Before you jump in and get started with chickens, you need to make sure your backyard is well suited for chickens.
If you don’t do your homework, it can cause all sorts of problems. It can result in stressed chickens, cause arguments with your neighbours, get you evicted or even fined by your local council / government.
On the other hand, a little bit of planning will make sure you avoid any problems and help you get the most out of backyard chickens.
While backyard chickens are allowed in many places around the world, it varies a lot depending on where you live. So before you get started, you need to check what the rules are to make sure you not breaking any laws.
Where are laws set?
Often regulations for chicken keeping are set by local governments, so thats the place to check.
Backyard chicken keeping regulations are set by local government councils. Chicken keeping is generally allowed in urban areas, with no roosters allowed and restrictions on the number of hens depending on where you live.
Backyard chicken keeping regulations in Canada are set by each city (municipalities) in their animal by-laws. Many urban areas in Canada don’t allow backyard chicken-keeping at all.
Chicken keeping ordinances and laws are set by local governments for each jurisdiction (e.g. city, town, parish). There are still many urban areas in the USA that don’t allow backyard chicken keeping at all (around 10%). Although this is changing, with a groundswell of successful petitions to have laws changed.
In the UK, there are no specific laws against keeping backyard chickens. However at a local government level there may be by-laws in place that stop or restrict backyard chicken keeping. Also, if have over 50 birds (way more than you would want in the average backyard) then you are required to register them with Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Common Rules and restrictions
Where chicken keeping is allowed, there are often certain rules and restrictions to follow.
Number of chickens
There is often a restriction on the number of chickens you can keep. This can be a fixed number or is sometimes based on the size of your property.
Roosters are usually not allowed in urban areas because they have a loud crow that starts at the crack of dawn. This isn't a problem for egg laying, because hens don’t need Roosters to lay eggs. You only need a rooster if you want to fertilise eggs, to breed chicks. Without a rooster, the eggs will be infertile and cannot turn to chicks.
There are often hygiene standards you have to follow when looking after your chickens. This means:
- Keeping rats and mice under control
- Managing chicken manure to prevent a stinky chicken coop
- Keeping flies under control and eliminating any mites.
There is usually a requirement that chickens don't cause nuisance from excessive noise. Chickens typically make a lot less noise than barking dogs, so in my view this shouldn't not be a problem. But even without roosters, they do make some noise. It can be annoying to neighbours if its early in the morning or right outside their window. This can be managed by:
- Keeping the right number of hens based on the size of your backyard
- Choosing breeds that are less vocal
- Keeping the coop away from neighbours where possible.
Sometimes there are rules on where you can put your coop. Usually this means keeping the coop a certain distance from your neighbours fence, house or roads. I have also seen some rules which require coops to have a concrete floor.
Even if there are no specific restrictions, your local government is likely to investigate any complaints about noisy or stinky chickens from your neighbours. A general nuisance or public health requirement can usually be enforced if you don't look after your chickens properly.
What to do if chicken keeping is not legal?
If chicken keeping is not legal in your area - stick up for your rights and find like-minded people to petition for change! There have been lots of communities that have been successful in getting the rules changed, to allow backyard chickens.
When your starting out with chickens it can be hard to know how much space you need. Most people overestimate the number of chickens their property can handle, and this leads to problems.
Coop and run
Chickens are social animals which means you need at least 2 together. The minimum space for 2 chickens in a coop and run setup is about 9 square meters (100ft squared). This is about the size of a small bedroom
If to many chickens are let loose on your backyard, the chickens will turn your backyard into a barren wasteland. With a coop and run, the damage is contained to an area set aside for chickens. But when you let them loose in you backyard, you're inviting trouble. Grass and plants will be stripped bare because of the impact of:
- Foraging - which involves scratching and digging for bugs.
- Manure - if there is to much chicken manure concentrated in a small area, then grass and plants will burn and die off.
Because of this, you will want to generously overestimate the outdoor space needed. As a general guide, you should have a maximum of 3 hens per 50 square meters (550 square ft) of free ranging space. This is based on an estimate of the manure load (40kg of manure per hen / per year) and the amount of scratching and digging that your grass or garden can sustain. This is a very rough guide only and it would be a good idea to start with less than this to see how your backyard holds up. It can also depend on a lot of factors such as the type and age of plants in your yard. And if your hens are only free ranging for part of the day, then they will have less of an impact and you won't need as much space.
