I am going to write about my chickens. If chickens don’t float your boat, feel free to move on to look over someone else’s fence, although I aim to convince you that chickens are great for the garden, although I am painfully aware there are disadvantages.
The chickens have been part of our garden almost since we arrived. I’ve never kept them before, they weren’t allowed on our allotment in South London ( although someone kept racing pigeons which caused great consternation at allotment management committee meetings) and I always felt a bit sorry for the chickens that were kept as pets in plastic “Eglu” boxes in the terraced gardens of friends. I just didn’t think they had enough space and they were often eaten or injured by hungry urban foxes, to the extreme distress of the children who looked after them. But now I’ve got enough space for them to roam freely and foxes are shy around here and tend to stay on the Serra, so I can free range them during the day around the garden, although I live in terror of the Egyptian mongoose, the only predator I really worry about.
We started off with the cockerel, Nando, a gift from someone who mistook him for a hen and then bought four pullets, ready to lay. We have three of these original hens, Yoko, Mother Clucker and Lady Henrietta. The other hen, Chicken Licken sustained an injury to her neck from a weasel or cat when we were on holiday. Sadly, we had to cull her on our return and that wasn’t easy. Although it was necessary, we didn’t enjoy the experience, but it’s something you need to think about if you keep chickens. (I still have the terrible sound of the terrified squark she made just before she went to meet her maker ringing in my ears) I expect the vet could do it, but it would be expensive and probably unheard of here in rural Portugal. Or maybe a neighbour would help out. It is something to think about. I also have a hen donated to us as she has a tendency to go broody. We call her Mrs Chicken and a right fusspot she is too!
There are endless sites about how to keep chickens, but I won’t go into that here. I really want to talk about how chickens are compatible and incompatible with gardening.
My original plan was to allow the chickens go everywhere in the garden all of the time. Some sites on the Internet suggested that this might be possible. Believe me it isn’t! There are several reasons for this. The most obvious reason is that chickens eat plants and absolutely love newly emerging seedlings, but even worse than eating them, they are enthusiastic and very diligent diggers. if you haven’t watched a hen scratching at the ground, it’s very amusing. They do a sort of quickstep shuffle, inspect the ground for any tasty morsel, gobble up whatever they find and then repeat the process. They also love to dust bathe, and generally like to do it at the base of a new shrub you’ve just planted, with no regard for the damage they might do in exposing the roots. But whilst of all these behaviours are damaging, they are also useful. I have placed the compost heap close to the chicken coops so they can turn it over, although I have sectioned off an area where worms can hide, otherwise they would all be eaten. I also take the chickens into the vegetable garden in the Autumn, where they do a great job of eating all the bugs, including the snails’ eggs. They have a voracious appetite for anything that moves, which is also useful in orchards. The Mediterranean fruit fly is endemic here, but for a brief period in its life cycle, it is a helpless newly hatched fly on the ground, when the chickens have a chance to gobble it up. Even small mice are not safe from my chickens, who once stole an unfortunate shrew from my cat’s jaws and gobbled it up! I have one hen, Mother Clucker, who is only interested in eating bugs and she is my chief gardener. I allow her into the vegetable plot with me when I am digging the ground over in the Autumn and she follows me, happily seeking out all the nasty bugs (and probably gobbling up some of the good bugs too unfortunately) She makes appreciative little noises as she follows me around and I enjoy her company. But we never tell the others where she is. Four chickens and a cockerel in my vegetable garden is too many.
Next, there is the wonderful benefit of chicken poo. It is the most weed free of manures and although quite strong and not to be used neat on young plants, it is very useful in the garden, I use it in several different ways. In the Summer, when it dries quickly, I go round collecting it with my trusty children’s beach spade and put it in a bucket to mature. I either mix this with water to use a feed to the roots of plants, or use it as a compost activator. I use wood chips as bedding in the chicken house and empty the whole thing once a month to put on the compost heap. I have read neat chicken manure should never be used in the vegetable garden for health reasons, but it is fine to put on lasagna beds that will rot down for six months or so before you use them. However, you can put it neat at the base of fruit trees and water in well. Señor Faztudo hates chicken poo with a vengeance and in order to avoid any danger of it getting on the patios, has a super soaker water pistol to hand to discourage the hens from coming near the house. Chickens hate getting wet and he only has to pick it up nowadays and they run off squawking, although we have noted that one particular hen always raises her tail and deposits a present whilst retreating. And they say hens are stupid!
