The new hen party
“It has been extraordinary,” says Jason Nethercott of Talking Hens poultry farm at Merricks, on the Mornington Peninsula. “The coronavirus has really triggered people who already own chickens to get a few more as well as bringing a whole new set of people into the club.”
Before social distancing joined the lexicon an estimated 416,000 Australian households kept chickens, making them the fourth-most-popular pet behind dogs, cats and fish. A survey by Animal Medicines Australia released late last year found just under one in 10 Australian households keep birds, and more than a quarter of those are chickens.
As any seasoned chicken keeper will attest, these charismatic creatures have plenty to recommend them. Beyond the eggs, of course – more on that later – they help keep the garden clear of pests and weeds, plus they’re avid consumers of household food waste. And they’re endlessly entertaining, with their own individual personalities and a penchant for human company.
“Chickens lie in the uncanny valley between pet and farm animal,” says Jessamy Miller, who grew up on a rare-breed chicken farm and is now the ABC’s resident chicken expert and columnist for Organic Gardener. “They’re lovely pets and great food producers.”
Jessamy’s first rule of chicken keeping is boringly administrative but rather important: get in touch with your local council. Rules vary but it’s generally fine for suburban households to keep chickens, with provisos including restrictions on numbers, keeping chicken coops away from boundary lines and an outright ban on noisy roosters.
So which chicken to choose? Northcote resident Jessamy keeps five chickens in her “average-sized” backyard and is a big fan of the smaller bantam chickens in a suburban setting. “They eat half the amount of a regular chicken, but their eggs are two-thirds the size. They take up much less space and are easier on the garden. The only problem is they’re so cheeky and friendly they might want to come inside and watch TV with you.”
Anyone searching for the self-sufficiency holy grail will want to factor egg production into their choice of chicken breed. Hybrids such as the rugged Hy-Lines and Langshans have been bred to maximise egg production. Generally they’ll lay an egg a day for around three years before an early death at around four or five thanks to all that egg-laying. Most pure breeds, on the other hand, stop laying over the colder months but live longer past “henopause”, possibly to around 12. Diehard doomsday preppers will have a stock pot ready for any hen past her laying life, but it’s worth noting that dispatching and eating Amelia Egghart is far easier said than done.
In any case, the joys of chickens go beyond any Keynesian economic breakdown. When you’re all cooped up at home, a chicken coop can be just the ticket to teaching children where food really comes from and injecting a healthy back-to-nature reality into screen-centric lives.
Justin Calverley, owner of Melbourne landscape design company Sensory Gardens, got chickens to teach his two young children about the cycle of life and death and recently had his Preston backyard flock reduced to four following the demise of his wife Danae’s chicken, Bradley Cooper. “We had the big funeral and the kids made crosses but I’m afraid there wasn’t a single tear shed for Bradley Cooper. My chicken is called Nuggets and I’ve always told the kids I’m happy to eat Nuggets one day.”
At around four years old, the girls are reaching the end of their egg-laying life but Calverley plans to keep them on the payroll as working gardeners. “Because I hate weeding I’ve created a few different zones for them and they take care of pests and weeds for me,” he says. “Plus the kids just love them. They play with them all the time and go hunting for slugs and snails to feed them. I hope a lot more people are going to find out the truly excellent things about chickens and stick to it when all this is over.”
Backyard chooks 101
- Each chicken should have a minimum of half a square metre and ideally one to two square metres of space inside their run (a yard encased in wire mesh).
- Make sure both the coop and run are fox and rodent-proof.
- Furnish the coop with a feeder and constant supply of fresh water, along with nest boxes and perches of different heights.
- Let the chickens out to scratch around and dust bathe each day. Put up small barriers if you want to protect delicate plants and seedlings: “I have happy hour for the chooks twice a day. I sit with a cup of tea or a glass of wine while they go exploring,” says Jessamy.
- Give your chooks environmental enrichment – such as a mirror, pea straw and hanging greens to peck at. This will stop them from getting bored and bullying each other.
- Feed them layer pellets and mixed grains, supplemented by scraps and shell grit. “We keep scraps for their morning and afternoon tea,” says Jessamy.
- Clean out any old straw and food scraps regularly. Add it to your compost or use it as mulch.