Stinging nettles: what are the benefits for chickens?

Folklore has nettles as a cure for many ills. But what are the proven facts about their nutritional value for poultry? How much should they be given, in what form, and when?

Can chickens eat nettles? Pin the article for later.

It's long been thought that the Romans were the first to use stinging nettles both as a medicinal plant and a fabric for making clothes.

Until, that is, a burial site in Devon, England, was excavated and fragments of a sash were found to be made of nettle fibre.

The sash was dated to between 1730 and 1600 B.C.(1).

Ever since, stinging nettles have been used to treat a range of human ailments, from skin conditions to snake bites, from joint pain to anaemia. 

Traditionally, they've been used in poultices or feed for cows, pigs, sheep and horses to prevent illness and encourage growth(2).

For poultry, there's a long history in folklore of stinging nettles being used for everything from prolonging egg laying to preventing parasites.

The recent wish to move away from chemical additives to more natural ways of promoting health has resulted in properly researched information being gathered about ways in which stinging nettles can be of benefit to chickens' well-being.

It's that information on which this article is based.

This is a long, detailed article. Use these links to jump to a section you need, or carry on reading for all the information.

A flower divider with three blue flowers and a buttercup, and a yellow butterfly at the end of a stem.

What do nettles look like?

The common or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, sometimes also known as the "stinger nettle") is a plant you're probably familiar with. It's a 'perennial' (dies back in winter, comes back every spring). Nettles tend to grow in clumps and can reach as high as 7 feet.

Nettle beds are often found on or near very fertile ground and are particularly fond of compost heaps, due to the high levels of nitrogen in the soil.

Their leaves are serrated at the edge, light green when young, changing to darker green with age. 

The leaves and stems are covered in tiny hairs which inject chemicals as a sting when touched. The sting irritates human skin causing a red, itchy blotch and sometimes numbness, but usually subsides quite quickly.

A microscopic view of the stings on a nettle leaf.Nettle stings on a leaf under a microscope.

The nettle doesn't flower in its first year but after that will flower from May until September – longer in warmer climates. 

The flowers aren't spectacular. They look a bit like catkins dangling from the plant, and are usually light yellow. Later, the flowers form many seeds which fall from the plant and spread its growth – hence it can be seen as a nuisance in many gardens.

Nettle seeds.The flowers look unspectacular, but hold seeds which can be used to propagate.

It also spreads through the creeping root system, so if you're not keen on stinging nettles taking over your garden, they're best kept contained (see below).

A wildflower divider with bumble bee.

Definition: what are nettles, weed or herb?

Because they spread quickly and can become a nuisance, stinging nettles are often defined as a weed. 

But they also have a number of uses in the garden, in "folk medicine" and as a nutritious food.

The definition of a herb is:

  • "...a plant with medicinal, culinary or cosmetic uses ... noted for a use other than the purely ornamental or purely edible"(3)

– which certainly fits. The ultimate description, as defined by a peer-reviewed Italian study, is...

  • "a herbal plant with medicinal properties"(2)

– which seems to sum it up!

What are the medicinal properties of stinging nettles?

There are multiple studies which evidence that stinging nettles are a rich source of nutrients, including protein, dietary fibre, natural essential oils (particularly linolenic acid), lycopene, vitamins (particularly A, C and K), and minerals(e.g. 2, 3).

  • Linolenic acid is an Omega-3 oil – the same is found in sunflower seeds. It's particularly known to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.
  • Lycopene is one of the most powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants protect cell health and are known to reduce the risk of developing chronic illness in both humans and animals.
  • Calcium helps strengthen bones.
  • Potassium helps keep muscles and nerves healthy, and is needed to process protein.
Stinging nettles growing by a tree in woodland.No nettles of your own? Look in local woodland!
A flower divider with three blue flowers and a buttercup, and a yellow butterfly at the end of a stem.

What is the stinging nettle good for? The environment.

Insects like butterflies and bees, and many once numerous types of bird, are struggling these days. As well as being impacted by changing weather conditions, the use (and over-use) of insecticides have had a disastrous effect on their populations.

