Hens in the 'hood

GARDENS: More and more people are doing it, but is keeping hens all it’s cracked up to be – or should we cry fowl?, asks JANE…

GARDENS:More and more people are doing it, but is keeping hens all it's cracked up to be – or should we cry fowl?, asks JANE POWERS

THERE’S A FEATHERED tide sweeping across the back gardens of this island. Hens, hens, hens. Everyone wants hens. The lure of fresh eggs is strong, as is the comic charm of fussy fowl clucking and bowing, and scratching the dirt. But what is it really like to have hens? Well, as a hen-keeper of some eight years standing, I can tell you it is rather like the curate’s egg: good in parts.

The clucking and bowing are all great fun, as are the various other exaggerated posturings of my poultry companions. There is no doubt that my life is richer now: after careful observation I have learned to talk chicken-ese, and can easily distinguish between the conversational “Buuuuurb? Buuuuurb?” of contentment, the post-egg “bwock-bwock-bwock-bwock”, and the shrill “Waaaaak!” that signifies danger (usually of the imagined sky-is-falling-down variety).

The garden benefits in certain ways too, as our hens are keen on vine weevils, small snails and other creepy-crawlies. Alas, they shun slugs (and have a special high-pitched cry of disgust – “Bu-wheeep!” – when offered such culinary insults). Their bedding and its attendant manure is dynamite for the compost heap. They eat many of our leftovers: rice, pasta, potatoes, stale bread and bits of fruit and veg (the seeds from sweet peppers are a favourite). And their eggs are simply perfect.


But the damage can be considerable. Although we have a large town garden (around 35 metres long), it cannot tolerate more than three or four hens roaming its terrain. And even so, our vegetable beds are netted off, and all newly planted things must be protected from questing beaks and feet. Any area of dry soil is in great demand for dust-bathing.

I envy my fellow hen devotee Helen Dillon, who has arranged her Ranelagh garden in such a way that it incorporates a neat and stylish compound for her four chooks, pictured here.

For town poultry people, the urban fox is a constant worry, while for rural folk, the mink can be a fierce predator. A two-metre fence, topped with an electrified wire, will keep a flock safe – but this is not feasible in most gardens.

And then there is the matter that is not much spoken about, but which must be considered: old hens. Some will gently turn up their toes and die, but others will need to be sent to the great coop in the sky, especially if they suffer a disorder such as a chronically prolapsed oviduct.

If you can’t kill the hen yourself, or if you don’t know someone who can do the job skilfully, then a visit to the vet is required – which is stressful to the bird (and is not cheap).

Still, to my mind, the pros outweigh the cons, especially at this time of year when the eggs are plentiful, and the springtime antics are constantly entertaining.


Hens eat many household scraps, but they need a balanced diet in order to be healthy and produce eggs with firm shells. Feed stores sell grain mixtures and layers’ pellets – a complete food made from grain, soya and oils. In cold weather, an evening snack of wheat keeps their crops full. Hens that are confined to a run must have their diet supplemented with oyster shell (which supplies calcium for eggs), grit and greens. Don’t forget that all hens need fresh water.


Clare Brennan’s three Rhode Island reds arrived at her Swords back garden three months ago. Henny, Penny and Jenny live in an Eglu, a hi-tech plastic hen house (“really easy to clean”) with a run, a surprise present from Clare’s husband, James. Or rather, they live in it some of the time, but they are also allowed free range. They enjoy their liberty hugely: “The minute they get out, they tear across the garden and flap their wings,” says Clare.

“They’re gorgeous, they’re lovely,” she continues, “but I pretty much want to get rid of them every week because they are ruining the garden.” On the other hand, “they’re fun and friendly: they all have different personalities. And I do love the eggs. They lay well, an egg a day each, which is too much for us to eat, so we are able to give them away. Instead of bringing a bunch of flowers to a dinner party, we can bring eggs.”

Clare hopes to cordon off some of the garden, so that her perennials and grass can recover, and so that everyone can live happily – including the dog, who has been subjected to a certain amount of bullying and bone-thievery from his new mates. jpowers@irishtimes.com

The Eglu is available from omlet.co.uk. Buyers in Ireland should phone or e-mail for delivery rates. Quality timber poultry housing by British company forshamcottagearks.com, available in Ireland from Grow Green Solutions: 053-9489546, growgreensolutions.com

Build your own movable hen coop with the help of US sustainability website motherearthnews.com (search for “mothers mini-coop” for instructions, and find the diagrams in the accompanying image gallery).

Hen date:Saturday, May 8th, 11am-5pm: Poultry and vegetable show at Larchill Arcadian Garden, Kilcock, Co Kildare. Poultry and poultry equipment; vegetable paraphernalia and tools; talks and demonstrations, 01-6287354, larchill.ie