Keeping A Cosy Coop
If you’ve loved watching your chickens diligently scratching and pecking amongst the grass and greenery this summer, you may have found yourself surprised at how easy it’s been to look after them.
But much as it pains us to kiss goodbye to the best summer in years, the days are getting ever shorter and nights are already turning cooler. If you’re new to chicken keeping, do you know what to expect from your flock in the winter months and how to prepare them for it?
Really, it’s not any more difficult to care for poultry as the summer fades, but there are a few key things to bear in mind. If you haven’t done so already, have a look for basic chicken-rearing information, including expert and timely advice on what kind of chickens are hardier or safer bets for first-time chicken keepers.
Don’t be alarmed if they start to lose their feathers – even in big patches. It’s called ‘molting,’ and just means they’re getting ready for a fluffy new coat. Also, even tireless egg layers often take a little break during the colder, darker months: come Spring, they’ll be back to their old habits.
For other other ways to help your feathery ladies get through the winter, follow these suggestions from experienced chicken-keepers.
Your chickens’ home is probably the most important thing to get right when it comes to winter-proofing.
Ideally, the coop should stand a good foot off the ground and be sealed against cold draughts. It mustn’t be air-tight, however, as trapped moisture and cold temperatures can cause frostbite.
Some people recommend insulting the inside of a coop with old duvets or blankets stapled to the walls, or fitting a weatherproof cover over it. In Britain, this probably isn’t necessary as chickens huddling together is usually enough to keep them warm. The same goes for heaters, which can easily catch fire, and light bulbs, which may increase egg production during shorter days but ultimately may stress chickens so much they’ll quit laying.
The coop also needs a good layer of bedding – shredded newspapers, woodchips or hay – that needs to be changed whenever it’s getting moist or matted.
**Food and Water**
Just as important as a cosy home is keeping your chickens supplied with plenty of fresh water. Remember water can freeze quickly, so check every couple of hours and top up with boiling water – or create a heated watering system
Some experts recommend adding a vitamin-electrolyte supplement to your hens’ water, to make up for the nutrients they’re not getting when green grass is scarce.
In the evening, a treat of cracked corn can keep chickens warm by giving them something to digest and help them bulk up. Otherwise, just make sure they can get to their usual food source, especially if there is a heavy layer of snow. Chickens generally don’t like snow, so you may need to scatter hay about to lure them outdoors.
On a related note, chickens like somewhere to take the occasional dust bath, so try to keep at least a small area of ground dry for them during the damp winter months.
**Predators and Pests**
Like all animals, predators such as foxes and rats may get more brazen as food supplies dwindle in winter. Be sure your chickens are safely tucked away in a secure coop, especially after dark, and don’t forget evenings close in quite early by midwinter.
**Care Against Cold**
Strange as it may sound – and look – chickens can get frostbite on the fleshy areas exposed to the cold. Keep Jack Frost at bay by using Vasoline on their combs and wattles.
Equally odd, more vulnerable chickens – such as hens that are molting or rescue hens – will suffer from the cold if they don’t have adequate plumage. For especially chilly chickens, there are always specially knit jumpers! Yes, really.
*Photo credit Marji Beach*