DIRT TO DINNER
PROFILE OF A CHICKEN KEEPER
My name is Alyson, I live in Murrumbateman, New South Wales, a village about 30 kilometres from Canberra. We live on 5 acres and have the benefit of living a rural life with close access to all the city has to offer. As a result of that we also share the climate Canberra has, which is very defined seasons: frosty, foggy winters, chilly but pretty springs, summers that heat to boiling and beautifully moderate autumns. We escape the extremes of these by getting to the nearby south coast for a few days, and as our three kids are mostly all grown up now, we can generally get one of them to mind our chooks so we can do so; although the neighbours are always keen to help out as they like the mutually beneficial factors – free eggs!
How/why did I start keeping chickens I grew up in Canberra in the ’80s, and we were one of the few families in the area to have chickens in the backyard at that time; however I was already a fan. My grandmother had taken me to a Department store as a very little girl and she told me I could choose something – expecting I would find a pretty doll like my girl-cousins did. I found a large colourful book on the life-cycle of chickens and fell in love! Grandmother was somewhat perturbed; the book was filled with colourful life-like illustrations, including one of a rooster mounting hen – highly inappropriate! But I stood firm and came home with my fabulous chicken book, and have loved chickens ever since.
I didn’t get chooks of my own until I moved back to Canberra from the Northern Territory. My husband and I had three kids under five by then and had finally moved to a place that had a decent sized backyard. The toddlers made so much mess, and there was so much food waste, and they loved eggs so I dove in and collected from various auctions and the local Trash and Treasure, until I had a small flock of funny looking birds. This was when I learned the other benefits of chicken keeping – the sheer delight of watching them. I’d sit on the back step and feel my worries melt away while they bustled about. They slowed me down, gave me eggs, and ate our table scraps; what could be better than that?
Challenges The most challenging aspects of keeping chickens has always been predators – there are foxes even in the city and they are resilient. Foxes will try and try and try again, and I have learned the hard way that you have to stay one step ahead. You can’t leave the henhouse unlocked even one night because it’s cold out and you’re half asleep. The foxes might miss this time, but they won’t the next. I’ve had go easy on my kids when they’ve forgotten to check the chooks in my absence, because I know they already feel badly, I’ve been there myself – and it’s a lesson that stays with you.
Highlights The highlights are plentiful: chickens will eat your table scraps and reduce your waster from the house and the garden, they will scratch around and fertilise your patch of land, they will lay you eggs, they will be curious and they will give you a show to match a comedy soap-opera if you can slow down long enough to watch it. What’s not to love?
Tips for beginners My advice for chicken keepers, do your research – look into breeds, how they lay, how big they are, and choose a breeds (or a cross breed) that you are drawn to; these are some of my collection over the years:
- Bantam Silkies and Pekins are personable, lay lovely little eggs and aren’t very hard on the garden, plus they are so pretty to look at.
- Araucana x Marian’s lay eggs in such an amazing colour range, they are a delight to see in the fridge.
- Wyndottes and Barnevelders have the prettiest feathers ever.
- Australorps are a breed created to suit the Australian conditions – they now come in a range of colours.
- Orpingtons were the Queen Mother’s favoured chook – they remind me of pictures of Queen Victoria – all bust and bustle.
Do your research, once you know what type of hens you want, figure out the space allocation for them and how that will work in your garden. Think laterally. Chickens must have a lockable ‘shed’ type arrangement to keep them safe overnight. I advise laying the floor with concrete pavers so that foxes can’t dig in. These can be pulled up easily enough if you move the shed.
Make friends with your hens; watch them; don’t be frightened of getting in with them or picking them up. Chickens are prey animals, so they hide illness and injury very effectively. Mostly chickens are quite sturdy animals (a rooster once survived for years after having his head chopped off – it’s true – Google it), but if they become unwell, their best hope is in early discovery. This way you’ll learn who is moulting, who is trying to be broody, who is the boss and who is a bully and how to manage it all.
‘Chickens have been a peripheral part of my growing up for many decades; they ground me. They are a wonderful, if small, part of the living of life. Is there a greater recommendation than that?’