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Cock-a-doodle-DOO or cock-a-doodle-DON’T?

PUBLISHED: 13:29 12 March 2012

A rooster remains alert and signals approaching danger with different calls, depending on whether the predator is airborne or on the ground.

A rooster remains alert and signals approaching danger with different calls, depending on whether the predator is airborne or on the ground.

Julie Moore

They stand handsome and their crow is the quinetessential sound of the countryside, but should you keep a cockerel with your back garden flock?

Cockerels and roosters have been part of the English countryside for centuries, announcing the break of day, protecting the hens and ensuring the next generation. In the not so distant past, most poultry keepers, whether in a rural or urban area, kept a cock.

Nowadays, particularly in urban environments, attitudes have changed towards the presence of these handsome birds. If you intend to keep a cock, you firstly need to ask yourself whether you actually need one as part of your flock — careful consideration could save you a lot of money whilst maintaining amicable terms with your neighbours.

A cockerel is a young male bird under a year old. Once he has had his first adult moult, at around 18 months, he is known as a rooster or cock.

The primary reason for having a rooster is to hatch your own eggs either naturally with a broody hen or by using an incubator rather than buying already fertilised eggs (this can be an expensive option at around £3 per egg from good stock and does not come with a guaranteed 100% hatch rate), week old chicks or young pullets.

It is a myth that you need a rooster in order for hens to lay eggs. Provided you care for your hens, supplying them on a daily basis with clean water, a balanced diet and an outdoor run, they should lay without any problems.

However, if you plan to breed from your hens, a good cockerel is essential to fertilise the hen’s eggs before they are laid. If you intend to sell the young chicks, you should choose a cockerel of the same breed as the hens — there is little demand for cross-bred stock.

Should you need to buy a cockerel, ensure that the cockerel is young, from good stock and conforms to his breed standard, otherwise he will not produce desirable and thus sellable offspring. Be wary of buying more mature males; their fertility decreases with age, which in turn will reduce your hatchability rates. A bought cockerel should be allowed to run with the hens for three or four weeks before you can begin to collect fertilised eggs to put either under a broody or in an incubator. This is because sperm can remain viable in the oviduct for up to 21 days.

If your hens are free-ranging over a large area, a good rooster will prevent the flock from straying too far. He will retain his guard for the protection of the hens, remaining alert to potential dangers which he signals by different calls depending upon whether the predator is on the ground or airborne. In some instances, a rooster will challenge the predator, sacrificing himself for the safety of the hens.

From my experience as a small-scale poultry keeper, I have found that my hens seem far happier and content in the company of a rooster, foraging and preening in his presence. Perhaps they feel a sense of security, knowing that they can let down their guard to preen or sunbathe whilst the rooster remains alert, watching over them.

Hatching your own chicks inevitably means that at some stage you will have a surplus of cockerels. It is extremely difficult to find nice homes for your excess and hard to sell them for breeding if they do not conform to breed standards. One solution would be to fatten the cockerels for the table. Providing a free-range environment for the cockerels will ensure they have a happy life, foraging freely and eating a varied diet will all contribute to some very flavoursome meat. Cockerels should be killed at around six months; older birds will be tough to eat no matter how well you cook them.

Even though roosters are beautiful to look at, they are notoriously noisy. The iconic image of a rooster crowing at the break of dawn does not happen in reality: they can, and will crow at any time of day! Crowing is part of the rooster’s territorial display. If you have more than one rooster, or there is another in the vicinity, the crowing can increase significantly as the roosters compete against each other to declare their patch.

I have noticed that my roosters exercise their vocal chords more in the spring and summer as day length increases. There is a respite in crowing activity during November and December, but as soon as the days start to lengthen they start crowing again!

It’s a fact of life – we all make noise. We put up with noisy neighbours, unsociable behaviour from weekend revellers, the constant stream of traffic, aircraft and trains, but now councils are receiving an increasing number of complaints of nuisance from roosters.

A crowing rooster kept in a residential area could be deemed a Statutory Nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The owner will be served an Abatement Notice requiring the disturbance to be stopped — if this is not complied with you could face a maximum fine of £5,000 or your over enthusiastic rooster may even find himself in court.

If you wish to keep a rooster, it would be wise to speak to your local council’s Environmental Health Department to ascertain whether any local bye-laws have been imposed regarding the keeping of roosters in your area. You should also speak to your neighbours; they may not appreciate being woken up at the crack of dawn each day. Thought should also be given as to where to house the rooster — he should be kept as far from neighbouring properties as possible, locked safely up in the coop each night and not let out until a reasonable hour in the mornings.

Of course, if you do have a rooster who crows continuously, you could turn this to your advantage by entering him in a crowing competition. Many rural fairs have a cock crowing competition as part of their Main Ring events.

Cockerels and roosters have an extremely healthy appetite and will eat more than your hens. The expense of extra food should be taken into account when deciding whether to keep a rooster.

Some breeds can be aggressive and would not be suitable if you have young children. Good breeds to consider as pets include: Marans, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, Sussex and Orpington as well as smaller breeds such as Silkies and Wyandottes.

One other point to consider is that a rooster may cause a hen distress when mating. His spurs and claws will scratch her back, damaging her feathers, whilst his beak can tear the skin on the back of her neck. Hens lower in the pecking order are more likely to submit to mating and therefore suffer more broken feathers. One of my hens who is further down the pecking order simply crouches when approached by a rooster — her wing feathers became damaged from the constant amour. She has been removed to a ‘rooster free zone’; the roosters can now only look at her through the fence. Despite this, they still insist on waltzing around in front of her! Another solution is to ensure that there are enough hens to keep each rooster busy! A ratio of ten hens to one rooster seems to work well.

Whether to keep a rooster or not depends on your own personal circumstances, but in some cases local bye-laws will make the decision for you.

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