Janice Houghton-Wallace says make sure poultry have space and are cared for over the summer holidays

We are fast approaching the summer holidays, with children off school and the family jetting off for a fortnight of relaxation and fun. If you keep poultry though there is much to organise before you can think about packing a suitcase and it is essential that any livestock will be cared for properly whilst you are away. A pair of bantams will need daily attention just as much as larger groups of fowl.

Arranging with a responsible person to look after the birds long before they are required is essential, it is no good expecting someone at the last minute to say yes and to know how to care for them properly without previously being shown what to do. Whether you pay the poultry minder or bring them back a present from your holiday, showing gratitude for what they have done may very well get you help again in the future.

In the run up to you going away show the poultry minder everything that needs to be done regarding feeding, replenishing the drinkers and shutting them up in good time at night. If the poultry minder has children diplomatically explain that if children help the minder they must not make a lot of noise or run around in the poultry areas as this could traumatise the birds. Some people take their dog or dogs everywhere they go but if the minder has a dog it would be best if it was left at home, especially if your birds are not used to seeing dogs around. Anything that causes stress whilst the poultry are being looked after by someone other than their keeper is best avoided.

Be ready for your poultry minder

In order to help the minder make sure that the housing has been cleaned out and that there is plenty of feed and shavings available for them to use and even though you may have shown them exactly what to do write it down for them as well. It might be that the one thing they forget could make a difference to your birds being cared for in the best way possible. Let your feed merchant know what you will be requiring before going on holiday to make sure it is available when you want to collect it. It is better to have more feed than will be required so you can be sure that the minder will not be caused any inconvenience of having to source the feed themselves. However let the feed merchant know the dates you are away and the name of the person looking after your birds and make it clear that if they do require anything to help them out and you will settle on your return. The same goes for your veterinary surgeon in case a bird starts to show signs of illness, this eliminates any extra concerns that the minder might be faced with

A very important point is to leave the birds in a really happy environment. It makes sense to have the birds in a housed and penned area if possible, just in case they object to being put to bed by a relative stranger and havoc is caused. This probably would not happen but if in a confined penned area at least they would not be able to disappear resulting in them not being safe overnight.

How much space is enough?

On the other hand, make sure they have sufficient room to be comfortable. A good sized poultry house or shed is best for overnight accommodation, especially for large fowl. All poultry species need room to walk around, stretch their wings and have space above their heads when roosting at night. Although there are no statutory conditions for flocks of less than 350 laying hens, resulting in most backyard birds being exempt from the commercial poultry regulations, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) states in its Poultry Welfare Code that space should not be less than 1 square foot per bird. The Code also states that portable units should be moved every few days to avoid muddy conditions and perches should be long enough to allow all birds to roost at the same time. If poultry have to roost at different levels this can lead to bullying.

Don’t coop them up

Sometimes poultry housing is referred to as a coop. However, a coop is a small confined house intended for a broody hen to allow her privacy whilst incubating. From this derived the phrase ‘cooped up’ meaning confined in a place which is too small or which does not allow for much freedom. The broody coop will have a front with bars on as well as the solid front for safety at night. Once the chicks hatch they are allowed more space out through the bars whilst the broody remains in the coop. The feeder and drinker are put outside the bars and the chicks can access those as can the broody whose head will fit through the bars. After a few days the chicks are moved along with the broody hen to a larger house and pen.

For everyday use and to make sure birds are content when confined the housing and penning need to give them plenty of room. Some of the triangular mobile units are excellent if you have a couple of true bantams such as Pekins but for larger birds they are not appropriate. Tiny bantams will have more head height in a triangular unit than a large fowl who, because of its height may only be able to access the centre of the pen. This type of confinement is not suitable even if it is only for the time you are on holiday.

Even if you are only away for a long weekend, do not think that by topping up with lots of feed and water the birds can look after themselves. By law there is a duty of care for animals, which includes poultry and they should be checked on daily. There could be bullying or illness occur and any suffering should not be left unattended.

Threats from alien species

After a holiday abroad make sure you do not risk bringing back any pests or diseases. DEFRA along with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) are urgin the public not to bring plants, seeds, flowers, fruit or vegetables back to the UK. There are also tight restrictions on products of animal origin because of concerns over diseases such as foot and mouth and avian influenza. What products you can bring into the UK depends on where you are travelling from and not where the products were produced or packaged. After the UK leaves the EU some imports from the EU to the UK may change with tighter regulation and notification of importations required. For further guidance visit www.gov.uk.

What about a holiday at home – for you and the hens?

If however you have decided to spend time at home for your holiday period this year make it a holiday for the poultry as well. If you are doing some jobs in the garden let the birds out of their pen and they will enjoy looking for worms if you are digging or weeding. Ducks will especially enjoy this activity. When you go back into the house remember to put the birds back into their pen to make sure they are safe. There are enormous numbers of foxes around and it would ruin your holiday at home if there was a fox attack because the birds’ routine had been altered.

When going out for the day put some treats in their pen or even some poultry playthings. Chickens will enjoy a peck a block, such as a hentastic starter pack which contains chicken treats and 2 feeders, available from unipet.co.uk/hentastic. If the poultry pen is large enough a small bale of straw would provide amusement by jumping up and down from it as well as pulling out pieces of straw. A children’s paddling pool with some top soil in would provide somewhere for the birds to dust-bathe, something they enjoy doing. Fix an additional perch in the corner of the pen, this could be made from a branch where a tree has been pruned.

Hang up a cabbage which will keep them amused for a long time. Rotate a daily treat of fruit such as apples or plums with some sunflower seeds in their feed. Anything prepared in the kitchen first should not be fed to poultry as this is against the law. This regulation was brought in to prevent disease through cross contamination of food given to livestock. Any fresh fruit bought with the birds in mind and not taken into the house is legally allowed to be given to poultry as are windfalls from the garden.

In fact if you do go away on holiday why not leave some treats and playthings for the poultry minder to give to the birds, thereby keeping them really occupied in your absence?