Measuring your property
Before you launch into things, a good first step is to work out the size of your backyard and the size of the total area that will be used for chickens. When measuring, exclude areas that the chickens won’t have access to, such as pool areas and other fenced off parts of your backyard.
Using a tape measure
It will take a bit of effort, but the most accurate way to measure your yard is to use a good old tape measure and map it out. If your area is an odd size, you can measure your backyard in sections. But remember, you don't need to get an exact measurement. So if the area is not exactly square, a bit of rounding and guess work is fine.
Using Google Maps
Another option is to use google maps. This will give you a more rough estimate of the area and is a great option if you’re just after a quick idea of how much space you have to work with.
- Open Google Maps
- Search for your property
- Zoom into your property
- Right click on your starting point and select "Measure distance"
- Click anywhere on the map to create an area to measure
- Once complete, the total measured distance is then shown at the bottom of your screen
Here is my poor attempt at drawing a chicken with the google maps distance measurement tool.
If your renting your house, you'll need to make sure you're allowed to keep chickens. One of the downsides of renting can be that pets are prohibited. Those who rent often might find themselves pleading and making promises before they can get a pet. The alternative is to hide your pets from landlord, but keeping chickens without permission from your landlord would be tough. It might be possible to throw your cat over your neighbours fence during a property inspection. But I don’t think it would be that easy with a bunch of chickens and a chicken coop. And what about all the chicken poop around your backyard! If your landlord finds out, you could be forced to get rid of your chickens, get evicted and loose your bond. That could make your backyard laid eggs a pretty costly and stressful exercise.
On the other hand, if you make sure you're allowed to keep chickens in your rental property, it will give you peace of mind to enjoy your chickens without the stress.
Check your contract
Check for any “No-pet” clauses in your rental agreement. If its a bit unclear on your contract for any reason, then its worth raising the question with your landlord.
Put together a chicken keeping plan to discuss with your landlord
If landlord is unsure, put together a plan which directly addresses the concerns. Some things you could consider including in the plan are:
- The rules and regulations in the area for keeping chickens and how these will be adhered to
- The number of chickens you will keep
- How and where the chickens will be kept
- How any potential negative impacts on the property and neighbours will be reduced or eliminated, making sure you cover any specific concerns raised by your landlord.
- Information on the benefits to the property such as bug and insect control
- How the yard will be kept or restored in a similar condition
Including specific conditions in the contract might also provide the landlord some peace of mind.
If you’re likely to be moving houses in the next couple of years, you'll need to plan for this before you get started. Even if your not planning on moving, its something you should think about. Because hey, who really knows what they're doing 3-5 years from now.
Decide on what you'll do with your chickens
If you know you are moving or area likely to move in the next few years, you have a few choices. which I will go through below. Some factors that will come into these choices:
- How far you will move
- How long until you move
- How regularly you will move
Option 1. Hold off on getting chickens until you move
You could hold off on getting chickens if you know you are moving, want to avoid the hassle and are patient enough to wait it out.
Option 2. Take your chickens with you when you move
You can get started with chickens now and plan to take them with you when you move. In this situation, you should plan ahead of time how you are going to move them and consider the cost and time involved.
Mode of transport
- Car - if you only have a few chickens and you don't have far to go, then you should be able to move them yourself in a car.
- Truck - If you have lots of chickens to move, then you could use a truck. if you don’t have one, you could hire or borrow one from a friend or family member if possible.
- Specialist pet transport company - If you have lots of chickens or simply don't want the hassle, you could use a specialist pet transport company.
What to transport them in
You will also need to consider what you will transport them in, such as boxes and pet carriers.
Moving the coop
Consider the type coop and how difficult it will be to move or sell. It wouldn’t make sense to build a $1000 Taj Mahal coop that can’t be moved or that is a real pain to move. You could think about getting a more portable style coop that will be easy to move or disassemble.
