What a rotten start to the year for poultry. With Defra extending their ban on free-range till the end of February, what can we do to make life a little better for our flocks, keep them healthy and less likely to catch diseases?

Wild birds carry bird flu and the current strain H5N8, so we need to keep our hens, ducks, geese and other poultry away from them, especially food and drink. It’s easy enough to make a covered area and keep feeders and drinkers underneath it. I’ve put a small garden table in the run and topped it with a sheet of plywood so my small flock can dine safely.

Covering the run to keep wild birds out is more difficult, especially if your run supports are a bit rickety. Horticultural fruit cage netting (I got mine from harrodhorticultural.com) is light, stretchy, cheap to buy and comes in large dimensions. Importantly it won’t weigh down your run’s roof, get blown off by the wind or put under stress by snow. Incidentally, it makes reasonable fox protection too – foxes are unhappy on unstable surfaces.

I’ve made a small extra run out of weldmesh panels topped with netting so I can let my flock out on to grass for a few minutes everyday to eat – short grass is full of protein. Feed wild birds well away from your run.

In the meantime, how can we make life a bit more fun for our flock and keep them de-stressed and healthy?

  • Make sure you give them bunches of greenery to make up for their lack of foraging. Hang it just above head height so the leaves don’t get trampled underfoot. A whole lettuce or cabbage is good too.
  • Add a straw bale or two into the run. They’ll offer extra shelter from the wind and somewhere new to hop and jump.
  • Fat balls and toys from your petshop will make life a little more interesting. There is a poultry swing available from omlet.co.uk though my sedate flock regarded it with suspicion.
  • If your hens get their grit from the garden, make sure you buy some from your feed merchant and offer it to them in their run.
  • Cover the run surface with hardwood chippings (see flytesofancy.co.uk or bark-uk.co.uk for 2000 litre bags) and de-sanitize it with powder regularly.

Obviously, we need to keep up hygiene standards (use Virkon to disinfect equipment), we should wash hands after contact with birds, not visit other gardens with poultry without disinfecting footwear, and not move, sell or bring in new members of your flock.

If you are worried about your birds’ health, (flu symptoms vary from “very mild signs like seeming off colour to the severity of death”) – contact your vet. Anyone with suspicions of the disease in their flocks or in wild birds should get in touch with Defra on 03459 335577 or the Animal Plant and Health Agency on 0300 303 8268.