The Hen House

With the wide range of houses available on the market, choosing the best one can be confusing, and if you are buying by mail order, its easy to make a mistake, because photographs can be deceptive. Generally, if the price is too good to be true – you’ll be in for a disappointment when it arrives.

Whether the house is homemade, a converted garden shed or outbuilding, or purchased from a manufacturer, there are certain points in the design and construction which are , essential to the health and contentment of the hens.

A good hen house should be strong enough to stand all weather conditions, vermin proof, warm, and draught free, but with adequate ventilation, and it must offer the birds plenty of room to move about when they are shut in. In the height of the summer the hens will wake at 4 am. but may not be let out until 8 or 9 am. so it helps if they can go down to a safe, fox proof run at dawn, for food and water.

A perch should be provided, up from the floor because hens prefer to roost off the ground, and the nest box should allow at least one square foot for up to five birds, and ideally should be separated from the roosting area.

With any house incorporating a run, it is important to bear in mind that while the roosting area may be adequate for up to 10 or 15 birds, the run is only suitable as a temporary holding area. Hens are only truly content if allowed to range free in the garden, or kept a large fox-proof run. The range area given to organic commercial free-range hens is 10 sq. metres per hen, but if you can’t manage this much space, the birds will be happy if there are plenty of interesting things to do with suitable places for dust bathing and foraging.

The house should be dry and draught-free, well ventilated, and vermin proof, with no cracks or crevices for mites and parasites. Hens like most birds, prefer to roost off the ground, so a raised roosting area, accessed by a ramp or ladder is preferable to a single tier ark resting on the ground. The design of the house can vary from a traditional, tried and tested timber design, to designer penthouse or chalet, made from modern materials. If an shed or outbuilding is used then there will be enough headroom for the birds to roost high enough from the ground to feel secure. Allow approximately one metre of floor space for six birds. This measurement can be slightly smaller in a house with an integral run where the floor area of the run can be added to the roosting floor area, but a more generous allowance for floor space is preferable, and gives the flexibility to increase the number of birds at a later date.

There are a number of corrugated roofing products on the market which provide a useful part of the ventilation system, and are easy to keep clean and mite free, but corrugated iron is not suitable, being too cold in winter and too hot in the summer.

Alternatively, a felt clad timber roof retains much more heat, but the felt should be tightly sealed with batons along all edges to prevent infestation with mites. Houses with timber and felt roofs should have extra provision for ventilation. Foxes are a threat to all hens and urban foxes are more troublesome that rural foxes. Your local fox will check out the security of the house within days of the birds arriving, so windows and vents should be lined with one inch wire mesh or weld mesh, doors should be well fitted and bolted at the top and bottom, while pop-holes should either have a locking catch, or drop into a recess at the base, and nest boxes on the outside of the house should have locking catches on the lids.

Marine quality plywood is preferable to ship lap or tongue and groove boards for mite control, and screws and bolts are preferable to nails, which work loose as the timber moves and shrinks, with varying weather conditions. Beware of houses designed only for their visual appeal and bear in mind that a plain but practical design can be enhanced by using one of the many attractive garden paints.

Some modern design, moulded plastic houses, have the advantage of having no corners and cracks to harbour mites and are easy to keep clean. The best ones are raised from the ground.

One of the most basic instincts of the hen is to perch when resting or roosting, and a chicken will not be happy if not allowed to express normal perching behaviour. The following notes relate to traditional perches, but some houses use a slatted perch system, which works well, if it allows good ventilation beneath the body of the bird.

Perches should not prevent the birds from moving freely around the house, and allow them to distance themselves from bullying. They should be provided in the form of lengths of 5 centimeter square timber batons with a smooth surface and rounded corners allowing the toes to curl round in comfort.

Adjacent individual perches should be no less than 30cm apart and if you buy a house with perches aligned adjacent to each other there must be a gap of no less than 1.5cm between them to allow the chicken to grip the perch without risk of trapping its feet.

The perches should be positioned at least 10-30cm from the floor to avoid the risk of a bird becoming trapped beneath. The height depends on the size and breed of the hens and the floor to roof distance, but where possible, the perches should be higher than the nest boxes to avoid the possibility of the hens sleeping in them.

Allow 15-20cm or perch space per hen. For larger numbers of hens, space permitting, it helps to fix perches at varying heights to allow more dominant hens to roost on a higher level. The perch should not be more than 60cm high for heavy breeds to avoid damage to the feet when jumping down and internal injury or prolapse when ascending the perch, and for lighter breeds no higher than a metre from the floor. If several perches are used they should be around 30-40 cm apart depending on whether they are parallel or stepped.

They can be positioned on the outside of the house, or some designs allow for an internal nest accessible from the outside for egg collections. The nest box should be below the perches in the darkest part of the house to discourage egg eating, but above floor level to avoid floor eggs.

Allow for 3-5 birds to a single 30 x 30 cm nest box. Deep wood shavings make a suitable, easy to manage nesting material because any droppings can be removed individually and the shavings can be moulded into shape by the hens. Hay shouldn’t be used because it goes mouldy when damp, leading to respiratory complaints, and straw is not ideal because it becomes matted, risking broken eggs, and it can carry mites.

Many modern houses have a metal or plastic tray which can be removed for cleaning out and this can be covered in newspaper or preferably, wood shavings. It’s preferable for the tray to be supported by side runners rather than a solid floor which would provide a haven for mites or moisture. If the house has a solid wooden floor, then it should be treated with linseed or other similar oil before use, to seal the timber and provide a non-stick surface for easy cleaning out.

It is a small entrance/exit for the hens and is separate from the main door, but on the same side to avoid a draught. The pop-hole drop-down sliding door, should fit into a recess at the bottom to be fox proof.

Many modern hen houses are badly designed with inadequate ventilation. The window space should be at least 10% of the total floor space, therefore, a house with a metre square floor for six birds should have 1000 square centimetres of window space or air vents. These should be positioned level with or above the level of the birds’ heads to avoid a draught. Depending on the design of the house, long, narrow air inlet slots encourage a more even air flow than a square window.

If a corrugated roof is used then the air spaces in the corrugations allow the window/air vent size to be halved and the air will pass in through the window to be taken up through the holes in the corrugation. Ventilation inlets should not be below the perch level close to the floor, as this will draw dust and other particles of waste matter upwards to contaminate the air. In the absence of a corrugated roof, outlet vents should be positioned in the gable ends of a pitched roof to encourage a good flow of air.

Position the house to give shelter from adverse weather conditions, and see that the window is on the lee-ward side.

Many houses are made with an attached run which serves as a useful space to stand the feeder and drinker, and to keep the birds secure for short periods only, but as hens need plenty of space to exercise, forage, and dust bathe, a larger run should be provided if they can’t range-free in the garden. The larger the run, the better – ideally 10 sq. metres per bird to maintain healthy condition. Hens cannot be kept in very small runs on a permanent basis.

A fox proof fixed run can be constructed of six foot high galvanized or plastic covered poultry netting with the base buried six inches into the ground, or folded at the base, with 12 inches of wire bent outwards at right angles on the ground. For extra security against predators, and to keep wild birds out, the top should be covered with fruit netting. The best results with a static run are gained by dividing it in half and alternating the range area to rest the ground.

An excellent alternative to a fixed run, and 100% fox proof, is electric poultry netting, which can be erected in minutes and moved regularly to fresh ground.

In some situations smaller mobile runs are more suitable, but whichever option is taken, the birds will thrive on some hours of freedom each day when people or the pet dogs are about to keep foxes at bay.

Healthy hens need space and freedom, if they are to lay the best quality eggs, and remain disease free.