A lot of people like hens and, inspired by the 1970’s BBC programme, ‘The Good Life’, many urban dwellers have kept a few free-range hens in their back yards.

One person who knows a lot about hens is Ros Rowe, the founder of the Leg-Up Trust at Bridge Pa, which uses horses as healers to support ‘at risk’ youth.

Ros grew up with hens, inheriting her mother’s love of all animals and has a few pekin bantams, red shavers and hyliners which have been acquired from friends, reliable breeders or poultry farms.

Ros’ oldest hen is about twelve, but in other ownership, hens may not be lucky enough to live out their retirement after they stop laying at around three to four years.  The number of eggs laid by hens in one year varies, but a good layer could produce 300 annually. I read that the average is 276.

Roosters are prohibited in urban areas because of their crowing, but Ros likes to have one or two around to keep the ladies happy and raise the occasional brood.  She has seen her rooster forage for food and, when he finds something delicious like a slug or slater, he’ll give a special call out to the girls and then share the dainty morsel with them.

While Ros provides her hens with a choice of several well-ventilated coops, some prefer to roost in trees, summer and winter. It’s their choice.  They roam freely round the small orchard in what Ros calls a perfect, symbiotic relationship.

Free-range hens can forage for a wide range of food but do need to be given a commercial poultry feed and enjoy scraps from the kitchen, including meat for protein. Chickens which are truly free range — those which are out on pasture and are eating greens as well as bugs and chicken feed — lay eggs that contain higher levels of beta carotene, which is why the yolks are darker than poultry-farmed hens. Beta carotene is the vitamin that gives carrots and other orange vegetables their colour.

Hyline hens are the world’s most balanced brown egg layer and could be expected to lay four or five good-sized eggs weekly.  When you buy eggs from the supermarket, they will most likely be from a red shaver. This breed is pretty much bomb-proof and perfect for first-time chook owners, as they are known for their hardy, friendly personalities and consistently lay beautiful large brown eggs.

Ros’ Top Tips: Dust-free wood shavings or pine needles are more hygienic in the coop than straw; the coop should be cleaned out regularly; clean, fresh water should always be available (add 1 tbs per 4 litres of cider vinegar to aid digestion and minimise internal parasites); feed special grit to help the hens grind down food as they don’t have teeth; check feathers and downy fluff regularly for mites and parasites, treating as necessary; check for flystrike around their rear end, keeping the area clean – and, yes, they’d love a dust bath.

Top photo: By Ros Rowe

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