Never mind your mutt or your moggy, there is a much more practical pet out there which doesn’t have to be taken for walks and won’t bark the place down or scratch your curtains to ribbons but will also provide you and your family with free food forever. Well, almost.
As the popularity of the Bloom Festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park has shown, Irish people have developed an insatiable appetite for the good life in recent years. Many such folk are not just growing their own fruit and vegetables but have also taken to keeping hens for eggs.
But can this save you money? Or is it just a hobby which will leave you knee deep in droppings and debt? In truth it’s a bit of both. For a start, hens are flock animals, which means that you’ll need two at a minimum.
But two of what, exactly?
According to Will O’Reilly of Farmfowl in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, a novice choosing a purebred chicken is “like taking on a thoroughbred as a first pony” so that might be best avoided.
Those in the field recommend hybrids which can be got for €10 from Farmfowl. Hybrids in a mix of colours will set you back €15 from Old McDonald's Farm and Feed Store in Carlow.
The genetic make-up of a hybrid has blended some of the best features of several purebreds and that makes them more likely to suit an urban setting. And crucially they should lay more eggs. Not only that but, according to O’Reilly, they’re more docile, quieter, good around kids and lay pretty well all year round.
Leo Connolly of Old McDonald's points out that purebreds may lay as few as 50 eggs per year whereas a hybrid can lay up to 320. The percieved advantage of a purebred is that they will live longer although Connolly disputes by this and says that "people have a misconception that hybrid birds have a limited lifespan."
Commercial breeders can exhaust their birds so their lives appear shorter, he argues. But all hens lay best in their first year and gradually taper off over the next few years so, as the adage goes, “a hen always dies in debt”. Make sure to buy fully vaccinated hens from a reputable source at “point of lay”.
Your feathered friends will also need shelter, somewhere to roost and lay their eggs, and somewhere to scratch around, ideally grass – about 6sq m would be needed for two hens, according to Connolly – and they will also need food and water.
If you are a bit of a DIY whizz your could probably knock up a passable chicken run with some wire and a few bits of wood for less than a tenner. If you are like the rest of us, however, you may need to invest a little bit more.
There’s all manner of housing on the market. Prices start at about €250 for an ordinary hen house and can climb to as much as €1,600 if you splash out on the splendid Wanderly Wagon at oldmcdonald.ie. It’s described as “a romantic hideaway for 12 lucky ladies” although admittedly more appear to have been sold as (very lucky) children’s playhouses.
Most houses are designed as off-the-ground coops and come with an internal nesting area and a perch. They can also come with an attached run. Some are sold with handles or wheels so that the entire structure can be moved easily around the garden to ensure fresh grass underneath while others have a gate to allow the hens out to roam.
The beauty of a purpose-built house is that they’re usually designed with ease of cleaning in mind and in practice this only takes about 10 minutes once a week.
If you do decide to make or upcycle your own hen house, plenty of information is available on the web to guide you. One architect has built a sliding door into an existing garden shed and fitted the lower third of the shed with a nesting area off the floor in which his hens lay their eggs in an old supermarket plastic basket.
A horticulturalist has adapted an old dog kennel into a henhouse by hingeing the roof for easy access. Try recycling sites like jumbletown.ie if you’re short of suitable materials. A useful site is poulacapplepoultry.com. It shows an imaginative house made out of old cable rolls and planks of wood. You can buy a nest box for €42 which can be fitted externally onto the side of an existing structure, such as a shed, allowing you to collect eggs from outside the henhouse.
And if you’re cash rich but time poor you can also invest in an automatic door opener (€127 at Farmfowl.ie) to open and close the hens’ sliding door so ensuring a guiltless lie-in at the weekend. It will also allow you to stay out late without worrying whether the hens have been shut in for the night. (Unlike children, hens are very good at going to bed once dusk falls.)
Hens do need a continuous supply of clean water. You can buy a 6-litre drinker for €10. A 6kg outdoor feeder which releases food as it’s emptied costs €20.
O'Reilly says hens eat about 150-200g of layers' pellets per day. If an average hen eats 180g daily then it will cost 9c per day to feed her using a 25kg bag of pellets for €13. (With organic pellets at €17.99 for 25kg the cost per day would be 13c). This is not bad considering Tesco's cheapest eggs cost 16c each (18 Tesco Everyday Value) and Tesco's Organic 35c each.
Add on to that the cost of bedding materials, eg wood shavings at €8 for over 20kg (LE Animal Feeds, Kilpedder, 087-2883854) and hopefully, not too much in the way of pest control, and you might just break even or even save a bit. Hens do need worming and dusting to combat red mite.
Nutrition is key, according to O’Reilly. He only recommends layers’ pellets and not leftovers although greens from the kitchen can be given to supplement regular feed. Roaming around the garden, your chickens will also eat grass and grubs. and grit needs to be added to their diet if they don’t get a chance to pick it up as they scratch around.
Apart from the economics, what other reasons are there for considering chickens? There are loads of them.
Hens are frequently comical and often curious. They are a lovely pet for children and grandchildren to enjoy. Connolly has 22 brown hens and “every one of them has a different character”.
Two he’s noticed enjoy the company of his miniature donkey (admittedly this may only be of interest if you have a miniature donkey) .
If you do go ahead and plump for hens, remember to register your flock, however small, with the Department of Agriculture so that they know where fowl are should avian flu strike. Registration can be done through Form PR1, available at agriculture.gov.ie/farmingsectors/poultry