By Emma O’Connell
Several years ago when I first settled down on my few acres and acquired my first batch of chickens, I had this romantic idea that the chickens would just roam around here and there, eat bugs and lay lots of eggs. Wrong.
The first thing they did that made me run out of the house half naked and screaming was get into my nicely tended garden and flatten all my beds and dig up all my garlic. And so I continued for the next few years, stubborn as I am, thinking I could let them roam wherever. I learned how to keep them mostly out of certain areas without ever fencing them in, though never totally. Below are some of the tricks I learned:
1. Don’t throw “chicken scraps” (i.e. compost) to your chickens off your front porch. This will cause them to hang out right outside of your house waiting for treats, which equals chicken poo everywhere you need to walk or want to hang out. Yuck.
2. Make sure your garden is totally enclosed with chicken wire/fence that is chest high. Don’t underestimate the jumping power of a determined chicken. Once they figure it out, they will do it over and over (and over). A good gate is also a must. My gates are always some repurposed, rigged up things, so this was never my strong point (and the smart chickens always took advantage of it).
3. Place things that chickens don’t like to scratch in places where they do like to scratch. My chicken no-no areas are perennial flowerbeds, mulched trees, around berries, and one particular hill slope.
Things that work great for this: chestnut hulls (by far the best), rose/raspberry prunings, sticks, long grass stems (think pampas grass).
The good thing about this tactic is that the plants and seeds the sticks are protecting will eventually grow up into them and the protecting materials will decompose. The bad thing is that it can be kind of cluttered looking (if that matters to you), and trying to pull weeds out of a bunch of chestnut hulls is not so fun.
4. Loose chickens are easy prey for a fox, so figure out when foxes are rearing their kits in your area.
For us it was like clockwork. In early May the fox would start showing up trying to take a chicken home for the baby. We made sure our dog was out at the foxing hours, but everyone knows how clever a fox is….
5. Use a chicken tractor or a moveable pen. This works well but can also be a lot of work. The chickens are moving around from fresh area to fresh area, eating lots of chicken goodies, tilling up garden beds that you want them to scratch up, and so forth. The bad part is—you have to move the chicken tractor, which can be hard to do alone and in tight spots.
But the main lesson I learned was that it is much easier and causes much less cursing to just keep your chickens enclosed. And so that it was I do now. I still let them out into the yard for a supervised hour here and there, but the difference in my perennial flowerbeds is noticeably better without chickens scratching everywhere. I give them lots of treats from my mom’s café compost and weeds from my garden, and I’m not afraid to leave the house for fear that they might find a way into my freshly planted seed beds. They are still plenty happy and so am I. If you want un-penned poultry try ducks or guineas instead.
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