We have separated the garden into two halves, the back of the house for the vegetables and plants which chickens like to eat or which are poisonous to chickens and the front of the house for an orchard and garden area with aromatics, grasses and plants which chickens don’t tend to eat. I think this might be different chickens might have their own preferences, but our hens don’t eat thymes, rosemaries, lavender, geraniums and other aromatic plants, most ornamental grasses once they are established, roses or canna lilies, or irises. Oleander, Datura and Avocodoes are poisonous to them, so I keep an area for those plants around the back. (These plants are poisonous to people too) I do have a young avocado tree in the orchard, but I hope they aren’t silly enough to eat the fruit or leaves.
Chickens are also great natural lawn mowers. They keep the grass down pretty well. I don’t say they eat all weeds, but they eat a lot of them, which is a wonderful bonus. They love the wild spinach which grows liberally in our garden. On the other hand, they scratch all the stones up out of the ground and I am perpetually raking them up. They also make holes, which every now and again, you need to fill in or till over as the ground becomes very uneven.
The main reason for having them of course is for their eggs, which we get in plentiful supply. I get great satisfaction eating them and knowing that In essence, I am eating recycled garden bugs and weeds! I keep all the eggshells to bury under the roots of the tomatoes, which makes for strong plants, as tomatoes need calcium for good growth. The crushed eggshells are also good for making a circle around tender plants to deter slugs.
I have now caught the chicken bug and want to expand my flock. I think my garden needs about eight chickens and the cockerel. Mrs Chicken sat on a clutch of eggs patiently for 21 days, but none hatched. I am afraid Nando may be too big for the little chickens as he falls off frequently and hasn’t managed to fertilise the eggs. So I have bought four new chickens from a local pet shop, which have been quickly dubbed “The Peepers” as that”s all they do at the moment, peep and poo. This is quite a dangerous thing to do, as there is the strong possibility of bringing disease into your flock. But they are in quarantine at the moment and seem fine, so far. I promised I wouldn’t name this batch, in case I had to do the dirty on them somewhere along the line, but that didn’t last long and I have called them Ory, Weed, Pea and Badass. (just add the word Chick to the front of the back of the word and you’ll get the general idea!) They were quite young when I got them and it wasn’t until they came home, I realised I’d purchased the ugliest chickens on earth, a breed known as the Turken, as they look like a cross between a chicken and a hen. They have a genetic mutation which means they are born without any feathers on their neck and when fully grown look very weird. But I love them anyway. I have seen quite a few in farmyards hereabouts and with 30 per cent less feathers, apparently they do very well in hot weather, which is a good thing as my bigger hens have looked very uncomfortable in summer. I also hope they grow my bigger than the little hybrid hens I have at the moment, so Nando doesn’t fall off any more and I can breed from them, using Mrs Chicken as a broody.
The chickens themselves provide delightful entertainment when you are working in the garden. Nando enjoys cussing the other cockerels in the village and its quite funny watching him stand guard over his harem. Although not unduly aggressive, he has a job to do and he does it well.(The guarding bit I mean, he isn’t so good at the fertilising bit!) His beak is sharp, his talons are like razors and I wouldn’t like to be a cat after his girls. He is easily as big as a small dog and very fierce when anything challenges his flock. He lumbers around like Road Runner and raises a lot of laughs. Most of the Portuguese villagers on seeing him laugh and say “Muito bom com batatas” or “Very good with potatoes” and I guess he would be. But I love him, I have to confess. For the moment, he’s safe, although I can’t guarantee that will be the case for his sons, sadly. That is unless one of them is good at pushing wheelbarrows up and down very steep hills.