With the surprisingly hot summer behind us and winter weather approaching now is the time to make sure the poultry are as a protected as possible from the cold, writes Janice Houghton-Wallace.

Firstly, check that they are as fit as possible going into the months of shorter daylight. Rid them of any parasites by treating for lice, mites and worms. Inspect eyes, ears and nostrils feel their body weight and if unsure about anything get advice from your veterinary surgeon.


Chickens do not like wind, so if they free-range during the day make sure it's in an area where they can get shelter from the prevailing wind, either behind trees, shrubs, walls or buildings. Should there be a gale it is better to leave them housed if there is sufficient room. This is where an adapted shed for their housing is more useful than a small poultry house. The same applies when heavy rain occurs for it takes a long time for the feathers to dry naturally and it's not a good idea for them to go to roost soaking wet in low temperatures.


Although chickens do like to have plenty of space outside to run around, in very bad weather they also appreciate being sheltered and dry. So keep their housing clean, free of mites and put a good thickness of fresh shavings for litter. These are better than straw, which can contain fungal spores and sweat. Cleaning out bedding is very important because of the length of time birds roost in winter. To help keep damp and bacteria at bay spread some powder-dry disinfectant on the floor before adding shavings. If practical, place some newspaper under the perch and in the morning discard this with the faeces it has collected.

Poultry houses should be well ventilated so do not block this but it is important there are no draughts. Mobile units should be moved to a sheltered area away from exposed, bitter wind. When birds perch together they fluff up their feathers which helps to keep each bird warm so make sure any perching area is adequate for the number of birds. If there is not sufficient room then some birds will sit on the floor and be more vulnerable to the cold.


If temperatures plummet then breeds with large combs and wattles are susceptible to frost bite.


This can be offset by rubbing a little barrier cream such as Vaseline on to help protect them. Do not be tempted to spread salt on frozen ground where the birds have access as this can burn their feet. Any frozen area outside the poultry house could have some straw or sand thrown down, or even an old carpet laid to protect feet from being grazed or even cut.


With the days so short over the winter season there is not a great deal of time for chickens to eat. They will in fact spend a greater time sleeping than awake, so adequate feed is essential and they are likely to eat more than in summer when insects and other treats are available. Feed layers pellets as soon as it is light and occasionally mix in some chopped hard-boiled egg in to give them a boost, even if you have to buy the eggs!

Poultry are given a grain feed in the afternoon and this is usually wheat. Barley is not fed to chickens as it is hard to digest. When the days are so short giving this second feed around lunchtime will mean the nutritional input will be ingested and crops will be full before roosting mid-afternoon. It is possible to buy separate bags of kibbled or chopped maize and a little of this can be added to the wheat. Chopped maize is normally only fed to chickens over the winter months as it is a warming feed and helps to maintain the birds’ body heat.


For any birds that are housed, greenery will provide them with extra vitamins. A cabbage hung up, or Brussels sprout tops or kale will be continuously pecked at. Ripe and fallen apples and plums will keep them occupied and any reduced fruit or green vegetables in the shops will be great perks for the birds

If you have a heated greenhouse, you could sow some grass seed in trays or shallow boxes for the chickens to enjoy when the grass is no longer growing. Water the seed sufficiently to get it into growth but not too much or it will rot. With the protection of the greenhouse it should grow well. Then, when they are kept in or even if they are outside, the birds will greatly enjoy the fresh grass. Before putting the tray of grass in their house, open up an empty paper feed bag and lay it down to save dirtying the litter, as they will scratch out everything, including the soil as they search for insects and worms once they have devoured the grass. The chickens will so enjoy this that I can guarantee there will not be a shred of green left by the end of the day.


Clean drinkers on a regular basis and keep them clear of ice. This means checking them often and making sure there is fresh water available. Do not add anything such as salt to the water to prevent freezing. It is possible to buy heat pads to prevent freezing but conversely if water is slightly warm it will be unpalatable to poultry. Once the birds have roosted it is easier to empty the drinkers and keep them undercover so that they can be filled in the morning rather than trying to de-frost with a kettle of hot water each time.

Birds will weather cold quite well if in good feather and fit. When the winter sunshine comes out let the birds enjoy it if you are at home to see that they are securely put away before dusk.


This article was written exclusively for Smallholder magazine. For more expertise in poultry from Janice Houghton-Wallace, subscribe to the monthly magazine (13 issues are £30) by calling 01778 392011 or emailing subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk. It is also available from newsagents.