Chickens are remarkably hardy and self-sufficient birds, and once you have them in their house there is very little else that you need for them apart from food and water. There are, though, a pieces of equipment that will make your own life much easier. You can see examples of many of the items we mention below in our shop.
Feeder and drinker
You will also need a feeder and a drinker to load up with food and water, and there are several different sorts on the market. Don’t buy plastic unless your present budget dictates it. Galvanized or enamel ones cost nearly twice as much, but they will last for many years whereas the plastic ones will become brittle in a year or two and are quite fragile to start with.
We recommend buying a hanging feeder whether for indoors or out, even if it means rigging something to hang it from, and the reason for this is our old friends the rats. By the same token your feed store needs to be secure, so use a metal or heavy-duty plastic bin. Hanging drinkers are best too, since the birds are less likely to foul their water and the contents are less likely to freeze over when there’s a frost.
Fencing of some sort is usually necessary to make sure the birds don’t get into places where they shouldn’t, like your vegetable garden. This can be chicken wire tacked to posts, but poultry netting with plastic stakes provides a reasonably-priced alternative and has the advantage of being easy to move. Make sure that it is poultry netting, though – if you choose any other sort of livestock netting the birds will squirt through the holes with no trouble at all – and at least four feet high.
Foxes are traditionally the enemy of poultry keepers, and if you want to be absolutely sure that your birds are safe then an electric fence is probably in order. However, the energizers for electric fences are expensive, and even more so if you choose an option other than mains power. Bear in mind that a fox attack in daylight generally loses you only one bird; far more dangerous is a fox getting into the henhouse at night. In this situation a fox will kill all of your birds, so make sure the house is closed up promptly each and every night, as soon as the last bird is inside.
For chickens kept in a run, you need to make sure that their environment is kept stimulating by including a few diversions. Bored chickens bully, and bullies pull feathers; don’t go there. Diversions can include wad of straw to scratch around in, a stump or crate to perch on, a CD hanging on a string (which fascinates some birds) or hanging a bundle of greens quite high up so that the birds can jump for a nip at the tasty leaves, and you can let the bundle down a little at a time as they eat the lower bits. Try something new every time they lose interest in your old tactics.
If feather pecking does start, watch the birds carefully to see if they are pecking each other, or pulling at their own feathers. If the damage is self-inflicted check the birds and house carefully for mites (see the Chickens – problems and predators page), but if the birds are picking on each other you need to provide more distractions or a larger run. You’ll also need to break the habit using anti-pecking spray, which is harmless but tastes horrible.
Finally, to understand a bit more about the whole chicken process and give you a bit of warning about possible problems, it’s a really good idea to have a decent book. We recommend Choosing and Keeping Chickens by Chris Graham for beginners, because it’s friendly, well-produced, and pitched just right. If you’re after something really comprehensive then Free Range Poultry by Katie Thear is the book for you.