Would you like to wander out to your back garden and collect a lovely fresh egg for breakfast? HEATHER BARRON explores the idea of keeping hens to provide a regular supply of eggs (and maybe the occasional Sunday roast).

IT is much less common these days to keep chickens at home, and eggs can be bought fairly cheaply at the local shop or supermarket.

But it doesn’t need to be difficult to keep a few hens, as long as they are properly cared for. It’s worth doing a bit of homework before taking the poultry road.

There are rules and regulations about keeping livestock, so make sure you are au fait with any legal requirements before you start.

DEFRA will allow you to keep up to 50 chickens, but, following the avian flu outbreaks, a poultry register was set up in 2005 and you are required to register if you keep more than 50 poultry on the premises.

Check with your local council that there is no by-law preventing you from keeping livestock.

There are sometimes covenants put in place by housing authorities and councils to stop tenants from keeping chickens at their property.

Check your property deeds as some may state that you aren’t allowed to keep livestock.

And remember to consider the neighbours. Hens may not make a lot of noise, but a cockerel could elicit complaints!

It’s a good idea to enrol on a ‘Hen Keeping’ course before buying any equipment or livestock. There are plenty of organisations who would encourage you to keep a few hens – but you must know the advantages and pitfalls first.

Hen house & run Your hens will need to be safely tucked away at night with perches for roosting and a nest box to lay eggs. The house needs to be weatherproof, well insulated and ventilated, and secure – foxes might come calling! It also needs to be cleaned out regularly. You may be happy allowing your chickens to roam free in your garden, but remember that they will scratch through planted beds, and they will deposit manure wherever they go.

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Having an enclosed run will restrict where they can roam, but don’t let it become a muddy mess. Either move the run regularly or divide it in two and let the hens use alternate sides. Make sure they aren’t overcrowded.

Bedding You can buy dust-extracted wood shavings (not sawdust), which is cheap and absorbent, provides insulation, reduces smells and the ammonia created by droppings that can cause respiratory damage and eye problems.

Other options include straw (not hay) which is good for nesting boxes, and chopped cardboard – both of which compost easily; there are a number of branded products on the market especially designed for poultry.

Basic equipment Keep the coop clean by using a specific detergent cleaner to counter the common parasite red mite, and arm yourself with shovel, a bucket, a stiff brush and scraper.

Provide a feeder (storing feed in a dry, vermin proof-container) and a drinker for regular supplies of fresh food and clean water for the birds. A plastic box filled with fine soil or play sand will provide a ‘dust bath’ for the girls!

Feeding Time The chickens must get the correct nutrients, vitamins and minerals in their diet to stay healthy, so using a formulated chicken feed that contains everything they need is the best way to ensure good health and productive egg laying. Don’t be tempted to give them too much mixed corn, which doesn’t provide the birds with the correct balance that they need. As a treat is ok, and scatter it to encourage foraging and exercise.

Daily green veg such as cauliflower leaves, cabbage, and spinach are beneficial, and a bit of fruit as a treat - but too much will have the same effect it would have on you! If they are free-roaming, they will also help themselves to slugs, worms and other insects from the garden.

It is now illegal in the UK to feed chickens with anything that has been prepared in a kitchen.

Grit Chickens do not have teeth and use grit in their gizzard (a strong muscular organ) to grind down their food. (You know that old saying – As rare as hen’s teeth!) Flint (or insoluble) grit is cheap, and available from most good pet or farm shops, and oystershell or soluble grit is an important source of calcium for strong egg shells.

Once you have all this in place, you are ready to buy some chickens! The choice is between pure-breed or hybrid hens, which are best bought from suppliers or breeders direct, or through their websites.

Make sure you have everything ready for them, and ensure they have a stress-free journey to their new home. Keep them in their house, with food and water, for a few hours to settle in.

The birds will go into the house to roost each night, usually at dusk. Clear out any food, collect any eggs, and shut them in securely. Let them out in the morning, checking that they are healthy, and provide them with food and water for the day.

Clean out the house at least once a week, and lay down fresh bedding. Keep your chickens in good health by checking them regularly, and treat any problems accordingly.