Backyard Hens

by Dr. Anne Finlay BVSc

Keeping hens in your garden is rewarding and fun but there are some important considerations before you begin. They do require some time for feeding and cleaning. You need a reliable person to care for them when you go on holiday for longer than a weekend. Free range is ideal but they can wreak havoc in your vege garden ( or even worse, your neighbour's garden) and their droppings attract flies in summer and can pose a health risk, especially to very young children.

Council Regulations


Christchurch City Council does not have strict guidelines around housing chickens in the city. They ask that they do not cause a noise or hygiene problem. Tasman District Council ask that you have no rooster, no more than 6 hens and have the hen enclosure at least 2 metres from a boundary fence. I think that these are a good guide.


Image source: wikimedia commons





Your hen house should be weatherproof and provide shade. It must be well ventilated which usually entails 1/3 to 1/2 of one side having open wire mesh. Be careful that this side is sheltered from southerly rain and also from strong wind.

The floor can be dirt or concrete. Concrete is easiest to keep clean. It should be covered with straw or untreated wood shavings. I find a 30cm bed of pea straw the best because it is light to clean out and your compost heap will love it. Make sure that it is mould and dust free, as these can cause respiratory disease. ( If it has been rained on after baling the chances are that it will contain moulds)

You require at least 1/3 of a square metre of floor space/hen.

The perches should be 5cm square with the top edges rounded. They are usually placed about 60cm from the floor but heavy breeds may need them lower. Make sure that your nesting boxes are lower than the perch or your hens will sleep/defaecate in the boxes.

Nesting boxes should be about 30cm square and have a deep clean bed of straw. A thick layer of newspaper under the straw makes cleaning easier. They should provide privacy. (A shredded feed bag stapled from the top will provide a good curtain).

It is a good idea to have a run attached to your hen house which allow your birds access to the outdoors but keeps them contained. If they are not going to be allowed any time outside the run consider having it divided in two so that you can rest one side.

Hens love to bathe in the dirt. This is a way of helping to keep their feathers in great shape but also to help rid them of lice or mites. If they are free range some of the day they will find their own spot. If not supply them with an area of well dug dirt that does not get wet. You can add ash and diatomaceous earth ( from a garden shop). This helps to dehydrate the lice and mites.




Keep your food and water supply inside the house to deter wild birds from contaminating/eating it.

Feeding a well balanced diet is essential for your hens. Good quality commercial hen food is available at most farm/stock supply stores. ( eg. PGG Wrightsons on Blenheim Rd or CRT Farm centre on Waterloo Rd). The food either comes in pellets or mash/meal. The mash can be fed dry (which I find good for very young chicks but wasteful with older birds) or mixed with water for a wet mash. It needs to be fed fresh each day as it quickly goes rancid. Pellets are often easiest.( 110-170g/day/bird). Check the date of manufacture as some essential vitamins will deteriorate after 3 months.

It is important if you are raising young chicks that you feed chick crumbs until 6 weeks and then growers pellets/mix until 18 weeks when you will begin layer food. Young growing birds that are not laying have different nutritional needs to laying hens.

Household scraps are OK to feed but will alter the nutrition balance of the overall feed, so not too much bread etc which is low in protein. Salad greens, carrot peelings, cabbage, swede, silver beet are all favourites. They will eat cooked meat leftovers but

NEVER feed chicken or Turkey meat to your hens.

Hens allowed to free range will get grass and be able to forage for worms and other insects.

Wheat can be sprinkled on the ground, especially if birds are not able to free range. This will keep them active.

Clean water should be replaced daily.

Oyster shell or limestone grit ad lib should be provided to help with good quality egg shells. Hens use gravel in their gizzard to help digest food. Free range hens should be get an adequate supply while they forage but hens kept contained in a run should be supplied with a container of grit.


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