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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
– which certainly fits. The ultimate description, as defined by a peer-reviewed Italian study, is...
– which seems to sum it up!
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
Importantly, no study found any negative impacts of feeding nettles to chickens.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a very rich recipe, so only give it to your chickens as a treat for a special occasion.
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.