The hands on experience gained from keeping a small flock of hens in my back garden has taught me much about what is required of the domestic poultry keeper. It is not for those who wish to keep a well manicured garden. Hens scratch the ground for food, and clean themselves of parasites by rolling around vigorously in loose soil (dustbathing). Neither of these activities is conducive to a tidy garden. They like to eat; grass, flowers, shrubs, fruit, vegetables; if it grows they are likely to find it tasty. If a hen finds a tasty plant then that is the end of the plant. Garden netting is a wonderful thing but hens are impressive in their ability to get through it when the reward on the other side looks edible.
In the five years that I have kept hens my ambitions to grow my own vegetables have necessarily diminished. When we first got our birds I allowed them to free range wherever they wanted to go in our garden. I loved the idea of hens pottering around; I had not anticipated that they would find the house as interesting as the garden. The first hot, summers day when I came downstairs to find hen poo on the floor of our family room and hens making their way through the front hall was the last time that I left doors open without suitable barricades. Having allowed the square of lawn nearest to our house to become pot holed with dustbaths in the early years I have now fenced it off as a no hen zone. I still grow beans in buckets along the house walls in the hen free area but have given up trying to harvest the raspberries that grow beyond. The hens are drawn to those tasty red fruits long before I can get to them. Our apples grow beyond their reach but they enjoy the windfalls.
I have mentioned hen poo. Of the many things that I had not expected when I first decided to keep hens, the most significant is probably the amount of poo that they produce. The volume of droppings is impressive for such small creatures. To start with I tried to lift and dispose of it all on a daily basis. As the number of birds we kept increased this became quite a chore. The decision to keep them off the square of lawn nearest to the house helped as this was an area much used by my young children and their friends so needed to be kept poo free. The chickens now have a dedicated patch of garden where their coops and runs sit. They free range on the wilder, sloped areas of garden beyond the house. I brush off the paths and decks but the rest of their poo is left as fertilizer. By making chicken care less of a chore I can ensure that they remain welcome in our garden.
Adapting the garden to suit the chickens and adapting our own behaviour to accommodate their habits has helped to keep chicken keeping a pleasure. Each family member has a pair of garden shoes by the back door. This ensures that stepping in something nasty is not an issue. The chicken garden has been relaid to allow the runs to be moved periodically, thus resting the ground that takes the most wear. Paving slabs laid around the run edges ensure that nothing can dig into the run so our birds are safe from predators when enclosed. The borders of our garden are secured with chicken wire that overlaps the ground to keep the birds from straying into our neighbouring woodland. They do still escape periodically. Our neighbours know that we are the chicken keepers and will alert us when they spot feathered visitors sampling their plants. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence.
The benefits of keeping hens more than make up for the damage they cause. I cannot imagine a garden bereft of these fabulous little bundles of feathered character. They are so funny and charming. I walk out of my back door and they flock to greet me. I go around the garden and they follow me hopefully. They flap and argue and sunbathe; get under my feet and cluck loudly for food. They are wonderful creatures.
When our garden looks less than pristine I have this valid excuse for it’s wildness. The chopped wood left in piles; the leaf mulch that is never quite cleared; the hedge borders that could always do with a trim; the playhouse that is rotting but under which the hens love to dustbathe; all provide ideal areas for bugs to breed and chickens to scratch. If our garden is untidy but a haven for our feathered friends then I see no reason to change the way we keep it. Anyway, that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!