Choosing a hen house was the most bewildering part of becoming a chicken owner. There are hundreds to choose from. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want an ark; these may be fine for very small breeds and the true bantams such as Sebrights which get no bigger than a blackbird, but for large fowl and many bantams they just don’t offer enough headroom, leading to damaged combs and miserable hens.
I picked a house called The Butler, by Fisher woodcraft as it seemed sensibly sized, had a large door so that I could get right inside to clean it, and was of good solid construction. These things aren’t cheap, but you only do it once, and with care and a spot of a hen-friendly wood-preserver should last for many years.
The house is raised up on sleepers (untreated) and these in turn sit on a platform of concrete slabs. I dug a trench around the slabs and covered the sides and base with small gauge chicken wire, then re-filled the trench; the excess chicken wire was then folded over the slabs and held in place with another layer of slabs.
Ain’t no rats under my hen house.
Rats are extraordinary animals. You can’t blame them, they’re just doing what they do, and I don’t think a human being has any right to criticise another species on the behaviour front, but they are bloody annoying if they decide to set up shop near your hens.
They act like mini JCBs and overnight can complete an intricate network of tunnels around the run. If they can gain access to the underside of a house that is resting straight on the ground, they will chew through the wood in minutes and get in to torment your hens. Because chickens effectively go into a ‘coma’ at night, rats can literally eat them alive and they can’t fight back.
To start with I had the house sitting on a pallet, but as it sank in to the damp ground, the rats began their work. So a merry day was spent constructing the slab base and hoisting the house up onto it. The girls use a section of log as a step up into the pophole. I have to say it’s easier on my back too.
The run itself is 12 x 24 feet, and made from a framework of wooden poles covered in chicken wire. This is extended 18” below ground in a trench on all sides, and out another 18” away from the run, across the bottom of the trench. And there’s no point doing all this fox and badger proofing unless you have the roof covered too; chicken wire again.
If I were doing it again, I would use half-inch wire, as I discovered to my cost that an adult rat can get through the inch stuff quite easily.
Something else I would do differently is site the run more in the shade. The chicken’s ancestor is a jungle fowl and they can easily overheat - when I’m here and the girls are out in the orchard there’s plenty of shade but when they’re confined to quarters they have a parasol, a shade over the nest boxes and a covered perch, with an onduline roof for that caravanning holiday ambience when it rains. This has the advantage of keeping the ground underneath permanently dry and perfect for dustbathing.
The floor of the run is earth, usually with a covering of woodchips (not evergreen which is full of toxins and not bark chip which harbours dangerous fungal spores) but currently, due to woodchip supply issues, a layer of straw.. They really enjoy scratching about in it and it makes it less treacherous for humans in wet weather.
About a third of the run is grass - if your birds are in the run all day your grass will last approximately two weeks. I’m lucky that they’re out enough so there’s still grass for them to peck when in the run for a whole day.
In the house itself I use a product called Aubiose (a.k.a. Hemcore) which is made from hemp. Very good stuff, acts like cat litter and absorbs wetness, smells and generally makes the house a pleasant place to be. I poo-pick every morning as it only takes a minute and means that the poo is evenly layered through the compost, and that I only have to do a big clean every six weeks or so which is much easier than scraping and shovelling every week. Because I keep the floor clean, no poo gets trodden onto the perches, and I’ve never had to clean them - I hear stories of folk using paint scrapers to remove the poo from the perches. Can’t be doing with that.
Into the Aubiose I mix a good handful of Barrier red mite powder, an organic product that smells of tea-tree and citronella. It deters mites and lice and can be dusted onto the bird.
I use diatomaceous earth in the notches where the perch ends sit, and poof some into the nestboxes. This works by abrading the cuticle of the red mite and they dehydrate.
I prefer to use organic products for my own sake; a hen with a life-span of six years or so won’t live long enough to reap the rewards of not using carcinogens, mutagens and the like, but I will. Hopefully.
It’s best to check the perches every morning to look for red mites. I lift each perch out and turn it over, squashing any that I find; they leave a red trail of blood. Very satisfying. If you’re killing more than a dozen or so daily you need to have a search round all the nooks an crannies for clusters of them. There are lots of mite-killing products available.