Keeping chickens in the garden should be no different to looking after guinea pigs or rabbits. They will need housing, food, care and attention, which will involve spending both time and money, but you'll find the effort and expense very rewarding.

What type of coop do I need?

Whatever shape or size, coops should provide a safe haven from the weather and predators. They should be robustly built to withstand strong winds and offer shelter for hens who may not have experienced rain before. However, the main difference between commercially available coops is whether or not they have an integral run enclosed by wire mesh.

The starter chicken coop is a good example of a coop that has an integral run. If sited on grass, you must be physically able to regularly re-locate a coop with a run attached. If the hen house or coop does not have a run it can remain static but you will have to fence off an adjacent area to guard the hens against predation.

How much space do chickens need?

Image of two chickens in a chicken coop

The size of the coop is dependent on the number of chickens you have. The floor space inside a coop should be approximately 4sq ft per hen, but it is always a good idea to buy a coop larger than your present needs to accommodate more hens when you become more experienced in keeping them and want to expand the flock.

What features should a coop have?

As chicken coops are going to be outside in all weathers, buy one made from good quality materials such as pressure-treated wood. Make sure the coop is weatherproof and the nesting box is dry. Although draught free, there should be some ventilation. Any mesh should be made from heavy-duty galvanized wire. There should be a 'pop door' for the hens to go in and out of the nest box and make sure that the coop is easy to look after without having to be disassembled. Everywhere should be within reach when you clean and disinfect.

Where do I position my chicken coop?

You do not have to position the coop on grass, but this is the most popular choice. It will need to be relocated every one – three days before the grass becomes totally worn out. Hens will scratch all the grass and moss up to uncover tasty insects, so it is unlikely that your lawn will remain pristine for very long. On hard surfaces, litter such as wood shavings should be used to cover the floor, these will absorb droppings and will regularly need to be changed depending on the depth.

What equipment do I need?

A pair of gloves, a small shovel and wheelbarrow / container to transport waste bedding material to a compost heap, a hard brush, torch for when its dark, food and water dispensers, disinfectant for the feeders and coop.

What do you feed chickens?

To keep laying, your hens need be fed a good quality balanced diet twice a day. If your hens are ex-battery animals you will need to wean them off the mash they have been fed and onto Layers Crumble or Pellets, these contain all the nutrients they need. On average each hen will consume between 100g – 150g (3½oz – 5¼oz per day throughout the year).

A chicken

Extra treats in the form of mixed corn (wheat and maze) are always appreciated especially to fatten poultry up before the winter and after moulting. Feeding scraps from your kitchen is now banned by DEFRA.

Fresh water must be available at all times. Grit also needs to be provided to help digestion and oyster shell pieces will ensure your chickens have enough calcium to produce hard egg shells. Apple cider vinegar has a range of minerals and vitamins and should be diluted occasionally with your hens' water.

Do chickens eat garden plants?

Yes, and some are potentially poisonous such as daffodils, foxgloves and sweat peas. Although chickens will eat weeds they will also love your vegetable plot, particular favourites are lettuce, spinach, kale, beetroot and tomatoes. They will consume any herbs that you are growing, and lavender, sage, mint and other aromatic herbs added to their nesting material can help keep it smelling sweet.

How do I protect my chickens from foxes?

To prevent foxes accessing an exterior run by digging or climbing you need a fence that is approximately 5ft – 6ft high and buried 8ins – 12ins into the earth. Only good quality wire mesh should be used, chicken wire is inadequate if used on its own.

Electric fencing is another option or an electric wire running along the bottom of the fence to prevent digging and higher up to discourage climbing. Both of these can be mains or solar powered.

For coops with an integral run you can fix a galvanized wire mesh skirt all the way round to discourage digging. All access points in a coop need to be fitted with a latch and the hens secured between dusk and dawn by shutting the pop hole.

These are all tried and trusted strategies but there is plenty of information available on how to deter foxes foxes in your garden, these include a wide variety of methods ranging from chemical repellents to lifelike ornaments.

How much time does it take to look after chickens?

Caring for your hens does not take long each day, perhaps fifteen minutes. Make sure they have enough fresh food and water, collect any eggs, clear away any detritus and trouble shoot any problems. Once a week or fortnight thoroughly clean and disinfect the coop.

An Egg with a feather

How many eggs will my chickens lay?

Even rescue hens who are no longer commercially viable will lay an egg each or every other day. This will decrease as they get older and during the winter when daylight is shorter.

What ailments do chickens suffer from?

Lice, and three different types of mite – northern, scaly leg and red – can all be treated and prevented by good hygiene and regular cleaning. Mycoplasma is a respiratory disease that will affect the chickens' immune system but is again treatable. You would be very unlucky to suffer avian influenza, and this must be reported to DEFRA.

What regulations are there for keeping chickens in the garden?

There are no laws preventing you keeping hens, providing they are looked after properly and their welfare is taken seriously. However, it is advisable to check your property deeds or consult your landlord to make sure there are no covenants preventing the keeping of livestock. If you have a flock of over 50 birds, you must notify DEFRA, they can also provide you with a wealth of information on keeping chickens in the garden.

Where can I buy chickens?

Hybrid and pure bred hens can be purchased from suppliers throughout the country but many people find rescuing ex-factory farm hens from slaughter an appealing alternative. They are docile, inoculated and still laying lots of eggs. Contact the British Hen Welfare Trust who have various regular collection points, there's a donation of £5 per hen.