We’ve been chicken keepers for a lot of years. Infact I have just checked and our chicken-keeping adventures started way back in 2007.
In lots of ways that was the very start of our journey towards the lifestyle that began this blog. We were offered an incubator to borrow from a farmer friend of ours, along with half a dozen eggs. It was meant to be a science experiment for our home educated children. We would learn about how eggs hatched into chicks, with all of the surrounding chat about reproduction and life cycles as well as where food comes from.
We set the incubator up, tended the eggs for the 3 weeks it takes for chicken eggs to incubate and hatch, carefully turning them several times a day and keeping the conditions inside just right in temperature and humidity. We candled the eggs at various points during the incubation to check whether they were fertilised – one was not – and monitor the development inside. The pipping of the eggs and subsequent hatching was so exciting.
The original plan had been to keep the chicks and learn about their development for a few weeks and then return the young adult chickens to our farmer friend along with the incubator. This would involve watching them grow, change from balls of fluff to feathered creatures, initially requiring light and heat and tending until they were off able to be independent.
Predictably we grew attached, named the chicks, handled them a lot and really enjoyed being their ‘parents’.
It wasn’t long before they were ready for some outside time. So I visited the local industrial estate and begged some pallets to dismantle, borrowed a drill and a spare pair hands from my Dad, along with a roll of chicken wire he had spare and we built a chicken run so they could spend time outside each day.
It was a small leap (and a few more pallets and assistance from Dad) to build a chicken house for them to move outside full time. Unfortunately all of those chickens were cockerels. In order to continue the experiment to it’s logical conclusion one of them was our Sunday roast. The other four did indeed go to our farmer friend but we had the chicken keeping bug.
Our next in take was four bantams bought for us by a friend from an agricultural fair. Along with some more incubated eggs over the years they were the start of a flock of back garden chickens we bred and kept for eggs. We also hatched out a pair of ducks, which Scarlett raised and kept until we were off WWOOFing when we re-homed them with a friend who had a lake for them to live on, and a clutch of quail eggs.
We always made sure our birds were safe from predators and kept in comfortable happy conditions but we also always managed this on a very tight budget. We made use of reclaimed materials, creative ideas and learned so much about natural chicken behaviours and what makes for a happy chicken.
Our very first creatures on Croft 3 were chickens along with some ducks and a pair of geese. We started with 10 brown hens and a speckled cockerel and true to form we housed them in a cobbled together with random materials chicken house. Rum is a great place to be a chicken as there are so few predators. There are no foxes, pine martens, badgers, polecats or any of the other mammals I have heard of other chicken keepers losing birds to. We did lose a chicken to a dog once but putting up signs around the croft asking visitors to the island to ensure their dogs were kept under close control seemed to alleviate that issue from happening again. We also lost a chicken once to an eagle, and another to a buzzard but otherwise our free range flock on Rum had a very happy, healthy idyllic life and thrived accordingly. They were disease and ailment free and bred very successfully, providing us with ample eggs for ourselves and excess to sell along with the occasional bird for the table when our flock grew too large, or too cockerel-heavy.
We have rehomed a lot of our flock, mostly on Rum but also as far afield as North Berwick and only had a small number left on the croft, all of which were Rum hatched and bred and are a mix of descendants from those first chickens we bought and a few bantam hens and a cockerel we rehomed from someone else on the island a few years ago. They were being well looked after by our friend who is keeping an eye on the croft and our own visits back, but after 12 years of chicken keeping we were missing having them around.
We were also feeling the imbalance of paying for chicken feed to be sent across to Rum, throwing away bread scraps and fruit and veg peelings and buying eggs. The obvious answer was to bring our Rum chickens over here to start a new mainland life alongside the rest of us. We checked with our lovely landlords that it would be OK to have the chickens here first. Not only were they quite happy to agree to that they also offered us some chicken wire they had spare and said we could make use of any of the offcuts of wood (from various house build and other projects here) in the garage to make our chicken house from. Did I mention they are lovely?
So Ady and I dragged out all of the bits and pieces of wood we were able to use along with a tape measure, a saw and plenty of screws and set about creating a Chicken Castle. Our prime concerns were size – it had to be big enough to comfortably house the flock we wanted to bring over, and safety – it needed to be as predator proof as possible. Our biggest chicken keeping challenge here is likely to be pine martens – a super cute but deadly to chickens master predator, very prevalent in this area. There is never a 100% safe house but we want to be sure we have done all we can to keep them as safe as possible.
Our dimensions were very much dictated by the size of the wood we had available. We wanted a sloping roof to allow rain (of which we get a lot!) to run off which meant one side taller than the other, with two sides with sloping edges. A sturdy floor, a roof which was heavy enough to take the strong gusts of wind we get here. So six pieces of wood in all. We measured and cut these aiming for as large a space as possible with the wood we had.
