Gloria has scaly legs. She told me so. If she was trying to endear herself to me she was off on the wrong foot! Scaly legs is one of the many conditions from which chickens may suffer. And which Gloria needs to guard against.
Gloria tends a flock of 25 free range chickens in rural Scotland. I had asked her how she kept them clean and in good health.
Turns out this is trickier than you might imagine. With chickens, you can’t hose them down, take a scrubbing brush to them or stick them in the shower while you make up their feed. Neither the dishwasher nor the washing machine can accommodate more than two at a time, and the laundrette simply refuses to take them. They have no teeth to brush and no hair to comb.
So how do you keep chickens clean and healthy?
According to Gloria, you first need to consider the enemy. Chickens are under constant bombardment from parasites such as mites, lice and worms. All of which need controlling.
‘I have to regularly de-louse the flock,’ says Gloria. ‘Examining their feathers will reveal lice, their eggs and red mites, all of which cause itching in birds. Medicated powder takes care of this problem.’
‘They need to be wormed regularly too.’
If you do try to wash your chickens (for personal hygiene reasons or a poultry show etc.) you can expect a lot of dirty looks and possible future revenge plots.
It’s a lot of work. But Gloria has some help from an unusual source – her black Labrador dog, Archie.
‘Archie has adopted the role of sheepdog for the flock, if that makes sense!’ Gloria laughs. Archie keeps all the chickens together so I can apply my powders and potions.
‘You need to get the basics right too,’ she says. ‘Bedding needs to be changed out regularly. Traditionally this meant straw. With my birds I use wood chips.’
‘As you get to know your flock, you begin to distinguish when normal preening becomes the sort of scratching associated with parasites. Then, of course you need to do something about it.’
‘I keep an eye on the area of ground the chickens concentrate on. If the birds tend to use the same run all the time, I move them to another area to avoid the dangers that come from excess fouling of the ground where they are pecking.’
Gloria has the last word. ‘It all sounds a bit unsavoury, but all animals need attention to keep them healthy and if you keep an eye out for problems and keep on top of them you will continue to get a great deal of satisfaction, and eggs of course, out of your birds.’