An increasing number of Britons are keeping chickens, many of them in the town. Beverley de Valois, who has been a keen poultry-keeper for seven years, offers some advice

Which breed would you recommend?
We have a Welsummer, a Vorwerk, a Lakenvelder, a Barnevelder, and two Appenzeller Spitzhaubens. Rare breeds are beautiful, distinctive birds, but many people prefer hybrids, which are prolific egg-layers and placid. Large fowl and bantams tend to be more easy-going, so they’re best to begin with; small fowl are more ‘flighty’

 Chickens on path
Vorwerk, Golden Laced Wyandotte and Exchequer Leghorn

What are the main predators in urban areas?
Foxes—they get through the tiniest chinks in any defence system, and there’s nothing worse than waking up to find your beautiful birds have been devastated by a predator
 
What challenges do poultry-keepers face in town?
If you want to stay on good terms with your neighbours, make sure they’re happy to enjoy the lovely rural sound of the cock crowing from 4am onwards
 
What are the benefits of keeping chickens?

There’s nothing so satisfying as collecting your own freshly laid eggs. Hens also keep you in touch with nature and the seasons, and add beauty and life to the garden

 Chickens in leaves
Golden Appenzeller Spitzhauben

What environment is best for them?
As we’ve learned from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out! campaign, they can survive in a very small space, but it’s best to give them as much room as possible. They need a house with a roosting space and enough nest-box space so that they can lay their eggs without too much competition, and they need a run. They dislike rain and wind and heat, but aren’t too bothered by cold

 Chickens with house
Golden and Silver Appenzeller Spitzhaubens

Should you let them go free range?
They love it, and they’ll keep insects, slugs and snails under control. However, they’ll also decimate plants and have an unfortunate habit of pooing everywhere. Plus, they need to be protected—foxes will attack in broad daylight in urban areas

 Chickens with pots
Clockwise from top: Golden Laced Wyandotte, Welsummer, Exchequer Leghorn

How much care do they need?
Feeding every morning, and a constant supply of fresh water. Hens are seasonal, so let them out very early in the summer, when they also stay up late; in winter, they go to bed early and sleep in. Cleanliness helps minimise pests and disease, so clean out their lodgings at least weekly and scrub their feeders and drinkers
 
What food do they prefer?
Food comes in the form of specialised pellets—usually layers pellets, which provide the nutrients required for optimum health and egg production. You can supplement their diet—cider vinegar and poultry spice are traditional conditioners. They like fresh things, such as leafy veg, and you can feed them on certain kitchen scraps. They also love worms and insects

Do you raise chicks?

We have a hen who’s prone to broodiness, so we’ve bought in fertilised eggs for her to hatch. It’s amazing—she sits on them for days, moving only to turn her eggs so they keep uniformly warm. Then, about day 21, you can hear the peeping and hammering of the little beaks on the shells, and—voila—you have fluffy little chicks. The downside is what to do with the cockerels—the poultry forums and papers are full of ads from people giving theirs away. I’ve learned to cull my flock, and those cockerels have been the best chicken I’ve ever eaten

 Chicks
Appenzeller chicks

 
Which suppliers and helplines would you recommend?
Extraordinary Chickens by Stephen Green-Armytage
The ‘Vogue’ book of chickens. Beautiful studio photos of a wide range of rare breeds. This is what got us hooked!

The Wernlas Collection – suppliers of rare breed chickens
A great place to visit to see a variety of breeds, and good suppliers of birds and fertilised eggs

Allen & Page Smallholder
range for layers and poultry  
Produce high-quality, non-GM food ranges for layers and poultry

Practical Poultry magazine
A monthly publication focussing on all aspects of poultry rearing—very good reading for the typical hobby-hen keeper. They also have an excellent forum at http://www.kelseyinfo.co.uk/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl

Ascott Smallholding Supplies
Good suppliers of just about everything you need

Flyte So Fancy
For your chicken house and run