The good coop guide
There is a huge variety of chicken houses on the market. Ben Kaye checks out the choice
As I write, the last gasp of winter’s icy breath whistles forlornly at my cottage windows, kept at bay by the comforting, cherry-red glow from the woodburner. And therein, quite literally, lies a tale. Warming my thoughts tonight, and filling the room with flickering firelight, is the hastily-hatcheted remains of the first chicken house I ever purchased, finally performing at least one useful function in its otherwise undistinguished and ignoble career.
Choosing the right housing for your ladies is probably the most important first decision to face the hobbyist, so I thought it would be worth passing on some top housing tips to all considering that wonderful and richly rewarding pastime of ‘keeping a few hens’.
From ark to country cottage, chalet to chateau, maisonette to mansion and traditional to plastic fantastic, thanks to the immense popularity of keeping chickens in the UK, there is a myriad of styles to bedazzle us.
If we put architecture and aesthetics to one side for a moment (one person’s Taj Mahal is, after all, another’s ‘monstrous carbuncle’), fortunately there are general principles consistent with every kind of accommodation that, once explained, will vastly simplify the whole house-hunting process.
Do Count Your Chickens
Even the greatest journey begins with a single step, and, fortunately for the prospective toe-dipper, the first question is perhaps the simplest: how many hens do we actually want to keep?
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This decision will be governed not only by companionship considerations but also by how many eggs your family can cope with on a weekly basis. The question of breed and size is paramount too; some large breeds are literally double (if not quadruple!) the stature of their diminutive bantam versions and therefore will take up much more room in the house (and run, if you decide that is the way to go).
Whilst the subject of breeds and comparative egg-laying capabilities is too vast to cover here, it is well to remember that, generally speaking, your most modern ‘chook about town’ (called a ‘hybrid’) is the result of highly selective breeding and will be capable of producing many more eggs than its traditional ‘pure-bred’ cousins. From my experience, however, I vastly value traditional quality over quantity, so do your research!
Regardless of whether you prefer the pretty and petite, or are perhaps drawn more towards the buxom, matronly-type of bird, it is important to remember that, as a guide, your girls will need at least one nestbox for every three hens in your household. Young ladies require privacy when laying, and if this 1:3 ratio is upset, then sulking, squabbling and much-squawking-in-the-wold will result!
Keeping a few hens is a surprisingly-addictive pursuit, with many of us starting with three or so, but soon finding the lure of additional trips to the breeder ‘just for a chat dear…’ inevitably result in journeys home with disapproving clucking noises emanating from the back seat (and, in my case, from my ‘beloved’ in the passenger seat as well). With their inherently-endearing nature in mind, it is probably best to allow for a little extra space in the house for those impulsive purchases, so, if you’re currently considering a community of four for example, then think about a house suitable for six.
Just a quick word about overcrowding here. In the winter time, having your house filled close to (or at) its recommended capacity, is a positive benefit. Your snowbirds will huddle together and produce enough heat to keep the house at a comfortable temperature. Never be tempted, though, to introduce more occupants than is recommended by the house manufacturer. We all know how irritated we ourselves can become in an overcrowded environment (the Underground does it for me), and deliberately turning your little idyll into an inner city tenement is not to be recommended. I’m not saying, of course, that you will open up the nestbox one day to find the interior liberally daubed with graffiti (suggestions on a postcard please!), but it is as well to remember that those cheeky chooks are indeed descended from a Dinosaur ancestry, and packing them in like sardines will have them reverting to their prehistoric predatory habits before you can say ‘T-Rex’!
With so many types of housing available, the next thing to think about is whether your feathered friends will have the free range ‘right to roam’ (imagine the little placards) or if they will need to be restricted in some way, for their own safety, for our sanity or even for the state of the begonias.
