Can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?

In my earlier post on the searches that lead people to my blog, I mentioned the question ‘can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?’ My, rather glib, answer was ‘Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.’ I now realise that this really isn’t a good enough answer – this is a serious question. I know this because variants of it keep appearing as the search terms used to get to my blog.

A spot of excavation

When we first toyed with the idea of keeping chickens, we considered the options for confining them – including whether having them in the fruit cage for some or all of the time would be possible. This was in the days before we owned any chickens and really didn’t know what they are like. I’m guessing that anyone who asks this question is, like we were at the time,  unfamiliar with hens. So for all you folk in this position, I’d better describe the natural habits of these creatures. First, you should understand that hens like to dig… I don’t mean just scratch around a bit… I mean they will excavate quite large holes and they are capable of getting through really compacted earth. I recently visited some people who bought a property with an old cow shed on it. This shed contains a highly compacted layer of cow muck so packed that it requires a pick axe to loosen it. They have found, however, that their chickens are able to scratch it up, making it possible for them to excavate it and use it on the vegetable beds.  You can imagine, therefore, what a chicken can do to earth under your fruit bushes.

The other important thing to know about chickens is that, even though they don’t really fly, they can get quite a height off the ground if they have an incentive, or even just when the fancy takes them. Some are better at it than others, but the temptation of raspberries is likely to entice even the most portly chicken to do a bit of jumping. Wing clipping is touted as the answer by many, but that only stops them getting lift with their wings and ours can certainly jump quite high if they really want to even if they are missing some feathers.

Janta at Karuna describes chickens as ‘the enemy of the forest gardener’… although he does have a few chickens, he prefers ducks. Ducks do not scratch the ground, so do not excavate your plants, they are fond of slugs and they seem less inclined to consume fruit (unless they get a taste for it). Since a fruit cage often contains an assemblage of plants that can be thought of as the lower layer of a forest garden, then Janta’s experience suggests that there is no place for chickens in  your fruit cage. My answer, however, is a little more complicated.

A chicken-free fruit cage

I would not keep chickens in the fruit cage permanently, unless I had a very big fruit cage and just a few chickens – in which case the loss of fruit might be at an acceptable level and there would be enough ground for them to scratch around without doing too much concentrated damage. However, I think it unlikely that you’d have a sufficiently big fruit cage for this to work and all low-growing fruit would be likely to be eaten. I do, however, allow ours into the fruit cage occasionally in the winter – partly because they enjoy rooting around in an otherwise forbidden area and partly because they eat some of the slugs in there. I am careful to prevent them going during the spring when fruit is starting to develop because they have no qualms about eating unripe fruit – don’t think that because it’s still green, it’s safe from their attention! The other time I put a chicken in the fruit cage is when I have one that needs to get over being broody. Aliss is particularly susceptible to broodiness and will, if allowed to, sit on the laying box for days at a time. When this happens, we turf her out into the fruit cage, where the only shelter is provided by the plants and where there are many things to pique her curiosity. She spends her days in the fruit cage and her nights with the other hens and after about 72 hours she’s usually over it.

As well as preserving ground flora, roots and fruit, I have another reason for excluding our hens from the fruit cage – it seems to be a preferred habitat for frogs, toads and lizards in our garden. We often find frogs in there and it certainly provides them with a refuge. If you do not keep chickens you may be unaware that they can be enthusiastic meat-eaters and frogs seem to be particularly attractive to them. I’m always slightly distressed when one of my pest controllers eats one of my other pest controllers, so keeping them separate seems the best option!

So, overall, the answer is that chickens and fruit are not the ideal combination in an enclosed area, but you can use the two to mutual benefit.

Station Road Permaculture Garden

I spent the last weekend teaching an introductory course on permaculture. This is going to provide me with subject matter for a number of posts, but I thought that I would start by describing a project that we visited.

An abundance of vegetables in front of the house

In a tiny village in the Shropshire hills is a row of four former council houses and one of these was our destination on  Saturday afternoon. Station Road Permaculture Garden demonstrates what you can do when you only have a normal-sized house and garden (80 ft x 40 ft) but want to produce as much food as possible. The garden provides fruit and vegetables as well as eggs from chickens and ducks. It’s hard to describe the amazing range of produce that comes out of the garden, but it includes currants and apples, raspberries and strawberries, asparagus and artichokes, carrots and potatoes, tomatoes and beans… at total of about 20 types of vegetable and 23 types of fruit!

During our visit we were treated to home produced apple juice – pasteurised so that it will last for at least a couple of years – and scones with home-made jams. We were also invited to sample the soft fruits as we walked around the garden. My favourite was the red dessert gooseberry – I’m not usually a gooseberry fan, but these were so sweet and juicy that I’m certainly going to find a place for some in my garden.

Shower cubicle cloche

The garden is separated into different areas by means of fences and hedges, including a low damson hedge and a fence with raspberries towering over it. The tiny orchard area is where the chickens and ducks live; it contains a small pond and two compost bins (with squashes growing in them). In total there are three greenhouses – two conventional ones and one containing a peach tree and constructed out of three old doors. An interesting curved glass cloche turns out to be a salvaged corner shower cubicle and the old septic tank has been converted very simply into rainwater storage. The site shows the best of creative use of waste materials along with inspirational plants.

A lemon tree – outside for the summer

And, as well as all the productive areas, there is a lawn for the two young children to play on and where they have their swing and keep their guinea pigs. This isn’t simply a demonstration site: this is a family home. It has been created by someone who goes out to work and is not able to dedicate all his time to tending his garden. To me, this represents the reality of life for many people. It certainly inspired the participants on the course, proving that vast tracts of land and unlimited resources are not necessary to improve your quality of life, to manage to produce a significant amount of your own food and to make a real difference to your environment.

-oOOo-

Station Road Permaculture Garden is a Land Centre, one of a network of permaculture demonstration sites around the UK that you can arrange to visit to see permaculture work in action.

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