Should a gardener keep chooks?

When we first got our chooks (they were day old chicks at the time) in February last year the answer to that question would have been a resounding yes!  In fact I wrote a glowingly romantic Top 5 post about the highlights of keeping chickens.   A year in and I’m not so sure…

You see chooks are very, very destructive.  As soon as your silver beet seedlings go in they will be dug up, pecked over, trampled on, and then ceremoniously buried, as the chicken spies the possibility of a small grub somewhere just to the left of where you planted.  Mature plants are not much better off, their leaves shredded and then finally removed as the chook gets every last little morsel of green.

Not only that but they poo….everywhere!  We have a back door step coated in dried droppings, the trip to get eggs is akin to walking through a minefield and I have lost count of the amount of times I have had to tell my 4 year old not stop throwing the stuff at his sister.  It’s all quite unpleasant really.

All of this would be manageable, with a bit of fencing and good natured humour if it weren’t for one simple fact.  Chickens can fly.  Higher than I thought.  Before I got chickens I thought their main flying efforts would be a little flap which got them not much higher than I can jump, (which, incidentally is embarrassingly low according to the jumping test thingy they have at Melbourne’s Scienceworks museum), but no.  They can get higher than that.  Higher than the 80cm plastic fencing that I put round the garden to secure parts of it.  It may not be normal bird high, but it is still too high for my liking.

So what to do?  I have decided on segmenting off a part of the garden as theirs.  I have filled it with my potted plants as they can’t dig around them as much, and I have erected a new 1.2m fence around it.  (I say “I” but actually it was my partner, but his work counts as mine doesn’t it?)

Just in case the birds are Olympic athletes in disguise I have secured the fence panels with star posts that are taller than the fence, enabling me to increase its height if necessary.  Will this be enough?  I hope so because despite their generally messiness I love them really.  Just like my children.  And unlike my children they give me eggs pretty much everyday.

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28 Responses to Should a gardener keep chooks?

  1. Kirstie says:

    The terrors! Our three dinosaurs frequently ascend the deck, flap awkwardly to the handrail, poop copiously then crow triumphantly to the unsuspecting neighbours. They are VERY lucky that they provide eggs and are generally picturesque.

    • Liz says:

      A familiar scene and yet the idea of it happening at your house brings a smile to my face. Is that bad?????? I perhaps a case of endearing from a distance….

  2. Emily says:

    We love our girls but also quickly found the notion of them ‘free ranging’ a fantasy. They ruin the garden so we only let them out under supervision now. Mind you, they have a large run to live in. To stop them flying over the fence, we cut the feathers on one of their wings; works a treat.

    • Liz says:

      Ours have a run but its not huge and I always feel guilty if I leave them in it too long. Clipping their wings could well be the answer if the fence proves not to be high enough.

  3. I think you have answered the question which is as long as the plants and chickens can be kept apart!

  4. Michelle says:

    A completely screened in enclosure is the only way we can keep chickens here. Not only do they have to be kept out of the garden, but they must be kept safe from raptors and other predators who will nosh on them given the least opportunity. Good luck with your new setup, I hope both your garden and your girls flourish.

  5. narf7 says:

    I too was taken in by chooks. Steve wasn’t so happy about buying 8 “hens” but when one turned out to be a rooster thats when the “fun” started…we have given away more chooks than I can count to on both of my hands several times over. We have dispatched roosters in even more ways and as a vegan holding a rooster while it has its head dispatched I think I might be on the vegan hit list…not only can they fly (our roosters regularly fly out of an enclosure with 2 metre high walls and then back in again at the end of the day :( but they can tunnel! We had 7 older chicks that kept escaping. We had NO idea how but eventually worked out that they were squeezing out at the base of a big tree where there was a teeny gap that had allowed them to tunnel to freedom like those old P.O.W. movies but with twice the stealth. Chooks look at you with those beady little eyes and you just KNOW that there is latent hostility…they want your seedlings and they want to scratch where you just watered in the middle of summer which is coincidentally where your most precious plants are and they dig up the roots, exposing them to the sun whereby your preciouses promptly die…we have lost count of how many we have. A quoll dispatched 4 mother hens that had gone feral a month or so back and lots of their chicks but still leaving us with 43 babies that we had to coral and hurl into the outside enclosure. An old mum clucky took them all on and she looks like a frankenhen at night time with legs, heads, wings and feet (upside down) sticking out all over her…I will NEVER again believe someone that says “chooks are lovely fluffy benign things” it is a lie. It is a lie spread by our chook overlords through their possessed humans!