We wanted an easily opening but securely closing door as that is obviously a weak point. We decided on a slidey up and down design, so cut out the space, cut out a door bigger and cut out some lengths to create the sliders.
By the time we stopped for lunch we had the six panels all finished and a plan for fixing them together. We wanted strong and stable so used some chunkier wood to create battens inside on three of the the edges on two of the pieces to butt the other two and the base up to. The wood we were using was off cuts, reclaimed or already used for other things previously and while it was mostly in really good condition there were a few pieces we had to discard and some nails we had to bang in. I’d not bought a claw hammer across from Rum so had to use a hammer that I use for metal stamping. I’m not entirely sure of it’s origins, almost certainly one we were given by my Dad and almost certainly older than me!
We were able to put together the four sides and the base in situ in the corner of the garden we’d decided would best suit a chicken castle. It’s under a tree so gets plenty of shade from the sun, the rain and the worst of the wind. It’s close to a fence and a relatively flat part of the garden but slopes away in one direction down to the house and in the other towards a small river than runs alongside the house so that is the angle the roof aims towards to run off into.
We then placed the roof panel on top, with an overhang all around and drew round it from underneath. That gave us a template to create little corner pieces screwed on to ensure it stays securely on and does not slip off or get blown about.
One chicken house. All in a days work!
The following day we painted it. Also in the garage was half a tub of wood preserver paint which just so happened to be green – my colour of choice for anything. So a couple of coats of that and some holes drilled around the top of all the sides for ventilation and one chicken castle ready to receive it’s inhabitants.
The following day we were busy in the morning and Ady was working in the evening but I spent a couple of hours constructing panels to make a run to fit on the front. We would need to keep the chickens in for a couple of days once they first arrived, to make sure they understood the chicken castle was their safe home. There will also be times when we want to let them out but not to free range so a run is perfect to contain them in those instances. Most of their time will be entirely free though so this also needed to be fairly portable / able to be moved and removed.
I started well using sarking board we had earmarked for this bit of the project, measuring and cutting lengths to create two long sides, one same length but wider top panel and one small end panel. I was hampered by a few things though; one was the sarking board being up on the side of the garage accessible only by ladder…
another was the lack of co-operative tools. We had not bought any tin snips with us and I needed to cut the chicken wire. I improvised with a tiny pair of wire cutters I have for jewellery making. They did the job, but at a very slow pace…
The next challenge was the midges – curse of the west coast at this time of year. I managed to set up a little space out on the decking with all my materials and tools assembled around me and the electric fan bought out. It created a small, but real area of midge free respite.
I was doing so well and very proud of my resourcefulness but the final hurdle which ended my creativity was a misbehaving staple gun. It worked for about half of attaching wire to wood for the very first panel and then simply refused to work at all any more. I dismantled it and hit it very hard against the ground but to no avail. I decided the universe was trying to tell me something and as I still had dinner to cook ready for Ady getting home from work I took it that the message was not ‘if at first you don’t succeed; try, try, try again’ but rather ‘know when to give up, grab a cold beer and have a bath while the pizza dough proves’.
Early the next day Ady and I caught the ferry across to Rum. We rounded up eight hens and a cockerel and bought them home the following day. They sailed down on the car deck in a large dog crate filled with straw and covered with a tarp. They were non the worse for wear from their travels and one of them even laid an egg on the trip!
I waited at the pier with them while Ady dashed off to get our car and we were quite the attraction for all the visitors waiting to boat the ferry across to Skye, with several of them asking to take photos and questioning me about them all. The final leg of the trip was in the back of the car.
And then we were home. We’d collected another staple gun and the tin snips from Rum so it was a speedy job to finish the run and assemble it infront of the chicken castle.
And then the big release! Welcome to your new home chickens.
They settled in really quickly and we’ve had an egg every day so far. It always takes a while after a trip like that before they are all laying again but we’re anticipating plenty of lovely fresh eggs in the weeks to come.
We have already made a few modifications and additions to the chicken castle. The first was putting in a perch – for this we used a broom handle we bought across from Rum (the broom head had long since lost it’s bristles but the handle lives to serve another purpose). We also created four nesting boxes. This was easily done with some lengths of marine plywood leftover from the castle build. We put in a base across the whole length of one side attached to the sides with brackets and secured from below with an upright support. We then added a small batten across the front to prevent those freshly laid eggs rolling out and three dividers to create four boxes secured with brackets. It doesn’t need a roof as when the lid of the castle is closed that acts as the roof for the nesting boxes.
After three days familiarisation we opened the run up so that during the day they are free ranging and exploring the garden. Bonnie is delighted to see them again – she loves nothing more than herding them from one part of the garden to another. They have created an area to dustbath in and already earmarked their favourite sun trap corner of the garden to sit in when they are not scratching around .
Hopefully they will enjoy this new life on the mainland as much as we are. They are certainly as settled, busy and at home as we have become.