Rethinking Our Free-Range Policy

Reader Contribution by Anna Twitto

Our chickens in their coop.

We’ve always been big enthusiasts of free-ranging our backyard flock and, in fact, have practiced this for the larger part of our career as chicken owners. Recently, however, we had to rethink our strategy a bit due to the appearance of a particularly sneaky fox that started to make its way on our property at the most unexpected hours. Up until now, we were used to foxes roaming either at night or very early in the morning, which makes it possible to ensure the chickens’ safety by locking them in the coop at sunset and releasing them around mid-morning. When a fox comes hunting anytime — at 10am, 3pm, or midnight — it’s impossible to rely on a safe time.

From our experience, a predator’s attacks usually don’t last forever – a fox or a bird of prey will choose our yard as their hunting-spot for a while and, if dissuaded by repeated failure to carry off a chicken, eventually will move to more favorable places. Therefore, we made the decision to lock up our chickens for the time being (unless we can personally supervise them while they are pecking around in the last half-hour or so before sunset), until this particular fox loses heart and goes elsewhere.

There are many big benefits to free-ranging: saving on chicken feed, natural pest control, a cleaner coop (less time in the coop = less poop in the coop), soil improvement by way of chickens digging for worms and insects and dropping their manure around. Are there benefits to not free-ranging, though? During the past few weeks, when our chickens have been mostly locked up, we’ve had the opportunity to look at this from a different angle:

Our garden is safe. We do put up fences, protective nets, etc, but in general, it’s an ongoing battle between us and our birds — we exercise all our ingenuity in order to protect our vegetables, while they will spare no effort to get in the garden beds and either eat our precious crops or simply turn the carefully made beds into dust-bath craters. No chickens in the garden means no problem.

No Egg Quests are needed. Periodically, one of our hens will decide that the nesting boxes just aren’t good enough and that she’d do much better to lay in the bushes, or in an old bucket, or underneath the storage shed, etc., and then we have to play detective looking for the nest. When the hens are in the coop, they lay in the coop.

No poop on the front porch. Yes, I know, fencing off the entrance area would solve this problem, but in the meantime, while our chickens are locked in, they are prevented from using the Welcome mat as their poop depository.

Still, for me nothing can beat the fun of watching the antics of our colorful little flock as it roams around the yard — and, therefore, I believe free-ranging will remain our preferred modus operandi of backyard chicken management.

Anna Twittos academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna’s books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna’s Mother Earth News posts here

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