Following on from my advice on hot weather I would like to offer the following advice from my years of poultry keeping on keeping fowls in cold weather.
The summer should have given us all time to mend and repaint the houses ready for 'fowl' weather, but it is never too late. Check catches and hinges, replace and oil and plane tight fitting areas, as they will swell further and may freeze or jam shut in cold, wet conditions. Give houses a good spray against red mite, and treat with an animal friendly disinfectant, the dry powder ones are ideal in winter. Doors in runners are always tricky in winter as they jam, a good dollop of petroleum jelly in the runners can help keep them moving.
People worry about birds getting cold in their houses, houses that are too big for the amount of birds can get very cold. Young, sick or very small birds can suffer so consider downsizing for these birds or look into heating. DO NOT put polystyrene sheets in as insulation, birds love pecking it and it can block them up, it also acts as a red mite heaven. Ventilation is essential in chicken houses, most commercially made houses will have adequate ventilation, do not seal this up, birds give off a lot of heat and moisture and poor ventilation can cause severe respiratory problems. Consider moving houses in exposed locations, or put in some windbreak materials. I once carefully covered a whole run with clear plastic sheeting only for it to blow away and break up in high winds, so think about what you are doing, a proper windbreak material is a better option.
Over wintering birds is always a challenge. Runs get muddy and smelly, houses need more cleaning out and the fox is always hungry. With the nights drawing in it is often dark before folk get home from work, so fox protection is vital. Free ranging may need curtailing to protect free fox dinners, so a mud free secure run is vital. For a permanent run bark chippings are cheap and effective. The hens scratch about and keep them friable, and wood is a natural deodoriser. Shingle can be used, but needs hosing and replacing, avoid hay and straw as it just sits on the surface and gets wet and stinks, it is also hard work to remove. Hens can be kept on hard standing, always supply a dry dust bath, perches in the run at different levels provide some interest and relief from the hard surface, the area will need regular hosing to keep it clean. Greenhouses can make excellent winter homes for hens, they turn over any ground, keep dry and warm and if electric lighting is available will lay better, ventilation is essential and birds should be removed when it gets warmer. Birds can also be kept in poly tunnels, ensure adequate ventilation and fox protection. Birds cause the tunnel to become very dusty, so anything stored in there needs sheeting over. In days gone by, birds were kept in straw yards. An enclosure was made of straw bales and metal sheeting, fresh straw being laid to keep the area sweet, and all covered over with sheeting, few of us have the space to copy this, it sounds ideal to me.
Regular hard feed is essential in winter. Grains are heating, and take longer to digest, so are an essential afternoon feed for the birds. On very wet days I only feed grains, as layers pellets get wet easily and disintegrate, attracting vermin. Grit is an essential part of the diet, and if free ranging is limited consider adding grit to the feed or in the run. Try to have a supply of treats; sunflower seeds,fat balls, baked potatoes, swedes and greenstuffs all will be gobbled down, and add a bit of variety. try making a chicken cake with wild bird mix, maize,melted hard white fat and grit. The fat is only to bind, so use sparingly, put into old spread tubs and give them one on a cold wet day, it will cheer you and them up.
Coughs and sneezes are more common in birds and humans in winter. Learn the symptoms of the mycoplasmas and respiratry problems you may see, find out about which local vet treats birds, vital if antibiotics are needed. If a dog or cat became ill we would treat them, why not our birds? In the current climate of concern over Avian Influenza it is better to be safe than sorry, so if you are worried seek professional advice, DEFRA have a helpline for more information. If you have not wormed your birds try to do this before winter sets in, your birds will benefit from being worm free at this trying time of year.
You should already have a poultry first aid kit, check it over and restock as necessary. I would suggest the following; antiseptic spray, louse powder, veterinary wound powder, vitamin supplement, cotton wool and a small bowl. An infra red lamp is also very useful for a poorly bird, adding vitamin drops to drinking water is considered to help with stress after fox attacks or illness and warmth is a well known aid to recovery.
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