Poultry expert Chris Graham considers the most important practical features to look for when buying a poultry house
WITH so much choice available these days, the apparently simple business of buying a poultry house has become surprisingly involved. The more you look, the more potential suppliers you find – but the real secret, as with buying birds themselves, is learning to tell good from bad.
As the poultry-keeping hobby has blossomed in recent times, so has the number people setting themselves up as hen house builders and suppliers. We’re at the stage now where, at one extreme, you have large concerns importing mass-produced, flat-packed houses from China while, at the other, there’s the one-man-in-his-shed operation building one-off units to his own design. As with all other practical aspects of this fascinating hobby, there’s a good deal to be considered when buying a hen house.
A poultry house must provide its occupants with suitably sized, draft-free, well ventilated, dry and secure accommodation.
If you want to buy a purpose made hen house then you basically have the choice between a simple, ark-style unit, a square-sided design with a flat, pent roof, or a square sided style with a pitched, apex roof. The ark-style houses – based on a simple, triangular structure – seem less popular with many keepers due to the headroom limitations inside.
This can be especially true for those designs featuring a raised roosting compartment at one end. This is done to maximise run space but, with the living quarters squashed into the apex of the structure, roosting space can be dangerously restricted. Birds have been known to suffocate during hot weather under these conditions. But the ark-style houses remain attractive to the first-time buyer on a tight budget, because they tend to be the cheapest option.
The more conventional, straight-sided designs are costlier to buy, but are more popular among new and existing keepers nonetheless. They offer the best use of space, and their basic structure is such that designers find it easier to make them effectively weatherproof and readily accessible for simplified cleaning and bird management.
If chickens aren’t happy and content when shut inside the roosting compartment of their house then you’re going to have serious problems. Keeping this area clean, dry and fresh is one of the essential requirements of a good husbandry program. While this will always be a chore to some degree, you can certainly make life a lot easier by buying a well-designed hen house in the first place.
The physical size of the house has a big influence on this. Raising the house on legs – an important basic requirement – will also help enormously in this respect, as it limits the amount of bending required. Some of today’s smartest designs set the house floor at waist level, to make cleaning operations as easy as possible. This can be a real boon for elderly keepers, or those with mobility problems.
The amount of space available inside a roosting compartment is a crucial issue – over-crowding the birds must be avoided at all costs. The best rule of thumb is to work by perch length. Measure what’s available inside the house and, allowing 20cm (8in) of perch length for each bird, calculate how many the house could comfortably accommodate. For example, a house with a pair of 91.5cm (3ft) perches should be suitable for eight large fowl chickens. Bantams don’t require so much space, so work on 13cm (5in) of perch per bird if you’re planning to keep these.
The hole truth
Every hen house needs a pop hole that’s used by the birds to get in and out. The overall size of this can vary a lot from design to design, with bigger houses tending to have larger ones simply because there’s more space to play with. 33cm x 33cm (13in x 13in) is probably as big as you need to go, but watch for anything significantly smaller than this.
It’s very important that the roosting area remains well ventilated at all times, but without being drafty. Ideally what you’re after is a gentle but constant throughput of air, to avoid the build-up of moisture and/or fumes inside the house. A well-designed house will achieve this with its main ventilation points positioned high on the walls, close to the roofline, and combined with smaller apertures and/or slots incorporated lower down, around doors and pop holes etc.
Nest-boxes can be mounted either internally or externally, with much depending on the size of the house. Chickens will naturally choose to roost at the highest available point.
Wood thickness and treatment are both fundamental aspects in determining the working life of a hen house. Pressure treatment offers a much more lasting effect than a traditionally-applied coating, and requires no maintenance during the first 10-20 years. It’s also very important that the wood is thoroughly dry before it’s used to build a house. Damp wood will simply go mouldy and will also move as it dries out, opening up gaps and potentially letting in rain. Cut ends should be treated as well, to help prevent rotting and splitting as the wood ages.
The final design aspect to consider is the roof. Traditionally, many poultry houses had felt-covered roofs; a cheap and cheerful option. The downside is that this covering material has a relatively short life – it can be prone to bird and frost damage – and also provides a favourite refuge for red mite infestations. It’s inexpensive to replace, of course, but many keepers are starting to regard having to do this an unnecessary nuisance.
Onduline is a modern alternative to roofing felt. It’s a light-duty, tarpaper corrugated material supplied in rigid panels that are simple to work with and easy to fix into place. The third option, and the most expensive one by far, is a timber roof – typically tongue and groove shiplap.
Finally, consider the angle of the roof. In general, larger house roofs should never be set at anything shallower than 40°, while the slope on smaller ones shouldn’t be less than 32°. Similar rules also apply to external nest box roofs, which should always be set at a minimum of 30°.
Buying a hen house can cost a lot of money, so take the time to ensure that you spend your cash wisely on something that will do the job that’s needed for a usefully long time.
The right house?
ALLOWANCES need to be made for height, weight, feathering, flightiness, aggressive tendencies etc. But, while this is relatively easy to do when dealing with a single breed, it can be a good deal more difficult to assess if you intend keeping a mixed flock.
The conventional, square-type house designs will offer more accommodation and can be more suitable for larger breeds. However, they’ll need to be set within an adequately-sized run – or have one attached – so that the birds can be let out in safety; a more expensive option requiring more space.
This extract is taken from Getting Started With Chickens published by Kelsey Publishing, price £9.99.