Number of chickens
Consider the moving process when your deciding on the number of chickens to get. Moving a small number of chickens (e.g. 3-6 hens) will be way easier than 20.
Option 3. Sell or give away your chickens before you move
Unlike dogs or cats, most people don't have the same level of emotional bond and attachment to chickens. This makes it easier to give them away, if it comes to that. However thats not to say there'll be no emotional attachment. When you give your chickens a name, they become household pets and not just animals that provide eggs. Everyone will handle this differently. Personally I care for my chickens, but I wouldn’t have an issue giving them away if I needed to. It can be hard to predict, but you need to think about how attached you and your family are likely to become.
You also have to be prepared for the situation that no one wants your chickens, even if they are free. This is likely to be a problem if they are older and not laying many eggs.
Option 4. Kill your chickens before you move
Another option is to put your chickens down. If you can’t find another home for your chickens and its not feasible to move them, then you might be faced with the task of killing your chickens. If you eat chicken, it may not be a problem philosophically, but killing an animal yourself can be tough and confronting. Personally I think anyone who eats meat should kill an animal themselves at some stage, to help you appreciate the sacrifice. This often makes you think twice about wasting food when you consider you have taken another animals life for your benefit.
An alternative to killing the hens yourself is to take them to the vet to be put down, but this will cost you a lot more.
When planning for chickens, you should consider your neighbours. Badly managed chickens are a sure way to annoy your neighbours. For example:
- Stray chickens that destroy your neighbours garden or poop all over their back patio
- A stinky mud pit in your coop or run that wafts over to your neighbours while they're out the back trying to enjoy a family bbq
- Rat infestations that start affecting your neighbours
- Chickens that start clucking loudly or crowing at 5am on a Sunday
Benefits of being considerate of your neighbours
In the end, it comes down to respect and putting yourself in your neighbours shoes. It pays to have a good relationship with your neighbours:
- A bad relationship with your neighbours can turn your home into a stressful environment. No one wants that.
- Avoid formal complaints to your local government which could force you to stop keeping chickens.
- If handled right - your neighbour is an ideal person to have on side to help with your chicken keeping efforts. Neighbours are great for looking after your chickens while you're away.
- Consider jointly owned chickens with your neighbours, where you share the work and share the benefits. This is a great way to build a stronger relationship with your neighbours.
How to be considerate of your neighbours with backyard chickens
Here are some tips to make sure you're considerate of your neighbours when getting setup with backyard chickens:
- Build a good relationship - if you build a good relationship with your neighbours then you can ask that they come to you first if there are any issues rather than lodge a formal complaint.
- Follow the rules - If you stick to the rules, then you're in a good position to defend any complaints. On the other hand, if you get a rooster that is not allowed, then you're just asking for trouble.
- Respect - consider your neighbours when planning for your chickens. Consider where you put your coop, the number of hens you get and avoid roosters if noise is likely to cause problems. Even if its not against the law to keep roosters, consider how close your neighbours are and talk it through with them first.
- Fencing - Solid fencing will protect your chickens and your neighbours property. If there isn't adequate fencing - find out if they would be open to letting chickens roam their backyard. Some free eggs are a good incentive!
- Smell and hygiene - keep your coop clean and well maintained so that it doesn't get stinky.
- Noise - Hens are not that noisy - I think the average dog makes a lot more noise. But if noise is a concern then do your research and select a quieter breed that tends to be quieter. And most importantly, don't get a rooster.
- Rats - To avoid rats, don't leave spilt food lying around or open water sources.
- Egg bribes - if you think your neighbours will have any concerns, then eggs are a great bribe. Selling eggs cheaply to your neighbours can also be a win win and enable you to sustainably keep more chickens or even cover a large chunk of the cost of keeping chickens in the first place.
Chickens are tasty
There is a reason that chicken is one of the most popular types of meat Because its tasty and the wild animals in your area think so to. Because you might have never seen or been bothered by predators before, you might assume that they're not in your area and that its not something you need to worry about. But the reality is that chickens are easy prey and any local predators are likely to find them eventually if left unprotected. Chickens are also messy eaters, which can attracts rats and other pests if not managed properly.
