Free-Range Chickens? No Way!

Reader Contribution by Charlyn Ellis
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Facebook post: Should I let my chickens run freely through my garden? I really like the way they eat bugs while I am working.

At last count: 24 against, none in favor.

For the first few years, we allowed our chickens to free range the entire backyard, fencing off just the garden in full summer. It was charming. Two black-and-white Barred Rock hens roaming around, pecking in the dirt, finding a dust bath.

And then they discovered the back doorstep, or, as Mark calls it, the Big Coop. They spent comfortable hours there, chatting, digging through the sweepings, and pooping on the doormat. When they were not on the doorstep to the Big Coop, they were cruising under the picnic table, brushing again our bare legs looking for dinner crumbs. Again, charming, until George joined us on the table one evening and explored our plates for tidbits.

The entire backyard became a barefoot hazard zone. The last straw came, however, one spring day when I was gloating over the germination of my third planting out of carrots. They were tall and proud — and gone in one swoop of Myrtle’s  leg. I did not mind losing an occasional leaf of kale or a bean to a chicken — they needed greens, too — but those carrots: the last straw.

We built a fence and relegated the ladies to the back third of the yard, around the compost heaps. They had grass, bushes, and compost. Everything a chicken could want, except total freedom.

The chicken wire fence all around the backyard worked fine for George and Myrtle, our older, plumper Barred Rocks, but when we acquired Gracie the Escape Artist, stronger measures were called for.

Although our yard is clearly the best and greenest forage in the neighborhood, the dust is always better in the back alley. I came home to several notes on my door reading “Your chickens were out, but we herded them back in again.” Great for building community, but not so safe for chickens.

We had just dismantled a fence, so we used the old boards to create a barrier around the far back yard, five feet high and closed to view. Chickens have small brains and little imagination. They do not try to escape to driveways and alleys they cannot see.

I made a low spot in the fence so the little girl who visited her grandparents next door could still see in and called it good.  This had the added advantage of hiding the flock from free-ranging dogs, who got into the flock one afternoon while I was away.

We still let the ladies free range in the wintertime. Their coop is set on the raised garden beds and travels from bed to bed as we harvest the last of the fall crops.

Starting in October, there is not much damage they can do and I am willing to erect a flexible fence around one or two beds which still hold kale and cabbage. They spend their days rooting around the garden soil which has been covered in leaves. Their strong legs and claws shred the leaf and straw mulches; their poop adds much needed nutrients to the mixture.

On days when I arrive home before dark, I let them out for an hour or so. They run towards the Big Coop, flapping their wings madly. They dig around the doorstep for sweepings treats and then wander the rest of the space. The constant winter rains wash away the poop. By the time they have made the rounds — back door, under the rabbit hutch, the compost pile — the afternoon is ending and they wander home to roost. The days are too short to get in trouble. Just the way we like it.

Charlyn Ellis has been growing vegetables since she was five years old, when her mother bought her her first rake and pitchfork. She and her family are urban homesteaders and have a large organic vegetable garden, fruit trees, a beehive, four chickens, one rabbit, and two cats on a small urban lot in the center of town, surrounded by college students. Charlyn considers permaculture principles when she makes changes in her designs, especially the idea that the problem is the solution. Find her online at 21st Street Urban Homestead, and read all of Charlyn’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSposts.

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