We recently decided to take the plunge and get chickens. Selfishly because we love fresh eggs every day, less selfishly because Munchkin loves chickens and we decided to get them for her birthday. Everyone wins.
I thought it would be pretty straight-forward getting chickens – buy hutch, buy food, pop down to chicken place, pick a chicken, head home, fresh eggs the next morning. Turns out it is pretty much never this straight-forward.
There is a lot you need to consider when you think about getting chickens – what you want them for, where you’ll keep them, what space you have, and so on. The one thing that took me a lot of time, was working out type of chickens we wanted to get.
I did a lot of research – I like to be informed about these things – and also, these are live animals, not an inanimate object I can return if I don’t want it. We wanted to get it as right as we could so we had happy hens and a happy Munchkin.
So, here is what I’ve learnt so far.
There are essentially two types of chicken you can get – hybrids and pure-breeds.
- Hybrids are exactly what they sound like – a mix of different chickens, bred together to promote certain qualities (egg production, egg colour, hardiness, temperament, appearance) and to get the optimum chicken for mass egg production. It was from hybrid breeding that the now classic, little brown hen was created, the one you see in pictures and that children most recognise. Most hybrids are lovely chickens, laying different coloured eggs in large quantities – (300 a year or so). They are produced by big producers and sold commerically, or at the smaller end of the spectrum then bought by smaller chicken keepers and sold on to families.
- Pure-Breeds – again, exactly what they sound like, pure breeds that haven’t been interbred, some of them dating back hundreds of years. There are two sizes of pure-breeds – bantams and large fowl.
- Bantams – bantams are the smallest chickens you can get, and are renowned for being docile, friendly and great with children. They lay well, but their eggs are quite small, you’d need about eight to make scrambled eggs for two of you! Pekin bantams are especially popular with families as their approachable size and sweet nature mean they make great pets.
- Large fowl – bigger than hybrids, these chickens these are definitely the largest, and most impressive, chickens you’ll get. Some pure-breeds you might have heard of include Welsummer, Burford Brown, Cream Legbar etc. They can be incredibly striking, with a range of very colourful feathers and distinctive markings.
What chickens to get
This is a big question – chickens have a very clear pecking order system and it’s important to respect this. You’ll need to decide if you want chickens as pets or egg producers. Or both.
Bantams: If you’re looking for great pets, and chickens that your children will be able to pick up and look after easily, then you can’t do better than a pekin bantam. They come in a whole range of different colours, so you can put together a striking looking flock, and they will quickly become part of the family. If you only want bantams and aren’t bothered about having big eggs then a little flock of these is a perfect way to start your chicken journey. They’re such an easy, manageable size, and so friendly and docile too.
Bantams and Pure-Breeds: If however you also want big eggs and big chickens, as well as bantams, then you’ll probably need to go pure-breed. We have overall been advised that unless bantams and hybrids are reared together (this is rare but some small-holders do do it) they shouldn’t be kept together. Not only are bantams obviously smaller and less able to stick up for themselves, but having been raised in huge numbers and had to fight for food, hybrids can be quite aggressive (only with other chickens, not with humans). A bullied chicken is a sad chicken, and less likely to lay well.
When picking your pure-breeds, it’s worth asking the person you’re buying them from which are the breeds they recommend for children – some pure-breeds (Leghorns, Marans) are flightier than others and take much longer to tame. Brahamas – despite their vast size – are the gentle giants of chickens, and are especially docile and very dramatic looking, which children will love. Wyandottes and Sussex are also good for little ones too .
Pure-breeds and Hybrids: You can also keep pure-breeds and hybrids together, as both are big chickens with plenty of nouce. Though you can equally just get plenty of either sort. If you want lots and lots of eggs in the first couple of years, then hybrids are the best option, they can lay throughout the year (most chickens stop laying in the winter), and certainly deal better with the shorter hours than pure-breeds. Though be aware that they are bred to have a shorter lifespan than a pure-breed, and while they will lay well, it is often only for two to three years before tailing off. There are lots of hybrids now that lay blue, white or dark brown eggs, allowing you lots of different colours, and the variety of breeds makes for a colourful flock – some of my favourites are Light Sussex, Speckeldy and the Goldline (the classic little brown hen).
When to get your chickens
Do bear in mind that timing is everything. If you decide you want chickens, it is worth speaking to these places way before you have bought hutches and runs etc, as they can often reserve the chickens you want, for you to collect when they reach Point of Lay (16 weeks +). It also makes a big difference in terms of availability if you are looking for chickens in the summer or autumn, as opposed to the spring.
You can either buy chicks, 10 week olds or point of lay chickens. Chicks tend to cost somewhere between £5 and £10, but the risk with chicks is that you can’t guarantee what you’re buying. Chickens can’t be sexed until they’re about ten weeks old, so buying three sweet little chicks might mean you end up with three cockerels. Not so good if you want plenty of eggs from them! Ten week old chicks are around £15-£20, and have been sexed. They are still cheaper than Point of Lay (POL) chickens, but you might be waiting the best part of a year for them to lay, so it depends how quickly you want eggs.
POL chickens are what most people buy, but it’s important to remember that this is really just a phrase that designated a chicken’s age, rather than its ability to lay eggs. Most chickens don’t start to lay until they’re about 22 – 24 weeks old, but some can take longer, especially if they come into maturity as the daylight hours start to get shorter. The best time is to pick up your chickens in the Spring, meaning they’ll reach maturity as the summer months and longer days start. This means speaking to chicken breeders as early as November the year before.
Where to get your chickens
Look for small producers who specialise in selling chickens to families and which you can visit to choose and collect your chickens, especially as this can be a fun part of the whole exercise. There is a great comprehensive guide to local breeders across the UK on this fantastic poultry website. We spoke to Annie Hall’s Poultry, Charlotte’s Poultry and Littledean Poultry, before finally deciding to get our chicken’s from Charlotte’s, due only to the fact that she had the breeds and types available that we wanted at the right time, everyone we spoke to at each place was friendly, helpful and endlessly patient with my many many questions.
In the end, we plumped for three Pekin Bantams – a lavender, a gold partridge and a silver partridge – as Munchkin’s three chickens. She adores them, plays with them for hours and one of them is now tame enough to let her pick her up. She sits in her arms cooing happily while Munchkin gently strokes her. They aren’t laying yet, but they’ve grown a lot in the few weeks we’ve had them and have settled in very happily. We love having them around, they feel like part of the family already and I always enjoy a little potter up the garden to see what they’re up to.
In a few months, we’ll be adding a Welsummer (pure-breed, dark brown eggs) and a golden-barred Wyandotte to our little flock, so we can enjoy big eggs too. Next year, space depending, we might add a Cream Legbar (blue eggs!) to the mix as well.