Trees and sunshine

A day of sunshine… and there has been no rain for 34 hours so far!!

This respite in the weather has meant that we could get on with some outdoor activities today. We walk the dogs almost every day, just avoiding the very worst of the weather, but today’s walk took much longer than usual, because so many other people were out too. In our community that means stopping for a chat… and getting given sweeties by the wife of one of our local farmers!

A bit of a wallow

A bit of a wallow

Once home, we were able to allow the hens into a part of the garden that has simply been too wet for them recently. We want them to clear and fertilise some of the vegetable beds in anticipation of the growing season. Of course, as soon as the soil dries out a bit, they want to have a dust bath… I think it was more of a wallow today, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves anyway.

The chicken patch at Station Road

The chicken patch at Station Road (chickens are hiding!)

Whilst they were busy on the vegetable beds, I was able to plant two trees that have been awaiting my attention. In the chicken’s main patch, I want to create a more woodland-like habitat (after all they are descended from jungle fowl) and I was inspired by the area in which Wade Muggleton keeps his chickens at Station Road, which has fruit trees. We do not have ground vegetation at present because of having to raise the level of the soil to stop the waterlogging, but now that we have solved that problem, I wanted to get started with a Kentish Cob and an apple tree.

Cob nut in the foreground with the apple and chickens behind.

Cob nut in the foreground with the chickens foraging behind.

The Cob (a variety of hazel) has been in a pot for a couple of years, because it originally arrived at a time when the soil was frozen so solid that we couldn’t plant it. The apple, however, came very recently from my dear friends Janta and Merav at Karuna – the variety is Ashmead’s Kernel and it’s grafted onto a dwarf rootstock, so should be perfect for our little garden. Both are now planted and will hopefully provide a great habitat for the hens and a harvest for us. Don’t be fooled by the woodchip on the surface in the pictures, it’s lovely and fertile underneath from the chicken droppings that have been slowly incorporated into the soil over several years.

The start f a little jungle for the hens

Happy hens with ‘their’ apple tree

It’s a jungle out there

In our garden we have four chickens: Lorna, Esme, Perdy and Black Aliss. After various battles, they are now confined, most of the time, to one section of the garden. They a have a run where they can be further confined, but they are not shut in there much because, frankly, it’s boring for them.

Perdy, Esme and Black Aliss

Perdy, Esme and Black Aliss

I often see backyard chickens in a dirt run and feel sorry for them. The reason being that, despite their limited flight ability, domestic chickens are birds of the jungle, not of the mud wallow. They are descended from the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) which, according to the Smithsonian:

browses on the forest floor for insects, seeds and fruit, and flies up to nest in the trees at night.

Now I appreciate that we have come a long way since the Red Junglefowl: domestication appears to have taken place 7-10, 000 years ago, and there may have been genetic contributions from three other closely related species. However, chickens do still, generally, prefer to sleep up on a perch (like being on a tree branch) and scratch around for grubs and insects, so they have deep-seated instincts. I can’t help feeling, therefore, that we should provide them with an appropriate habitat in which to live, and that a bare patch of mud or an area of open grass does not do this. In addition, a small enclosed area is likely to build up a rampant population of parasites, leading, for example, to repeated worm infestation.

Esme emerging from the 'woodland' laying box

Esme emerging from the ‘woodland’ laying box

Our hens have open areas where they can scratch about or have a dust bath, access to the area around the compost bins, where there are often insects to hunt, intermittent access to the fruit cage, with its herbs and grasses (they are excluded when there is fruit to be had!) and an area under the willow hedge, where leaves accumulate and invertebrates live. They also visit the rest of the garden to turn soil and do the weeding! Recently they have been spending a lot of time under the trees and we decided that it might be a location where they would like to lay. With this in mind, we placed a plastic laying box (actually it’s an old covered cat litter tray that we were given) inside the hedge and this is now Esme’s preferred laying spot. Of course, this is not a safe location to spend the night, so they all happily troop into the run and then their house to roost, safe and sound and inaccessible to foxes or other predators.

Animal welfare is something that anyone keeping livestock should take seriously, both because it’s ethically right and because you get better production if you have healthy happy animals. So, if you do have backyard chooks, give them some shade and an area under the trees where they can get back to their roots and release their inner junglefowl!
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