limestone grit should be provided ad lib to help with the formation of egg shells. Light breeds start to lay at about 5 months and heavier breeds at about 6 months. Large fowl will eat about 4-6oz (110-170g) per day, bantams need around 2-3oz (50-85g), according to size. Wheat (and a little maize in cold weather only) can be offered as a scratch feed to keep the birds active.
Keep feed in a vermin-proof and weather-proof bin to keep it fresh. Check the date on the bag label at purchase as freshly made feed will only last three months before the vitamin content degrades to an unacceptable level.
Turkeys should be fed on commercial turkey feed and growing waterfowl need lower protein levels than hens to avoid joint problems.