11:11 09 January 2013
Believe it or not, winter can be a great time of year for chickens. Charlotte Popescu explains
With winter now upon us, your hens, if they were due to moult, should have renewed their feathers and will be feeling in good fettle. I find this is an excellent time of year for my hens. They can enjoy life to the full with no pressures as they take a break from laying eggs. They can free range all day long without a care in the world. Potential broody hens don’t have to think about making nests and preparing for motherhood. Hens are left in relative peace as cockerels don’t feel like mating so much in the winter.
If your hens are confined, now is the time to let them out into the garden for some pleasurable foraging on the lawn and in the borders; they will hopefully not be damaging special new plants or precious vegetable crops. They will do a good job on your lawn scratching up any moss (which you can then easily remove) fertilising it and making it look pristine for the spring. I have a friend with hens in her army quarter garden; family and hens have been posted to a new location and she leaves behind a perfect lawn that looks in much better condition than when she arrived!
If you have fallen leaves, rake them up and your hens will love scattering them to the four winds again while they search for anything worth eating. Strangely enough, I noticed recently a couple of hens actually eating dead, brown leaves – obviously a tasty snack but I had not seen that before! If you have a compost heap rather than a compost bin, let your hens have access – they will love going through it and no doubt find some very tasty worms. If you have terracotta pots, move them to new positions and your hens will love eating the woodlice beneath them.
My hens free range all year but still regard it as a bonus when I open up the vegetable cages so that they can clear up the last of the chard and lettuces and have a good scratch around picking up the grit they need as they go; their droppings will get worked straight into the soil with no efforts on your part and will have composted down brilliantly in time for spring planting. They will polish off any weeds that have accumulated as well as weed seeds and enjoy any grubs including ants that have taken up residence, as well as snails or slugs. Your green vegetables from the garden might be sparse at this time of year but my hens love tucking into my Jerusalem artichokes in the winter. The plants grow very high during the year but act as a windbreak so are beneficial to your hens. If you have room to grow some Autumn Bliss raspberries these will also go down very well with your hens who will enjoy eating them as well as the dappled shade in the summer and a bit of shelter as the winter months approach!
Hens actually cope with the winter cold better than a very hot summer. They adapt very well, fluffing up their feathers to give maximum insulation. These feathers are coated with preening oil which makes them waterproof. A few of my hens insist on roosting in a fir tree overnight and will swoop down in the morning having been turned white by a layer of frost-covered feathers but are none the worse for wear.
If the ground is very wet your hens will appreciate flying up on to the top of a run or on a low fence to relax and preen. If it snows your hens may be a bit startled at first and unsure about walking through the white stuff but will soon get used to the new coolness under their feet. I have seen mine eating snow and they absolutely love any crushed ice that lands on the ground after you break up their frozen water. If snow is completely covering the ground you can encourage your hens to scratch through it to get to the grass below. Your hens will appreciate an extra supply of food, such as mixed poultry corn which has maize added, as it has more calories and will help their metabolism and give them energy; just as we tend to eat a bit more in the winter and enjoy our comfort food. They will be spending more hours roosting through the long dark winter nights so your ‘feed’ bills should be less than normal. My rescue hens seem to cope best with the snow being surprisingly hardy and are happy to keep active and go foraging in the cold weather. They appear fearless as they pick their legs up high and make their way through any deep snow. It is a bit more difficult for my bantams with feathered legs as they can get wet but they tend to stick to areas where there is less snow; you may need to clear a path for them. Your hens won’t mind frosty weather and will still eat the tips of white covered grass. They enjoy the dry, crisp cold sunny days and will relish sitting in any sun traps they can find. But do let them out in the morning as soon as it is daylight so they get the maximum amount of hours for activity.