Jonathan & Denise: It was a month ago – at the beginning of December, that the news came that an outbreak of Avian Flu [Bird Flu] – which had already caused a great deal of loss in continental Europe – had reached our shores. The order soon came that all poultry was to be kept indoors or by other means entirely segregated from wild birds. The order applied in every part of Great Britain [that’s Scotland, England and Wales] and for 30 days. Unfortunately, during that time, there’s been wild birds found dead across the UK in which Avian Flue has been found, and sporadic outbreaks amongst poultry flocks. These flocks have been destroyed by the authorities, and biosecurity zones set up around the site of the outbreak. Compliance amongst back-garden keepers, small-holders [homesteaders in the US?] and – as we’ve seen with our own eyes – Hebridean crofters, has been far from complete. So it was no great surprise that, a few days ago, just before the 30-day lock-down was due to end, the authorities extended it until the end of February – another two months.
We’ve seen on Facebook that many backyard, croft and small-scale producers in the Highlands and Islands (and, presumably, elsewhere) are very unhappy about this, citing as concerns the welfare of their poultry, loss of egg production, additional work and cost ; some claim that the government was acting only to protect big commercial producers. However our experience has been that keeping our birds indoors has had only marginal negative effects. Others have reported their birds stopping laying entirely, or becoming ill. Many seem to blame the lock-down order for this, but the harsh truth is that their housing almost certainly doesn’t meet the required legal standards for welfare.
[We produce below the 350-bird threshold for mandatory registration as an egg producer, and because we sell only from the ‘farm gate’, we don’t (and aren’t allowed to) designate our eggs as free-range or whatever. But that’s the standard we adhere to, voluntarily.]
European and UK law requires all poultry keepers – whether they have four birds or four hundred thousand, to be prepared to contain their flock in case of an outbreak of avian flu or other disease – and still comply with statutory welfare requirements. This is not something just thought up for the current circumstances! The law has always required us to be prepared.
But, as there has never, until now, been a nation-wide, no-exception lock-down of this kind, few back-yard keepers and small-scale producers seem to have taken these rules seriously – if indeed they were aware of them at all. Most seem to have contented themselves with poultry housing and runs that simply do not comply with the regulations, with the welfare of their birds is absolutely dependent on them spending most of their time out and about. We have, with our own eyes – here in Uist, seen numerous small flocks out and about without any attempt at containing them – or perhaps any concern to do so.
With J’s background in civil engineering, building, construction etc, it was inevitable that our two poultry houses – one adapted from an old byre, the other purpose-built – would be the result of detailed scrutiny of codes of practice – not just in relation to the building itself, but also regarding the welfare of the livestock. (These codes of practice are not hard to find online, yet few seem to be aware of them, many profess ignorance, or claim that they don’t apply to pet chickens.)
Until relatively recently there were four standards of welfare for laying hens: Caged ; Enhanced-Caged ; Barn ; Free-Range. The first of these – Caged (aka Battery) is – thank heavens – now consigned to history (in the UK, certainly), and the second is also being phased out. Barn standard differs from Free-Range only with regard to access to the outside (the free-range bit!): the standard of housing is exactly the same.
So, our two poultry houses were designed and built to comply with the Barn/Free-Range standard, so that in the event of anything preventing the birds going outside (even if just our commonplace Hebridean winter storms!), they could be kept indoors and still comply with offical welfare requirements, at very least for Barn egg standard.
The buildings and their internal layout is arranged so as to achieve the maximum possible number of birds according to the Barn/Free-Range standard. (It will depend on the specifics, but there’s usually one design feature that sets the upper limit: for our big hen house on the croft it’s the area of litter ; for our small hen house here in the walled garden it’s the total length of perch-rail.) We then take that regulation-based maximum and reduce it by one third to set our own voluntary maximum number of chickens to be accommodated in that house – a 50% increase in space per bird! We also voluntarily add something else to make life as pleasant as possible – light. That’s natural light, from windows. We’re generous with ventilation too: not only to to ensure the house has fresh air and dust is removed, but low level air flow to ensure that their litter and droppings are thoroughly dry except in the most persistently damp weather.
The lock-down has however put both of the houses to a thorough test. Winters here in Uist are not cold (frost is a rarity!) but they are frequently damp and sometimes very windy. In the hen-houses, it’s the damp that’s the problem, and – being just a few metres from the sea – it can be a clinging damp that’s impossible to eliminate, other than by a change in the weather.
The big chicken house on the croft (which currently has about 60 Welsumer hens and cockerels – there’ll be more by summer) has a timber structure raised up over the dry-stone walls of an old byre, resulting in a highly permeable construction. Ventilation is not a problem, generally: it is only in the most persistently dreich days that the litter on the floor turns damp and sticky. Normally, it’s dry, friable, odour-free and easy to scrape or even sweep up. There is, however, a short-coming that has become apparent as a result of the lock-down. Whilst there are windows – one in each gable, the house is not light enough. Yes, the birds have detected that the days are now lengthening, but the laying rate is less than half we’d expect for the number of birds and the time of year. It’s also – at this time of year – never light enough to be sure cleaning is thorough. Solution: the mains electricity cable we’re now installing, which will allow us to provide supplemental lighting. We’ll also be adding another window – in the door.
Here in the walled garden, the much smaller house was purpose-built for our Buff Orpington flock – currently numbering eighteen hens and cockerels. This has a very cunning internal layout of our own devising (admittedly it’s the third or fourth iteration!), that in a small footprint gives a really good standard for the birds, and is easy to clean and maintain. It has better natural light than the croft hen house … but since being shut in a month ago the hens haven’t laid a single egg. Two problems have become apparent: although the space per bird is at least as good as at the croft, the number of birds being small the house is also small – and there simply isn’t much scope for an individual bird to go walkabout and find its own quiet spot for a while, or socialize with friends – or avoid the others. The other problem is that the litter and dung on the floor is always damp and sticky – making it a smelly mess and requiring daily replacement. Ventilation does comply with legal requirements, but these dictate that ventilation is provided at high level, to avoid draughts affecting the birds. However our experience at the croft has shown that low-level ventilation – albeit diffused to avoid direct draughts – is essential if the house is to be kept in good sanitary conditions even in a damp Hebridean winter. Solution: install ventilation openings fitted with rodent-guards and diffusers. That hen house is too small to carry out this work whilst occupied, so today we moved the Buff Orpington flock to Greenhouse 3, which would otherwise be empty until Spring, when it’ll be needed for the tomato plants.
After working together to set up, in the greenhouse, a temporary structure made with pallets and recovered wood, we each carried armfulls of Buff Orpingtons from the hen house to their temporary greenhouse home: they complained bitterly all the way, but once settled down in the greenhouse, they clucked and crooned with pleasure and curiosity in their new surroundings. Top priorty? A dust bath!