Gardening in Portugal – Chicken Symbiosis

I have been a Chicken Keeper for eight years now And I’ve learned a great deal from them and about them. I was watching a YouTube permaculture video the other day where a woman who keeps chickens and goats, explained that it had taken her a long time to learn how to give the goats back as much as they gave her. That set me thinking and asking myself, do I give as much back to the chickens as they give me?  The answer is probably, just about, but it’s taken time for me to get there and I’m still learning.

But what do we give each other? What is the  exchange between these so called  “ utility” creatures as some call them, and myself? 

Firstly and foremost, the chickens give me joy. When I watch them scratching happily in a pile of ash in the sunshine or see a mother hen clucking around the garden finding bugs for her beautiful, fluffy-bummed chicks; as I trim the shrubs, or when I turn my head from a planting task to see the fine cockerel shake out  his wings  and  strut  his stuff for his ladies, my heart swells. Chickens make my gardening even more of a pleasure with their coos and their trills and their warning calls as a large bird flies overhead. They punctuate my days, as I wander down in my pyjamas and let them out, or pick my way to the chicken shed in the dark, by the light of a perfectly round orange moon rising over the eastern hills.

Do I give them joy? Well, that’s hard to say. They certainly look joyful to be released in the morning; sound joyful when I arrive with the food bucket of some  leftovers from the kitchen; running around crazily trying to catch a fly. However, a chicken’s feelings are only for it to know, I cannot second guess. What I do know is I’ve studied them almost every day for eight years and I do know what they like. They like routine for one thing. They want to be let out in the morning for a tasty breakfast and a good long drink of fresh water. They delight in having soft places to scratch  and hang out under the trees, they are not happy during their quiet times to be out in the open. They want to be free with lots of space to roam in groups, or alone, but they want to feel safe. They like to know where they stand with the people around them. They prefer it if you move softly around them. They don’t like to be caught by the tail, or even caught at all really.  They enjoy the security of settling into their hard fought for places on the perches in the coop and locked away to my silly good night chicken lullaby song. 

Chickens are not wild though, we tend them, and as a Chicken Keeper you need  to do the unpalatable things too in order keep your flock healthy and safe. You need to clean their wounds; bathe them if they get shitty bottoms and trim the poo off their feathers so they don’t  get fly strike; clean out the stinky chicken shed, taking especial care to prevent fleas and mites; deal with  their claws if they  get  too long; wrap them up warm and leave  them to die in a dignified way if they are too old and sick to carry on. Sometimes, and this is the very  hardest bit for me, the flock  will  need balancing and you will need to take care of excess males, however you choose to do that. For me, it is with a heavy heart I break their trust in me and take them quickly to the executioner’s cone. At first I tried to give them away to other chicken keepers but that never worked out really. It is very sobering to take a life and I understand why some feel it is very wrong and become vegan. I don’t seek to justify the slaughter, that is between me and my conscience, but slaughter them I do…and eat or use every bit, to the last feather.

At first, I thought I wanted chickens because of the eggs, but the eggs are just a wonderful side benefit. Anyone who frets about the eggs being stolen from a chicken needn’t worry unduly. It is hard work for a chicken to sit still on a brood for three weeks and then look after the babies for a further six weeks. You wouldn’t really  want her doing that more the once a year or so, especially in the Algarve heat. And in order to sit, a hen needs to go broody and some never do. The reason why humans domesticated Jungle fowl in the first place, which is the bird the domestic chicken descended from, is because every day a hen will leave her chosen nest and forget  about it completely until she has about ten to twelve eggs and only then does she go broody. Broodiness is an interesting phenomena, where a perfectly calm chicken turns into a creature resembling Godzilla. She starts a persistent cluck -clucking over a few  days, puffs herself up like a feathery football with her tail fanned out and  runs around in discomfort as she feels hot underneath and all she wants to do  is to sit on a nice clutch of eggs and go inside herself in her own zone for three weeks. Touch her in this state and may well get sworn at and pecked! However, if you take away a few eggs every day so there are never more than a few, she isn’t so likely to go into this state. Although  Señor Faz-tudo made  some beautiful egg boxes for the hens, in reality they lay eggs all over  the place in secret nests and we often have Easter egg type hunts to find them. If you don’t find them, one day you will be missing a hen and think maybe a fox got her, until she reappears proudly three weeks later with seven or eight of her progeny skittering along behind her. It’s still a sight that makes me catch my breath in delight.

The best thing the chickens actually do for us is weed the garden, manure it and make amazing compost. This is a benefit I hadn’t really foreseen. The manuring and weeding is done as a natural process, as chickens love to scratch, dig for bugs and generally turn over the soil. To do this, they have just about exactly half of our hillside garden. The other half of the garden, as I have mentioned before, is off limits to chickens and although it isn’t all fenced off, they have learned that we guard the boundaries and as long  as I keep them well fed, they only occasionally encroach for a naughty escapade but run off in alarm when they see us as they know they aren’t meant to be there.

In their half, I  planted  aromatics such as rosemaries, thymes, salvias and succulents, all of which chickens don’t eat, and fruit trees. Under the fruit trees, we dump fresh horse manure, leaves, household scraps ( uncooked) and ash. The chickens scratch away happily and within six weeks, with a bit of rain or some watering, it is perfect  compost, which can then be used on my no dig beds. All of the weed seeds have been eaten as well, an added bonus. They are such happy  workers and I really enjoy watching them do what they do best. 

Finally, they are mostly self sustaining, in that new chickens, on the whole, come from within the flock. Now I have a happy, healthy flock, every two years, I get a good brood of young chicks, allowing whichever hen seems to desire it, to be a mum. To see new life being created is always a delight and I couldn’t imagine denying them this. The cockerel gets even more protective and it is so endearing to see him joining in with the food finding. 

So, it’s a symbiotic relationship, a balance if you like, between their needs and mine. Sometimes  I look at them and envy them their simple, healthy cared for life. You could do worse than be a bird in my flock really, well unless you are an excess cockerel of  course! 

Please talk to me. I am struggling here!

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