With a stand-alone house, my own girls have the complete freedom of the garden during the daytime, but, of course, are then securely ‘tucked up’ at dusk (cocoa and bedtime story goes without saying) as all modest ladies of good character should be. Whilst I have to say that this arrangement is the most natural for them (happily foraging all day amongst the grass and bushes) and the most enjoyable for me, it simply won’t suit everyone. Despite living in the depths of the countryside, ‘Monsieur Reynard’ simply isn’t a problem, but my gain is inevitably someone else’s loss, and the large number of foxes I have seen in towns and cities often leads me to muse on the idea of these bowler-hatted, carnivorous commuters perusing their morning papers on the platform whilst awaiting the 6.30 service to Waterloo.
Here then are a few housing options to consider:
If your area is ‘safe as houses’, and unwanted visitors are not a concern during daylight hours, then a stand-alone house without a run may be your perfect solution.
Created in every conceivable style and size, and built from a range of materials to suit all budgets, the standalone house is perhaps the most elegant solution in accommodating anything from a chirpy trio to a flock of two dozen or more.
With such a huge range of designs available, it is largely a matter of wallet size and personal choice, so do your research and don’t forget to look through the Essential Features Checklist later in this article. One aspect I will touch on, however, is that all chickens naturally like to roost (nod off to sleep) as far above harm’s way as they can. With this inbuilt instinct in mind, they seem to me to be far happier snoozing in a more elevated residence than one too close to the ground. Do bear in mind, however, that no poultry stairlift is currently available from Stannah to take the strain off creaky claws, so a bungalow-style house may be more suitable for ‘ladies of a certain age’, and rescue hens. If you’re philanthropically natured, then get some advice from The British Hen Welfare Trust (www.bhwt.org.uk); they’re lovely people.
‘Chook in a Box’, basic and utilitarian they may be to some, but with a tried and tested Volvo-like heritage, this pseudo shiplap ‘Shaker’ style of house has much to offer. Generally cheaper than more architecturally-innovative designs, these houses hark back to a nostalgic era of practicality and austerity as beautifully-crystallized by Betjeman’s ‘Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm’ (do read it – it’s a hoot). Commonly ‘unadorned’ with a felt-covered roof, this design classic has longevity for a reason. This ‘boxy but good’ model is also widely available with a detachable run and is the mainstay of many an allotment or rustic-style garden.
Ark for Ark’s Sake
As traditional as Toblerone at Christmas, the ark’s simplicity of design belies its inherent strength and practicality.
Whilst the more diminutive arks can be more suited to bantams and medium-sized birds due to the limited nature of the loft space above, the ark’s small footprint is ideal for those with smaller gardens who long for a taste of the Good Life.
The ark’s steeply-raked roof sheds British downpours with ease and, at the same time, protects your girls from a soaking as they forage amongst the grass area beneath.
In winter, the compact and elevated nature of its attic accommodation comes into its own, concentrating the heat generated to ensure a cosy night’s beauty sleep, high above the primeval ‘forest floor’. Available with either internal or external nest boxes, the popularity of this love triangle surely says a lot. A Pythagorean paradise? You decide!
An all-in-one, space-saving unit with living and laying accommodation above and a run area below, maisonette-styled houses are the ultimate in compact convenience. Commonly built in wood, and with handles to lift the unit to fresh ground, some designs are also equipped with wheels to make these regular essential moves easier. Less geometrically-constrained than the traditional ark, the more generous sleeping space combined with the relatively weather-protected access to fresh grass is a winner. Some models can be rather heavy to move, however, so my advice is ‘try before you buy’!
Here things really open up choice-wise, and the world becomes your lobster. For me, a house with a detachable run provides a great solution to the diverse needs of the hobbyist, effectively dividing weight considerations for re-locating to fresh grass as both parts can be moved separately.
Houses with detachable runs may be configured as a bungalow, with living room and foraging area on nearly the same level, or in a ‘two-up-two-down’ arrangement, similar to an ark but less constrained by triangular limitations.
