Chickens have particular housing requirements. They need shade in summer, shelter from wind and rain in winter, and protection all year round from foxes, dogs and hawks.
The type of housing you choose for your chickens depends largely on how many you have.
Housing for a couple of chickens
If you only have two or three chickens, a “chicken tractor” is a good solution. This is a small, transportable chicken home on wheels that you can move every couple of days to a fresh spot in the garden. This is good for your chickens and good for you, because chickens are great pest exterminators.
A chicken tractor can also be repositioned for maximum sun in the winter and maximum shade in the summer.
There are plenty of designs on the internet for tractors or you can buy them ready made.
A larger flock in the backyard
For more than three or four chickens, the most practical solution is a lockable hen house opening to an enclosed chicken yard where the chickens can roam freely and have dust baths and do what chickens do naturally.
It’s best to put the hen house on one side of the yard and to make it accessible from the back so you can change the straw and hopefully collect the eggs!
Ideally it should be raised off the ground to provide better ventilation in summer and to enable it to dry out in winter. The chickens will need steps or a ladder to get up into their house. A practical solution is to make a sort of drawbridge and pull it up at night to close off the henhouse.
Outwitting Mr Fox and other predators
Many a chook lover has been traumatised by the sight of a beloved hen in the mouth of a brazen fox in the middle of the day.
Night is the time of the worst attacks, when Mr Fox does his nightly patrol of the neighbourhood to check who’s forgotten to lock the henhouse. Foxes are unbelievably creative when it comes to getting into a chook yard. They can climb adjoining trees, scale fences, dig under wire.
All this means you have to think like a fox and look for any chink in your yard. You’ll need to enclose the entire yard in chicken wire, burying it at least 30 centimetres into the ground or embedding it in concrete. An alternative is to lay an apron of chicken wire around the perimeter of the yard, burying it a few centimetres deep, or to lay reinforcing mesh inside the yard.
You’ll also need to roof your yard with chicken wire to stop foxes scaling fences or trees to get into the yard. This will also protect the chickens from large predatory birds such as hawks and eagles which are particularly keen on snatching smaller birds and chicks.
Providing protection from the elements
Predators are not the only danger. Chickens are sensitive to extreme heat and cold and will tend to go off the lay in either. There are many things you can do to make them more comfortable and keep up their laying capacity.
The RSPCA recommends positioning the henhouse so the morning sun warms it but it is not too hot in the afternoon.
Ideally the yard will be situated under deciduous trees to shade your birds in summer. If not, think about erecting some shade cloth, particularly against the late-afternoon westerly sun.
In winter, think protection from the prevailing winds and rain. You could build your yard against a southerly fence, or perhaps use old tin sheets to provide a windbreak.
Remember you’ll need to enter the chicken yard to change the straw and fill up feed and water containers so make sure it’s a comfortable height, so you’re not stooping or crawling.
The need for nesting boxes
You’ll need to equip your henhouse with a perch for your girls to roost on at night and nesting boxes lined with clean straw for them to lay their eggs.
Chickens tend to lay in the morning and the process takes some time so make sure you have enough nesting boxes for your flock. A rule of thumb is two boxes for every five birds but you may need to adjust this if you find a queue!
Whether you’re buying or building, make sure both the henhouse and yard are accessible so you can remove the soiled straw and droppings.
Don’t waste the droppings – they’re almost as valuable as the eggs. Add them to your compost bin and watch it develop into a rich, friable, organic mulch for your garden!