So growing any plants which can be of use to our chickens and at the same time be good for attracting pollinating insects and birds has to be good all round.

Enter, nettles (and other plants such as marigolds and sunflowers, of course!).

The stinging nettle in its early stages is a great attractor of butterflies. It's the main plant for the larva of the Peacock, Red Admiral and small Tortoishell, so you'll often find caterpillars munching on the young leaves(2).

Once the plants flower and produce seeds, they become a magnet for lots of seed-eating birds: the siskin, bullfinch and serin among them(3)

A practical illustration of how nettles benefit the environment.

This is a short video made particularly with children in mind, to illustrate how leaving a patch of nettles can attract wildlife into the garden – specifically, butterflies.

Watch how caterpillars magically change into a Peacock butterfly, courtesy of a simple nettle plant.

And then, why not consider leaving a patch of nettles in your chicken run or garden? Close to a compost heap is a great place, since the soil is enriched by the contents of the heap.

A note about bird flu: wild birds are known to be carriers and spreaders of avian influenza. Given that your nettle bed will attract garden birds, either keep it away from your chickens' area; put some chicken wire around the nettles when they begin to set seed; or cut them down before they have the chance to develop their flowers.

This is particularly critical if there have been reports of bird flu in or near your area.

For more information about bird flu see my detailed article, here.

A wildflower divider with bumble bee.

What is the nettle good for? Nutritional benefits for chickens.

Low in calories and high in water and fibre, nettles have been proven to be an excellent (and not very well known) source of nutrients for chickens in multiple studies. This is a very brief summary of the overall impact on poultry health.

  • Perhaps most significantly, crushed nettles fed to chickens were shown to increase the overall quality of blood. Blood clotted more quickly – helpful in the event of a predator attack; the concentration of red blood cells (which carry oxygen and broadly speaking create energy) was increased; and 'basophils', a type of white blood cell which support the immune system, also increased(4, 5, 6).
  • The antioxidants contained in nettles were found to improve chickens' general health, and in particular to boost the immune system(5, 6).  
  • The high levels of Vitamins A and C helped laying hens' performance and was particularly useful when hens were under stress from heat(6)
  • Vitamin K is critical for both blood clotting and bone health(6).
  • The minerals found in nettle leaves, particularly calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron, increased bone density and eggshell quality, and promoted optimal growth(4, 5, 6).

Importantly, no study found any negative impacts of feeding nettles to chickens.

A bed of stinging nettles growing against a stone wall.

What are nettles not good for?

There was no evidence found that feeding nettles in any form helped prevent parasites, either internal such as worms, or external such as mites.

They certainly can't hurt, but don't rely on nettles to keep parasites controlled. And they certainly won't deal with a chicken who's already infested.

A flower divider with three blue flowers and a buttercup, and a yellow butterfly at the end of a stem.

The benefits of nettles for eggs.

Have you always wanted your hens' eggs to have that lovely dark orange yolk you've seen on other people's images?

Commercially, chemical colourants can be used to promote a "healthy-looking" yolk. But if you have nettles, chemicals are a thing of the past.

Along with marigolds, nettles have a high carotenoid content. Lutein is one of those carotenoids, and it's the lutein content which will increase the yellow pigment in the yolk – organically.

So what are you waiting for? Let's get growing those nettles!

A wildflower divider with bumble bee.

How to grow and treat nettles.

Nettles are ridiculously easy to grow – in fact they will take over unless controlled – and so make a simple, inexpensive and nutritious source of food for our chickens.

Best of all, they're hardy and come back every year without the need for growth hormones or pesticides.

No need to start with a lot of plants – even two or three will spread widely and make a large nettle bed after one or two years.

Here's how(3, 8).

Take an existing plant...

