Thursday, 11 November 2010

The increasing popularity of hen keeping

Hen Tales from Frugaldom

Light Sussex with newly painted head

 I've just spoken to someone who lost quite a few birds to theft over the past year - three separate incidents. She is now using the spray-method as a deterent - see example photos.

People are still flocking to buy ex-battery hens to keep as garden pets. These can be purchased from around 50p per bird when the battery farms are changing their stock. However, many of these newcomers to hen keeping are unaware of the fact that their 'rescued' birds can be moulting, then wrongly jump to the conclusion that ill-treatment has caused the bedraggled appearance and lack of daily eggs. In general, hens don't lay eggs during their moult. Egg laying also decreases each year. (What becomes of these rescued birds when the owners discover that setting up a hen-house and keeping the birds fed for the months they don't lay is something that possibly needs addressing.)

Pure bred birds, such as Araucanas, can fetch over £150 for a trio (two hens and one unrelated cockerel) at auction, with hybrid hens selling at £15 to £35 each at point of lay (around 20 weeks old).

Online sales of hatching eggs for some animals are permitted in the UK provided the seller offers domestic-only shipping within the UK and provided that the seller guarantees in the listing that these will be packaged safely and posted via next day delivery. In response to this, UK based auction website has introduced a designated category for 'Poultry, Hatching and Incubation' items.

Frugal way to deter thieves
 An increased interest in hen keeping has succeeded in pushing up prices and with that, unfortunately, comes the criminal element. Poultry theft is becoming more and more common to the point that thieves are becoming selective - taking only hens and leaving any cockerels and chicks. Many of these thefts go unreported because owners don't want to waste valuable police time, but when you start speaking to breeders there are few who will openly invite strangers onto their premises. Several have resorted to spraying their hens with dye, marking their legs in an attempt to deter theft and aid identity if the birds happen to turn up at a public auction.

Even when buying hatching eggs, some sellers are opting to post or deliver, some meet buyers in a public place. This again poses problems, as it allows less than scrupulous sellers to infiltrate online sales - buyers have no way of knowing the true origins of the eggs they are buying. The decline of local livestock markets has contributed greatly to the huge price fluctuations. Poultry sales are few and far between. Off the top of my head I can think of Carlisle, Lanark and Thainstone in Aberdeenshire, but none of these markets hold weekly sales. Poultry sales now tend to be combined with rare breed sales, again attracting premium prices.

Another example of how popular poultry keeping has become is that Wigtown Agricultural Show introduced new poultry classes om 2010. The poultry marquee proved to be such a huge success that many were comparing it in terms of the Royal Highland Show, rather than a local county show. (Wigtown, which is Scotland's national book town, has a population of under 1000.)

Some responses from various friends and colleagues:

"Start up costs were higher than I expected, feed costs are cheaper... my £6.50 bag feed lasts 4 - 5 weeks and we are averaging 14 eggs a week, so probably just breaking even compared with shop bought eggs. Chicken watching is, on the other hand, priceless!"

"My hens pay their own keep from sales of surplus eggs and chicks. Breakfast here isnt just free range, it's free."

"My son has 6 in his back garden and his 'second string' is making flat packed hen houses for a local breeder."

"Hen keeping is on the increase in all sorts of places. My neighbour asked me this very afternoon if I was getting some... His dad is getting a couple, he lives round the corner from me in suburbia."

"It is becoming more important to me to know where my food is coming from, this is a very big reason why I am taking my allotment on. Food straight from the garden or an egg from your own hen is much tastier..."

"I could sit and watch my hens all day. They don't just cluck and lay eggs, they provide me with hours of entertainment and that's very therapeutic."

"I breed hens for eggs and meat, it's not very cost effective because they keep getting stolen!"

"I thought 'freerange' meant hens ranging free. When I discovered what it really meant, I was convinced that my garden hens must lay much happier eggs."

"Why keep garden hens? Lifestyle, practicing the good life, hoping to have a bigger concern in the future."

"I like the idea of fresh eggs - hens make very nice 'productive' pets to have - good to teach children about food and where it comes from and from a cost point of view - 'real' eggs are much nicer and are expensive - so having hens at home makes it more economical... Not very easy here - we had to get the hens imported from the mainland and had to wait for them."

Some great answers to some basic questions about keeping garden hens. Many thanks to those who responded so quickly.

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