Before you get started with chickens, its important to know what predators are in the area that could be attracted to your chickens. This will help you when your setting up for chickens:
- To make sure you focus on providing protection against the predators that are likely to be a problem. This will help you decide how much effort to go to, in order to provide protection for your chickens based on specific threats. For example, in some areas hawks are a major concern and you will need to make sure there's plenty of overhead cover. In others areas, there might not be any predator birds around at all.
- To help you be more aware of any signs of trouble.
- To plan for predators from the start when setting up your coop and backyard, rather than trying to patch up your coop afterwards.
Prevention is the best approach
In the end - you don’t want to be dealing with predators attacking your chickens or making themselves at home. Prevention the is the best approach and will save you heaps of trouble and stress down the track. Once predators have found a good source of food, it can be a lot harder to deal with.
I also like to keep things practical. The reality is, your chickens can’t be 100% secure. Life is not like that. I don't recommend ridiculous measures that take all your time and energy and cost a fortune.
- Use wire mesh to keep predators out, not chicken wire
- Use a concrete floor or wire mesh to stop animals from digging under the coop
Predators will vary a lot depend on where you live. Here are some of the most common ones to give you an idea.
- Pet dogs in your neighbourhood - An attack from your neighbours dog is actually the most likely to occur. This could come from either a dog that gets loose or your chickens escaping over the fence for greener pastures.
- Feral dogs - Pet dogs that are abandoned and turn feral are also a threat. They are usually a hazard to local wildlife and also to your pet chickens.
- Foxes - Free ranging hens can be a smorgasbord for a fox. If you live in an area with foxes, then you definitely need to think about how you will protect your hens.
- Opossoms - Common in America, and can be vicious. They are opportunistic feeders and will target eggs and young chickens but are also more than capable of killing adult chickens.
- Snakes - Some larger snakes eat chickens, but what usually draws them in are the rats that hang around the chickens. Eggs are another treat that can attract snakes. Even if they are not attacking your chickens, its not fun dealing with snakes or having them around. If the snake is poisonous it could bite you or your family, or even if its not it can scare the hell out of you.
How to find out what predators are in your area
Its worthwhile doing some research to find out about predators in your area, to get a sense of how likely they are to attack your chickens. This includes:
- What predators are in your area
- How common they are
- The areas they are found
- If they are protected wildlife or a pest.
Talk to neighbours or friends that live close by
Talk to your neighbours to find out what dogs are in the area, especially your immediate neighbours. If there's a dog next door that's capable of attacking your chickens, then you'll know that you need to make sure that the fence is secure and high enough to prevent problems.
Google is a great tool to learn more about what predators might be a problem in your area. Look for news stories of attacks or information provided by local websites. Here are some useful search terms to get you going:
- Pest animals in <insert your location>
- <insert your location> wildlife attacks
- Feral pests in <insert your location>
Here are some examples of the news stories that came up when I did some google searches in my area and an explanation of how I used them to plan for predator attacks.
I didn’t know eagles were a problem in brisbane, but this story made me realise they’re around. In this news story, the attacks were in a more rural part of Brisbane. So while its possible my chickens could get attacked by eagles, I decided that it was pretty unlikely. My backyard has trees and bushes that provide my chickens cover and I keep an eye out for problems. But I don't take extensive measures such as netting my backyard or locking them up all day to prevent an attack. It's good to know they're around and I'm happy that the preventative measures I take are enough based on a low chance of an eagle attack.
Its useful to know that fox numbers are on the rise in Brisbane and that a fox attack is a real possibility in my area. I'm also comfortable that I've taken the right preventative measures which make an attack very unlikely. This includes:
- Secure fencing around the whole backyard that is more than 4 foot tall in all places.
- Pet dogs that would bark at and deter any foxes from entering into the backyard
- A secure coop where my chickens are locked up at night, to prevent any opportunistic attacks.
Local government websites:
Local government and council websites can be a great source of information. They will often have some information about local pests and feral animals to watch out for, as well as information about protected species.
Local pest animal control business
Your local animal pest control businesses can be a great source of information. The list of services on their website will give you an idea of the problem animals in your area. Information on their social media accounts can also be useful for up to date information.