  • Seeds are notoriously hard to germinate, and take a long time. Better to start with a plant or cutting, if possible.
  • If you don't have nettles in your garden already, ask neighbours or take a look in local hedgerows and woodland areas. Be sure what you're picking are nettles!
  • Grow from an existing plant root: this is the easiest way and can be done at any time of year. Dig up a small, existing young plant with its own root system. Plant the roots about 5cm (2") deep in a pot of around 20cm (8"), filled with a potting compost (or soil from your garden). 
  • Keep well watered and sheltered from frost until they're established – two weeks should see a good root system developing.
A two day old nettle root growing in a small plantpot.
  • Grow from cuttings: otherwise, take a cutting from new growth at the top of the plant in late spring or early summer. Make sure the cutting has two healthy-looking leaf pairs. 
  • Place the cuttings in a small glass of water and leave on a window ledge until you see a root system develop. Remember to keep the water topped up.
  • Once you see a good root, plant up into a pot as above.

Planting nettle cuttings out.

  • Nettles will grow in either full sun or partial shade and prefer a well drained but moist soil.
  • They enjoy a nitrogen rich environment, so plant them near a compost heap or add coffee grounds, or a nitrogen rich fertiliser, to the soil before planting(8)
  • If you have a limited space and you're concerned that the nettle bed may take over, plant in pots or a raised bed.
  • Plant the young nettles about 30cm (12") apart – they will quickly spread and create a bed. Keep watered until they're established and start to grow.
Nettle seedlings in the soil.

Harvesting.

The crop will need some time to become established before you begin to harvest. I prefer to leave the plants for the first year, harvesting in the second when the plants can cope with cutting.

The tender shoots of the spring are best for recipes (and for human consumption). Once the plant produces flowers the leaves will be tough, bitter and "gritty".

For making into powder, harvesting at any point is fine.

Cut the nettles at about 5cm (2") from the ground. This will encourage the plant to put on  more growth.

How to stop nettles stinging.

Nettle stings can feel very unpleasant. Running iced water over the stung area helps some, but nothing really helps to lessen the sensation except time.

You may, like me, have been told as a child that rubbing the broad leaves of the dock plant (Rumex obtusifolius) on the sting will counteract the stinging sensation.

Apparently, there's no evidence of any chemical effect though(2, 3). It may be the rubbing just helps distract form the sting – or that believing it will work makes it so!

A patch of green dock leaves in a field of grass.Broad leaved docks, said to help counteract nettle stings.

The best way to prevent nettle stings is to wear some heavy gloves when handling the plant. Leather is most effective, and gauntlets, which reach partway up the arm, are more effective than wrist-length.

Once it's harvested, the best way to remove the sting is to cook or crush it, or allow it to wilt and dry.

A wildflower divider with bumble bee.

How to use stinging nettles with chickens.

Left to themselves, most chickens won't go near nettles so you'll need to prepare them.

The studies all used dried or powdered nettle. It's easy to make. Keep it as with any other dried herb, to be added to recipes you may make as chicken treats. 

How to dry nettles.

A bunch of wilted and dried nettles and a bowl of dried nettle flakes.
  • Cut the nettles (wearing gloves) and let them sit on your counter top for a few hours to wilt. They will lose their stinging power.
  • Then, strip the leaves from the stem.
  • Put into a salad spinner, wash under cold water and spin to remove most of the water. 
  • If you have a dehydrator, use it as you would to dry any other herb. They will need about 12 hours at the lowest temperature.
  • Otherwise, place the leaves on parchment paper and allow to dry naturally for three or four days.
  • It's possible to hang nettle stems to dry, but they tend to blacken during the process.
  • The nettles are ready to be made into powder when the leaves are dry and brittle. You'll hear a "crispiness" when you crumble them between fingers.
  • Now use a herb grinder to chop them finely. If you don't have one, use a mezzaluna, pestle and mortar, or a sharp knife. The result will be less fine but still good to use.
  • Store in an airtight jar. It will keep its nutrient value for up to a year.

Don't want to make your own nettle powder?

Links in this section are "affiliate links", which means that if you click and buy something, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

It's very inexpensive to make your own, but if you don't have access to nettles, or you don't have the time, it's possible to buy nettle powder online. 

How much nettle powder to use?

  • To add some extra nutrition to your chickens' usual feed, use about a tablespoon per kilo (2.5 lbs).
  • If you want it specifically to make your hens' eggs a deeper orange, add one teaspoon per kilo (2.5 lbs) of feed.
A flower divider with three blue flowers and a buttercup, and a yellow butterfly at the end of a stem.

