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Do they mix?

PUBLISHED: 10:49 24 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:49 24 March 2014

Having a glorious garden and keeping free range chickens can mix...

Having a glorious garden and keeping free range chickens can mix...

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Do chickens and gardening mix? Definitely, says Andy Cawthray, who is both a keen gardener and a chicken expert. In this new series, Andy will be exploring in detail how to achieve this balance where both birds and plants can thrive

Poultry Plant of the Month

Dogs Tooth Violet (Erythronium)

A welcome early bulbous perennial in the garden, the Dogs Tooth Violet provides a delicate looking yet bold statement in a border that otherwise could be quite bare at this time of year. The mottled leaves and nodding flowers don’t appeal to chickens and like most bulbous plants any peck will be one of curiosity and short lived. It prefers to grow in a moist soil in semi shade but can be grown in pots too but when you plant them protect them with an overturned wire hanging basket for the first growing season to avoid the chickens inadvertently scratch the bulbs up before their roots are established. The name Dogs Tooth originates from the shape of the bulb as opposed to any feature on the above ground plant and it is well suited to cottage gardens, informal flower borders and beds, or shady rock gardens. It makes a wonderful addition to a wildflower meadow but is also very suitable for planting under roses and of later flowering shrubs. As a clump forming plant they are easy to propagate too which is a bargain.

I’m an avid gardener; in fact I’ve been gardening both in terms of flowers, fruit and vegetables since I fell out of a pram. I’m not a precious gardener though who needs everything in rows unless it’s in my vegetable plot. Call me old fashioned, but I like my onions to all be in one place, spuds somewhere else and carrots as a collective rather than scattered everywhere, but I don’t mind organised chaos taking place in the rest of the borders (or the naturalistic planting look as it could be called).

To me, a garden is simply an outdoor room that, in my case, is used more than some of the rooms indoors; and like indoor rooms it should never be static, rather evolving as you and your life evolves. I have a pond, for example; I spend many hours sitting near it and watching the wildlife make use of it, be it the frogs in the spring, the dragonflies in summer or (without fail every year) the grey wagtails in the autumn. I gain an immense amount of pleasure from my garden and from the flora and fauna within in it, so why then would I put a flock of chickens in there, especially if one of the frequently said things about chickens and gardens it is that they don’t mix? Well, this isn’t an untrue statement, but by the same measure it’s true to say children and gardens don’t mix, or dogs and gardens don’t mix.

A good garden is one where thought and design have been applied according to its use. Take the pond I mentioned earlier; 15 years ago I would never have had an open pond in my garden. Why? I had three children under four years old and the effort of keeping them out of the pond would have no doubt taken a lot of the joy out of having one in the first place.

Many of us have children and/or dogs romping around the garden and we’ve made compensations to allow for it, and so, by the same measure, it’s not impossible to have chickens in the garden, and for that mix to be enjoyable and beneficial for both the gardener and the flock; you just need to plan and design accordingly.

A colourful March borderA colourful March border

Why free-range?

Over the next few months I’ll be taking a look at some of the key design principles when considering ranging a flock of chickens within your garden. I’ll be suggesting a few projects for plants and poultry, and taking a look at some of the best blooms and shrubs that will work with your chickens, but first let’s consider why you would free range chickens in your garden?

For many people, keeping a backyard flock is synonymous with providing higher welfare and thus being secure in the knowledge that the eggs you are collecting are not from a factory farmed source. The trouble is, though, that keeping the three of them ‘cooped up’ in a run 3m x 3m is in fact a stock density greater than that of a commercial free range flock. In other words, they have less space per bird, so if better welfare is a motivation for you keeping chickens then you may need to reconsider the space you allow them, or look to giving them a bit more of the garden.

Tip

Keep the flock size appropriate for the space you have. A 25m2 to 35m2 garden space would suit 5-8 average sized chickens which in turn should easily keep the average family in eggs with sufficient surplus to sell and cover upkeep costs.

Free ranging invariably results in happier, healthier chickens as their lifestyle will be much more akin to their natural habitat. In fact there’s many a ‘jungle of a garden’ out there which would make a perfect haunt for a flock of hens. Anyone who has observed a hen that’s escaped from a fixed run will have witnessed the vigour and energy in their behaviour (and the fact they will continue to try and escape to experience it all over again!).

I use chickens as helpers because, for all their ‘misplaced enthusiasm’ in the garden, they are in fact quite useful. They help in the control of pests, eat weeds, mow the lawn, compost green waste and improve soil condition. As a collective they quite possibly do the work of one person in the garden throughout the year and lay fantastic healthy eggs too. I won’t wax lyrical, though, and claim they are no problem at all as I do need to control where they go and protect some plants and crops from the attentions. But compared to the benefits they deliver, coupled with beauty and movement they bring to the look of the garden, it’s worth it.

Your garden is an eco-system and the balance is, to a great extent, under your control. If that eco-system is to remain healthy, then you need to observe and understand the way it works. Adding an appropriately sized flock of chickens introduces another aspect to the eco-system, but one which is most definitely within your control and under your management. Making sure the flock complements and contributes towards the balance of the garden is key, and stocking too heavily or ranging too intensively will lead to problems, so take your time and you will find chickens and gardens can mix.

It should go without saying but if you are an extensive user of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers then ranging your birds in those areas is not advised.

Breeds best avoided

Just as the number of chickens that your garden will cope with requires consideration, so does the type of breed you wish to have free ranging. It may come as a surprise, but it’s the light layer breed types that can be the more ‘active’ gardeners and rip through your well-tended borders and bowling green lawns in a morning. It is in their nature to forage extensively and so it is quite possible that the voices of those who don’t think chickens and gardens mix could well be the owners of layer hybrids such as Warrens or Leghorn crosses, or pure breeds designed for high volume egg laying who are keeping them with a relatively small garden. Obviously a lot will depend on precisely how much space you have in your garden, but careful selection of the type of chicken, be it bantam or large fowl, heavy or light, etc will play a part in the success of the mix.

* Andy Cawthray and his wife Jill run ChickenStreet in Shropshire, where both chickens and plants are for sale. Andy writes for various magazines and has a popular blog. See www.chickenstreet.co.uk

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