Getting the chickens before the eggs

By James Russell

In Auckland backyards, chooks have become the ultimate in free-range, recessionary accessories. James Russell takes a peek over the fence.

Emma Charlesworth says keeping chickens is a great help with her family finances.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Emma Charlesworth says keeping chickens is a great help with her family finances. Photo / Natalie Slade

It could be the highly publicised plight of the poor old battery hen. Maybe it's because Jamie Oliver whacked a bunch of fluffy yellow chicks on the telly. Whatever the reason, soft clucking can now be heard from behind increasing numbers of suburban fences all over Auckland as people opt to keep their own chickens in the backyard.

The laying hen is uncannily like the three-course meal machine which spelled the demise of the precocious Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory; you put a bunch of things in one end, there is a series of squawks and machinations, and out pops a perfectly formed widget of food.

If Wonka's contraption fertilised the ground as it went and didn't cause tooth decay, it would almost be up there with the humble chook.

Once the chickens' quarters have been established, for the trifling trouble of collecting kitchen scraps and supplementing them with a bit of commercial feed, chicken owners are rewarded with an almost constant and surprisingly bountiful supply of fresh, free-range eggs. In optimum conditions most laying hens will produce around 270 eggs a year.

Sound too good to be true? It gets better. If you purpose-build your vege gardens, chickens reward you for your negligence. It's called the "chicken tractor", and the trick is to have more than one vegetable garden with rotating crops and an easily moveable coop. Build the coop and garden of equal dimensions, and once your vegetables are harvested, you lift the coop on to the weed-ridden waste ground that remains. A month later you'll have beautifully fertilised, weed and pest-free mulch. Your coop then goes on the next garden or on to the lawn, where every three or four days the chickens will perform a minor miracle on a section of your unkempt grass.

This is the technique taught by Janet Luke of Green Urban Living, who runs regular courses teaching townies all they need to know about keeping chickens in the city. A four-hour course will teach you how to care for your hens, where to buy them and how to build your own circular coop out of easily obtainable, lightweight materials.

"Chickens are the new black in green urban living," says Luke. "They are the most eco-friendly pet you can possibly have, and we think everyone should have them."

She says it is very peaceful thing, watching your chickens scratch and peck around the yard.

City bylaws stipulate that a chicken coop must have a concrete floor, but Luke says most councils are pro the moveable coop as it avoids a build-up of smells and flies. A spokesperson from Auckland City Council confirmed this.

For Emma Charlesworth of Castor Bay on the North Shore, a mother of four children under 10, keeping chickens was a no-brainer. She has four hens - collectively known as The Girls. Each child was given one to name - hence Jamie Oliver (Oliver, 9), Flutter (Samuel, 7), Red Rose (India, 5) and Surfer Chicken (James, 3). With four children, baking is a necessity and her laying brood provide all the eggs needed for a daily batch of muffins or a cake, as well as some for breakfast or sandwiches. "They produce the best eggs. Big yellow yolks with perfectly formed whites clinging to them."

She believes caring for chickens is a great experience for children. "They learn about responsibility."

It's easy to buy the standard brown shavers or another common breed at pre-laying age - between six to 18 weeks old, known as pullets - and rear them with nothing more than shelter, food and water.

Trade Me has loads of auctions going at any one time; another option is to keep your eye on the Chicken Rescue Network website Chicken Rescue Network website for unwanted birds, run by John Hart of Masterton.

"It's basically just a mailing list matching those who want to get rid of chickens with those who want them," says Hart.

Some of the chickens listed on Chicken Rescue are ex-battery hens. After the first moult when laying rates begin to decline, battery hens are no longer any use to the battery farm. "You may just have to feed them for a month or so and they come back laying," says Hart.

Tips for keeping chooks

* A broody hen is one that won't want to get off the nest in the misguided belief that her unfertilised eggs will hatch.

* Broodiness can be cured by regularly lifting the hen off the nest and carrying her around for a while. In extreme cases you can try putting ice cubes in the nest or leaving her hanging in a cage from a tree for a few hours.

* Chickens aren't great flyers, but they can launch themselves into the neighbours' yard. Prevent this by clipping the flight feathers on one wing.

* Apart from kitchen scraps, commercial feed and water, your hens will need some finely crushed oyster shells (available at places like pet shops and farm supply stores) which are used in the crop for breaking down food.

* Hanging a head of broccoli or cauliflower just out of reach of the hens makes great entertainment.

* Don't feed your chooks garlic or onions as it will make your eggs taste funny.

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