Recipes for using nettles as chicken treats.

Add a teaspoon (or more, depending on how much you're making) of powdered nettle to any of the chicken treat recipes on this website.

Alternatively, try some of these.

How to make nettle tea.

Nettle tea can be used as the liquid for making fermented feed – or simply add nettle leaves to the feed you're fermenting for your chickens.

It can also be used as a fertiliser for your garden plants.

  • Use 1 litre (1 quart) of water to 25 grammes (1 oz) dried nettle leaves
  • Put the leaves into a shatterproof jar or teapot
  • Add the hot water
  • Allow to steep for about 5 hours
  • Strain using a tea-strainer or some cheesecloth
  • Offer to your flock in a bowl, separately to their usual fresh water
  • This will stay fresh in a fridge for up to 48 hours.

How to sauté nettle leaves.

  • Use about 500 grammes (1lb) cleaned stinging nettles, or as much as your flock will eat bearing in mind they will shrink
  • Add 2 tablespoons olive oil (or any cooking oil) to a large pan and heat
  • Add the nettles and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Keep the heat high so the liquid evaporates quickly and the nettles cook crisply
  • Feed to your flock on their usual treat tray. 

Nettle pancakes.

This is a very rich recipe, so only give it to your chickens as a treat for a special occasion.

Nettle pancakes: ingredients.

  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 600 mls (20 fluid oz) water
  • 150 grammes (5 oz) flour
  • 45 grammes (1.5 oz) butter
  • 500 grammes (1 lb) nettles (you can use both leaves and stems).

Method.

  • Bring a large saucepan to the boil, add the nettles and blanche for about 20 seconds
  • Drain and run under cold water
  • Chop the nettles finely and set to one side.
  • Melt the butter in the microwave
  • Beat the eggs in a cup and add the water and melted butter
  • Place the flour in a bowl, make a hole in the centre
  • Pour the liquid into the centre of the flour and gradually combine the flour into the liquid.
  • Add the chopped nettles to the batter.
  • Heat a frying pan and add the batter, one ladle at a time. Cook for one minute, flipping the pancake to cook both sides.
  • Serve on your chickens' usual treat platter.
A Red Admiral butterfly on a stinging nettle leaf.

Feeding chickens naturally: other articles you may enjoy.

Which plants are good for chickens? Link.
Choosing weeds as chicken treats - link.
Sunflower seeds for chicken treats. Article link.
Pumpkins for chickens - link.
Thumbnail link lentils.
Sprouting seeds for chicken feed - link.
How to grow and use garlic for chicken health - link.
How to free range chickens - and whether you should. Link.
Free range chicken gardens book review. Click for article.
A divider of wildflowers with a bumble bee.

Sources.

A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.

The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.

Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.

1. Jones, A. M: The cist on Whitehorse Hill - Current Archaeology. Pub. Journal of Current Archaeology, 2016.

2. Viegi, L, et al: A review of plants used in folk veterinary medicine in Italy as basis for a databank. Pub. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2003.

3. Nettles as weeds. Pub. Royal Horticultural Society, 2022.

4. Abdul-Majeed, A. F., et al: Effect of adding nettle plant on some physiological and biochemical parameters of broiler chickens. Pub. Iraqi Journal of Veterinary Sciences, 2010.

5. Pant, V, and Sundriyal, R. C.: Nutritional and therapeutic efficacy of stinging nettle—a review. J Ethnobiology and Traditional Medicine, 2016.

6. Keshavarz, M et al: Growth performance, blood metabolites, antioxidant stability and carcass characteristics of broiler chickens fed diets containing nettle (Urtica dioica) powder or essential oil. Pub. International Journal of Advanced Biological and Biometric Research, 2014.

7. Loetscher, Y, et al: Utility of nettle (Urtica dioica) in layer diets as a natural yellow colorant for egg yolk. Pub. Journal of Animal Feed Science and Technology, 2013.

8. Schmelzer, E., and Lindner, C: Nettle cultivation for feeding poultry. Pub. Bioland Beratung, 2021.

Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.