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Chicken Health and Disease


If you have already made plans for this, you get 10 out of 10, but most people have not listened to the advice given since the AI outbreak in 2006/2007 of keeping poultry and wild birds separate. The most dangerous wild birds are free-flying waterfowl as they carry AI without being affected. Other wild resident birds could also do so, thus excluding them is sensible as well. In its most pragmatic terms, ‘indoors’ means protection from wild bird faeces, so a covered run is better welfare for chickens than being shut in a dark shed, although the ventilation arrangement should let daylight in for eating and drinking. If you are lucky enough to have a roofed barn that can be set up with entertainment for the hens such as vegetables hung up, branches to climb on and feed blocks to peck at etc. this will help them adjust from free-range until the prevention restrictions are lifted and avoid conflict. Your hens will need to be either contained in their hut until the zone is lifted (currently 28th February), or you can provide them with a covered run for fresh air and entertainment, the top of the run must be solidly covered, a tarpaulin would be the quickest solution, set at a slight angle for water run-off. Build something temporary and don’t forget where ever you put them to add entertainment e.g. branches for climbing, vegetables hung up etc. Polytunnels are excellent as long as ventilation is good so that the birds do not get too hot. Geese are less likely to put up with “indoors” unless it is a polytunnel (protect the sides from nibbling bills), so an outside close-mesh netted enclosure could be needed for waterfowl. I would suggest that you get builders’ type small mesh and put it over the run on a central pole, like a marquee in case it snows. This will also limit the amount of faeces that wild birds bring/drop in as the only place they can perch will be on the central pole and a bit round the edge. Hanging old CDs on string from strategic points will scare off most wild birds if there is any sort of breeze as the CDs will flash as they turn. Geese can be fed from deep bowls with wheat covered by water which discourages wild birds of the jackdaw and pigeon varieties, but where wild mallard congregate, this is obviously not effective or sufficient. In any case, add cider vinegar to the water (50ml:500ml, plastic drinkers only) during the restrictions as an immune strengthener.
There was an AI outbreak in commercial turkeys in early December plus in wild ducks, so as of 20th December, all poultry shows are banned. We hope this will not last long but will depend on the number of outbreaks in the UK and is for our own and our hens’ protection. APHA is keeping this under review.
Hens were allowed to free-range (unless in a restricted zone) from 28th February and then on 13th April those in restricted zones were allowed out due to updates on AI, but with the continued requirement of good biosecurity actions. AI is not going to go away and we may have to confine our poultry next winter when wild waterfowl migrate to the UK again.

Poultry shows were allowed from 15th May 2017 but many regulations and recommendations are still in place for those organising shows. The link to this document is
Non-compliance with this licence constitutes an offence under the 2006 Regulations and on conviction under section 73 of the Animal Health Act 1981 a person may be liable to a fine of any amount and/or imprisonment.

Since the welfare of the birds is entirely in your hands, if you follow the guidelines on this website you will have healthy and happy birds – they will repay your care giving much enjoyment and fresh and delicious eggs.

If you understand how a bird works, you are more likely to keep the husbandry standards high as the reasons for so doing make for healthier birds:

  • Poultry healthy respiratory system depends so very much on good ventilation that disease can be prevented: damp stale air will quickly cause problems.
  • High levels of ammonia from the litter stop the removal of phlegm and so invite bacteria and viruses to multiply – if you can smell ammonia in the hen hut, there is too much, so clean out the litter more often and increase the ventilation.
  • Hens are omnivorous and enjoy catching and eating mice, but the disease risk is high from rodents. Not having teeth, pieces of food are ground up in the gizzard, so avoid old long grass as this can impact and kill, as can polystyrene (e.g. ceiling tiles) which they just adore to peck at, or pieces of plastic string.
  • Muddy areas encourage harmful parasites to breed so put down slats, move the hut more regularly, or replace the mud with pea gravel or rubber chips.
  • Hens have evolved to scratch around in the dirt, but over a wide area. Problems occur if they are kept on the same small area of ground all the time which then becomes “sour” and harbours harmful parasites and other pathogens. Hens prefer grass but are rather good at destroying it. If it is not possible to move a hut and run, place a 5cm square mesh grid over the grass so that the hens can eat the grass and insects but not dig up the roots.
  • Flubenvet (the only licensed wormer which controls all pathogenic worms) is available from agricultural merchants and vets for backyard flocks with no egg withdrawal time and should be used for 7 days, 3-4 times a year, more often if the hens are on the same patch of ground all the time. It is a powder, so if a little vegetable oil is put on the pellets first, this sticks the powder. Or feed may be purchased which has Flubenvet already added, the choice is yours.
  • Feathers are good insulators and it is sometimes harder to keep birds cool in summer than warm in winter. Birds that are too hot will hold their wings out from their body and pant.

Chicken internal organs

Food is taken in at the mouth, travels to the crop with some saliva where it is stored. Small amounts of food are passed to the proventriculus (acid-producing stomach) and then to the gizzard where it is ground up by already-eaten grit. Food then passes in to the small intestine for digestion. The two blind-ended parts of the gut, the caeca, are where a certain amount of fermentation of herbage takes place. The contents of the caeca are expelled about one in ten to normal droppings (about twice daily) and are a different colour and consistency. The paired kidneys produce solid waste matter called urates, deposited with normal droppings.

Small circle is normal dark droppings with white urates, large circle is caecal droppings

Chicken respiratory system

Birds have a one-way breathing system, the pressure maintained by the airsacs. A bird does not need to stop for breath in the middle of a song (think bagpipes).