I’ve always wanted to keep chickens. Why, I am not quite sure, especially since I have had my chickens now for nearly a year and they drive me crazy on a daily basis. I think it must have stemmed back to a childhood memory of the magic of finding new laid eggs in the coop. I love the idea of food for free and chickens seem to me to be the ultimate in garden recycling.
Chickens are much more interesting than I thought they would be. They are social creatures and studying their behaviour has been a revelation to me. In many ways, I think they are better socially organised than many groups of people I know. I have four chickens and a cockerel. Nando, the rooster is a very Big Bird. He was a freebie, as the people who had him before thought he was a hen and they didn’t want two cockerels. He is meant to be a Cuckoo Maran, but in fact he’s more cuckoo than Maran. His wives are plain old hybrid egg layers, bought from a local Portugese pet shop for seven euros each. Mother Clucker (excuse the play on words) is chief hen. She has a partner in crime, called Yoko. They were the first hens we had and the young cockerel was ecstatic when he first saw them. The second two came a few weeks later and were named Chicken Little and Lady Henrietta. Chicken Little is a pest. Lady Henrietta is meant to be the bottom of the pecking order, but interestingly, she doesn’t care….she just wanders around in her own little world and does her own thing. Confucius Chicken, she says, “It is only a bad thing to be the lowest in the pecking order if you give a damn”
Despite giving them names and enjoying keeping them, I am reasonably philosophical about the chickens. They have a job to do and I may put them in the soup in the end when they have stopped laying eggs. I’m sorry if you think this is shocking, but I am a farmer’s daughter. However, I want my chickens to have a healthy and happy life. And if you have ever seen chickens flapping their wings and flying 20 metres down the garden, or running full tilt after each other when one catches a worm, then you wouldn’t want to lock them in a cage. The dilemma is how to keep a balance between the freedom of the chickens and the planting when you are trying to make a new garden.
I should have planned it better. The chickens should have been part of some great permaculture design and been brought into the garden last. But I didn’t know too much about them when I started out. The gardening pluses are that chickens eat up bad bugs, unfortunately though, they also eat worms; they provide lovely nitrogen rich poo, but they don’t mind doing it on your patio or paths;they turn over the compost heap beautifully with their busy, scratchy feet, but they also dig up all your newly planted iris corms or make big holes at the bottom of your shrubs. They love to dust bathe in the mulch you just put around your fruit tree, throwing it to the four winds and they keep the weeds down but tear your newly planted brassicas to shreds. Swings and roundabouts, gardening with chickens is.
On balance though, I love having them around. I just can’t help it. Watching the cockerel lumbering down the steep slope to the bottom of the garden, like Foghorn Leghorn or hearing the hens coos of delight as they turn over the compost heap for tasty morsels brightens up my day. A Portugese saying is “Solta o frango!” a saying which means “Release the chicken in you!” or “Be creative and full of joy” And when you let them out in the morning, you can see the meaning tangibly. So how to make a garden and combine it with these little blighters?
Well, I have had to create chicken free zones. I have caged up the vegetables, not the chickens, and left them to have the run of the rest of the garden.
We are lucky here in the Algarve, not to have to contend with too many predators. The three main predators are the fox, the Egyptian Mongoose and the Bonelli’s’s eagle. The fox is very shy and doesn’t come into the village too much. There have been losses on occasions, but not too many. A neighbour’s chicken escaped and lived in the wooded back path behind our house for a week and wasn’t eaten, that would never have happened in South London, where I used to live. The mongoose is quite a big creature and more dangerous. It can hunt in the daytime and can get in anywhere and likes to bite chickens heads off for the corn in their croups. But the Portugese farmers are ever vigilant around here. They don’t like anything eating their food and so I guess the predators tend to go further away into the hills and eat the big snakes we have around here (none of which are poisonous, but some of which grow very big). Speaking of snakes, I guess they could eat a young chicken, but I think my girls would be more likely to eat them. We have the occasional eagle and as the fruit trees are still too little to provide much shelter. I worry about the threat from the air. But all in all, they are very safe. There is a wall all around the garden with fencing and our boundaries are very clear. So they strut around like a little tribe, fussing and clucking and as happy as Larry. (whoever he was!)
Fruit trees and chickens are a good combination. The chickens eat any bugs that overwinter under them, and eat any fallen fruit. I do have a young avocado planted this year, which is supposed to be poisonous to chickens, as are the leaves, but I am afraid I am not a chicken helicopter parent, it’s their lookout and if it doesn’t kill them, it should make them stronger. I also apply this philosophy to the cats, who have learnt that trying to eat toads or black geckos makes them pretty ill, so they have stopped doing it. So the chickens have the run of the “orchard” (which is no more than a collection of twenty sticks hanging on for dear life at the moment)
I have found that chickens don’t eat roses, echiums, aromatics like Lavender and Rosemary, tall grasses, iris leaves (although they did up the corms) cistus or salvias. So I have planted lots in the gravel mulched area . On the whole, the chickens don’t like scratching in the gravel…it is sore for their little tootsies, so that helps.
I have also tried to distract them by making a giant compost heap close to their run. They do a sterling job of turning it over and all the scraps go on it. (EU law says you can’t put vegetable scraps on the compost if you are not a vegetarian and you have prepared them in your kitchen) Which is why I prepare all my vegetables for dinner outside. Hmmm….
Señor Faz-tudo gets his adrenalin pumping every morning by chasing the chickens off the patio with a broom, much to the bemusement of the local villagers, but they don’t come on the terraced areas too much as there is no food (the chickens I mean, not the villagers!) There is one chicken, Chicken Little, who is hell bent on upsetting my husband by pooing directly in front of him, and whilst he does threaten her regularly with beheading, it gives us an opportunity to use the chicken pooper scooper and collect manure to water down or dry for the fruit trees.
And every day, I clean the night chicken poo mixed with wood shavings out of their sleeping quarters and mix it with the compost. What riches! This is a great gift, along with the eggshells that I keep to put into the planting holes I bury the tomato plants in, for the calcium, along with a sardine.
I adore the chickens and would love to have more…and ducks and geese and maybe even rabbits. But at the moment we are just about balanced. The cats, the chickens, the garden, Señor Faz-tudo and I all have to be in harmony. And I am sure even one more fowl would tip us over!