    • HA! Sorry the quoll got your chooks but LOVING the mental image of Frankenhen. Had a similiar scenario only with a bemused rooster one night when a fox had made off with two momma hens.

  6. Daphne says:

    I’ve though about chickens here, but I keep nixing the idea. If I did it though I would keep them contained. I would probably make a chicken enclosure the size of one of my beds and let them run there when I’m done with the crop. But I just couldn’t let them free to run all over the yard. That is just way too much mess for me. Of course that isn’t why I nix the idea all the time The reason is because I travel enough that leaving would be a pain.

  7. Oh goodness, we’d have to enclose them to keep out the predators but these are many other good reasons to wait on keeping chickens, and let my farmer friends keep me in supply! Photo of your enclosure, please…

  8. My beloved chooks are free-range (though of course secured at night) and it took me about five frustrated iterations of fencing and the procurement of a lot of hardware before I worked out a way to secure the vegetable beds (before I got there, I discovered that enterprising chickens can squeeze through small gaps, fly much higher than any of us imagined, and use their toes to climb up even ever-s0-slightly saggy chicken wire). I now have 80 cm high raised wicking beds, and I’ve used star pickets and poly piping to construct arches over the beds. I then drape a massive amount of bird-netting right over the arches and dangling down to the ground. It’s worked, and it has the added bonus of keeping pigeons from scratching up seedlings and cats from using exposed soil as a loo. When I plant a new seedling in the free-range area, I usually peg a cylinder of chicken wire around it so its roots won’t be disturbed while it’s establishing. I know other people who just plonk bricks or heavy stones around the rootzone.

  9. Your post made me laugh Liz. I spent three hours yesterday using a high-pressure hose on the the pavers in our backyard to clean the chook poo and general mess from the chickens off them! I don’t have a high fence problem as our bantams have never flown over the 30cm high fences around my vegies, but the offset of that is that the little princesses hardly lay any eggs. I’ve thought about getting a couple of more commercial types of chickens to increase the egg production but realise that the vegies will be in trouble if I do that.
    A few weeks ago I went to an fantastic permaculture garden in Coburg and was amazed at how lush and productive it was with loads of little plants under fruit trees etc. Then I suddenly realised – there were no chickens in it to dig up the ground and eat the smaller plants. Until then I hadn’t contemplated the idea of a permaculture garden without chickens, but I can now see the advantage.
    Having said that though, our chickens are great little pets and provide endless amusement (and the occasional egg), so I reckon the answer to your question is Yes, they definitely belong, as long as their “skills” can be harnessed for good not evil! :)

  10. Norma Chang says:

    I always thought how nice it would be to have chicken in the backyard and collecting fresh eggs everyday. Then I think about the work involved and decided to allow others to make a living by supplying me with what I need.

  11. Jodie says:

    How funny! Why didn’t we all read each others posts BEFORE we got chooks! I must admit I KNEW about the potential digging and plant destruction – but I don’t get WHY the poo always ends up on the door step. I think they do it deliberately. Thankfully mine can’t fly (they are Barnevelders)

  12. Miranda says:

    Ducks! Get ducks. They don’t dig. Their eggs are delish too!

  13. Nina says:

    Ah yes, the poop around the back porch. Charming. My girls like to have a snooze on the doormat, too. They also like to venture through the door ‘curtain’ and check out how the hoi polloi live. Cheeky girls.

