I am by no means an expert, but it suddenly occured to me that I've been keeping hens for two and a half years. Which is not bad, really. So maybe, just maybe, I'm now qualified to give some pointers to anyone out there who is toying with the idea of keeping a few hens in their back garden. You don't have to agree with me on all of my keeping practices, after all if there's one thing I've learned as a chicken keeper it's that everyone has there own way of doing things. But there are a few things which everyone should know and care about. So, here goes.
Firstly, make sure that you have the space, time and permission to keep chooks on your property. Some housing will have a 'no livestock' rule in the deeds/rental agreement. It is best to check this out before you spend money on coops and feed. Chickens don't take up a huge amount of time if you don't want them to, but they still require daily attention. Even a few layers will need around 20 minutes a day for food/water/egg collecting/health check purposes. The amount of space you have available should direct you in the type of birds you can keep. If, like me, you don't have acres of land, it's best to stick to a small number of large fowl or go for bantams. Most large fowl have bantam counterparts, but bantam sizes vary. Jersey Giants are amazing looking chickens, but they will not be happy living in a confined space. In the same way that you wouldn't keep an ostrich on a balcony, you can't keep all breeds in your average garden. Best to resign yourself to that straight away. Also, consider your garden. Hard landscaping is not ideal for hens.
Secondly, invest in the best housing you can afford. It will always be cheaper to make your own, so if you're in any way competent that might be the way to go. If you're like me, however, and a bit useless, you'll have to buy a coop. I've noticed that a lot of pet shops now sell chicken housing. By and large, it is over priced and hideous quality. Do some research, and keep in mind that cheap housing is a false economy. It will fall apart, probably in the middle of a horrific weather event. It is no fun having to repair a roof in the middle of a snow storm/torrential rain/a hurricane. To be honest, I think that the housing cost highlights the lie that chickens are a cheap source of eggs. Decent housing is not cheap, but will last you a decade or more. Also, buy a bigger house than you think you'll need. A lot of housing woefully overestimates the number of birds it will hold. Overcrowding should be avoided at all costs. Birds that are overcrowded are more prone to stress, and therefore illness. They are also more likely to develop bad habits, such as feather plucking or egg eating.
Thirdly, welfare must be your priority. If you get the housing and number/type of birds right, you are on the right track. Predator protection is the next thing to tackle. Letting your birds free range is always going to be a risk. Some people leave their hens out all day even if they're not at home, knowing that there is a risk or predator attack but balancing that out with the benefits of the birds having their freedom. I personally don't, but I am at home most days so my pampered girls spend a lot of time gardening. I also have a secure run attached to the Palace for when they are confined. Some people keep their birds in a secure run all the time, and if it's big enough it isn't a problem. It is a question of risk versus benefits, and one that every keeper has to weigh up according to their circumstances. However you choose to manage your girls, they must have adequate space to roam in. They should also have access to a dust bath and if they are confined to a run it's a good idea to provide some environment enhancing features (perches, logs to jump on, treats hung on string etc).
I knew nothing about chickens when I first decided to keep them. I read a lot, but most things had to be learned on the job. It was terrifying. So my advice is to arm yourself with a basic chicken first aid kit. Personally, I always have to hand: apple cider vinegar (helps to prevent worm infestations, and is a good general tonic), anti-peck spray (to deter pecking of injuries), flubenvet (wormer, which I use every 3 months), poultry spice (a feed additive, which is useful if the hens are under the weather/in moult), gentian violet (a purple spray which can be used to mask any wounds, hens peck at the colour red), red mite powder (both as a preventative in the housing and the dust bath, and also a talc used on the hens) and a mite spray (to treat any suspected infestations on the birds). Most problems can be dealt with using these things, although of course if in doubt you should consult a vet.
My last piece of advice is this: get to know your birds. Take the time to build up trust and handle your ladies at least weekly. A well handled bird makes all of your husbandry easier. It makes health checks a breeze, and stops the bird (and you) going in to a stress induced panic. Spend time just observing them. You quickly get to know what is normal behaviour, and what is just a bit off. Chickens are amazing at masking their illnesses, so often your first indication that something isn't quite right will be a slight change in behaviour. There are many ailments which can be effectively treated if caught early.
Now, I hope I haven't put anyone off.