A quick word about flooring here; some houses employ a slatted base to allow droppings to fall through to the grass below. To me, this arrangement, whilst clinically efficient, can lead to a draughty environment (think of wearing a miniskirt in winter); my preference therefore is for a draught-free and comfortable sawdust covered floor which can be easily slid out to be cleaned. There – I’ve said it – let the feathers fly!
Cheep as Chicks
Whilst most of our belts are currently notched tighter than a gnat’s whatnot, keeping a few hens need not break the bank. After a hard day’s work seemingly paying for the entire UK’s current fiscal deficit, I find that a pleasurable evening experiencing ‘The Zen of Hens’ not only grounds me but also brings me back to something vaguely approaching sanity.
Few of us currently can afford a stately home, so it’s just as well that a plethora of suppliers have recognised this and have sourced cheaper alternatives.
If you, too, are stretched but are looking for a house and run combination for under �200, then cheaper housing might be well worth a look.
I personally prefer move my girls to fresh ground every two weeks or so to prevent parasite build-up and to give the grass a chance to recover from repetitive claw injury.
My house, however, is no lightweight and nothing makes my reluctant children disappear so fast as my plaintive plea for ‘a little help here’!
If I’d really weighed up my ladies’ lavish residence before I bought it nearly 10 years ago, then I should have considered this fortnightly family furore of coaxing and cajoling. Help, however, is now at hand; responding to rising bills from my osteopath, housing manufacturers are building in features to turn this Augean struggle into a walk-in-the-park. Top of my list is a pair of sturdy wheels so that the ensemble can be tipped up and moved like a wheelbarrow, and the best designs have those wheels set back from the heaviest end of the house so the whole system is counter-weighted.
Ah… there’s nothing like hindsight (or Deep Heat – a little lower please)!
Visionary or Luddite? How Bau is your haus? Whatever your inclination, one thing is certain: plastic is here to stay, and the most up-to-date house and run combinations are worthy of consideration. Whilst vacuum-formed and recycled modern materials certainly provide the computer-aided-designer with greater flexibility (I’m waiting with bated breath for ‘The Sydney Omlet House’ - all rights reserved!), traditionalists will never be impressed and this irresolvable debate is destined to rattle on akin to Swift’s Lilliputian War (the Big-Endians, if you remember, cracked their breakfast eggs at the large end whilst the Little-Endians favoured the opposite). Most attractive perhaps to progressive thinkers with limited space, for some pros and cons of modern materials, see the Essential Features Checklist below / overleaf.
Protect and Serve
Built like a walk-in greenhouse (but imagine galvanized mesh instead of glass), protection pens are available in a variety of sizes to suit your available space. A standalone house can either sit within the pen itself , or alternatively be attached to the outside via a ‘mating panel’ to provide maximum foraging space within. Protection pens not only have the option of completely weatherproof roofing and windproof skirting, but also are light enough (depending on their size) to be regularly moved from spoilt ground to fresh grass.
Containing a built-in house, a properly constructed permanent enclosure will form a rugged and reliable barrier to predators. With the convenience of keeping your girls under control at all times, and fully protected from the worst of the elements, this style of housing can provide an attractive all-in-one solution.
Depending on the number of residents, you may need to think about lining the floor of the enclosure with bark or another suitable material (as the grass might soon become but a distant memory) and regular parasite control is essential, but for many this is a small price to pay for such an all encompassing option, and evangelists abound!
Big is Beautiful
If your passion for poultry knows no bounds, then you may want to consider one of the larger houses on the market. Aimed at those with ambitious aspirations, a more monumental ‘grand design’ could put you on the road to living your dream of a more self-sufficient existence. With eggs galore for the family, and plenty left over for ‘garden gate’ sales or for distribution to friends or local shops, a ‘poultry palace’ may well be the way to go in these austere times. If you are contemplating such an endeavour, do check out the DEFRA website for guidance on flock size (you will need to register if you intend to keep 50 birds or more) and be aware of commercial sales regulations.