  14. Rachel says:

    I saw on River Cottage, where he goes to pick up his chicks, the farmer shows him how to clip one wing of flying feathers. This is enough to keep them from flying around, and only needs be done a couple times a year.

  15. Sarah says:

    There’s definitely a compromise to be had if you want hens in the garden – you get eggs for an omelette, but no salad leaves left to eat with it. But without trying we’ve managed to solve the problem of poop on the doorstep by getting some new hens that are too frightened of us to come anywhere near the house – not great pets, but less cleaning up!

  16. Bek says:

    I am planning to get chickens, so your post has been quite timely. I want them to free range, so am thinking I will be planting less annual veg edibles around the backyard where they will free range, but the free ranging will help the fruit trees and perennial veg like artichokes. That’s the plan anyway. I will be sure to keep them away from the raised bed veg patch based on your experience!

  17. Barbara Good says:

    Chickens was top of my list of priorities when we moved to a bigger house and garden Liz, but since then I have gone right off the idea. Firstly because we like to go away at least a few times a year and with only a small network of local friends, what on earth do you do about getting a chicken sitter. Then I thought it was unfair given we also have a dog running about the back yard and a rather grumpy old cat. And then I thought about my garden, I love it and I don’t want to see it destroyed as you’ve described. Plus I have a friend with lots of chooks so I still get the eggs and she takes my excess veg, it all works out well. Perhaps one day I’ll change my mind, but for now, no chooks – I have enough living creatures to take care of and clean up after without adding to it!

  18. Lrong says:

    Hi Liz… I think the key word here is ‘controlled free range’… we kept two hens last season… we let them free-ranged in an enclosed area… luckily, no problems whatsoever… and we are looking forward to our next experience with a new set of hens…

  19. mac says:

    I thought about raising chickens a lot, but I do not enjoy the mess and work, I’ll continue to enjoy reading about other gardeners’ chooks for now.

  20. Mark Willis says:

    I just hope you are never tempted to rear pigs…. (Though of course pigs can’t fly).

  21. JohnMich says:

    Hi Liz!
    Have a look at this site which I mentioned to you once before
    http://www.backyardchickens.com it has plenty of designs for DIY mobile chicken houses which wheel around which may solve your problem. Otherwise it sounds like a few funerals.

  22. Veggiegobbler says:

    Oh no! My friend had the same problem and she clipped their wings which helped. I got silkies. They don’t fly so I only need little fences of chicken wire to fence off a free range area for them which I move about seasonally. Silkies are less destructive in the veggie patches than bigger chooks but when I do make the mistake of letting them in they pretty much destroy anything that’s not well established.

  23. Diana says:

    Ohhhh I just started blogging in 2014.
    Kind of surprise to hear you rear chooks now.
    I do have some trouble with them.
    Mulching is a no no no when you have chooks just inviting them to rake them to find worms secluding underneath the cooler soil.

  24. Nicole says:

    As someone said “Chickens are not penguins”!! We’ve got the chickens mostly constrained to a run, the area underneath the clothes line and a grassy bit of the back garden (except when someone leaves the gate to the veggie garden open!) but since we have (native) brush turkey and bowerbird visitors, I’ve become quite cagey about protecting my veg. Veggie exclusion nets and/or hoops of chickenwire draped over the veggies that birds seem to prefer (including weird things like garlic, and of course greens). Robust twiggy sticks seem to deter chooks too, and I put branches and rocks around my (nonedible) newly planted shrubs and vines to dissuade them from scratching. I’ve also tried chickenwire or old roof tiles around the base of trees in half-barrels which looks kind of ugly unless you cover them with something else, like straw, but does the job. I do love my chickens though, so wouldn’t be without them or their eggs. The poo is a bit annoying if you accidently stand on it but it makes a great compost activator – so it’s not all bad!

    • Liz says:

      I quite like penguins…. I like your twiggy stick solutions very much – I shall be using that and the chicken wire in pots covered with straw one too.

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