As I’ve said in a previous post, living with widely free-ranging chooks and ducks is an interesting exercise, especially in a delicate urban forest garden. In part one we talked about handling the roosters and keeping the different breeds apart. In this post we discuss their impact on the garden and surrounds and the plans we’ve had to make.
Fowl mess. They just do, and there’s no getting around that. They all poo, everywhere, and chooks scratch a lot. You’re simply not going to have free-ranging fowl in a home-and-garden magazine picture type setup, unless they’re seriously fenced in, but that is not what we want to do. We want them to range and eat healthily. Luckily, we’re not that focussed on “pretty”. Sure, we want it to look nice and inviting for guests, but luckily it only has to be “farm” style nice. Anyway, it’s my opinion that once you go over the one acre size, you can hardly keep it all in that immaculate manicured nice way – there’s just too much of it. (Unless you have unlimited time and money, of course, but that could be better spent too.)
Of course we make productive use of their mess too. We use a deep litter approach in their coops, which in theory you can let run for quite a few months before you replace it, if you have the right mixture of bedding and herbs in there. However, we don’t want to take that risk with regards to fowl and egg health, and besides – my opinion again – the situation changes quite a bit if you add ducks to the mix. If you think chooks make a mess, you aint seen nothing yet! Ducks will fowl up anything, especially if there’s water involved, and, they do need a lot of water – so go figure – what a vicious circle! So as a result, we “manufacture” a lot of compost fodder in the coops, especially in the coop where the ducks overnight. I have showed the ducks’ waterer setup in a previous post, and it definitely helps to keep the coop drier, but my word, they still make a mess around it. Of course, coop litter change day is great fun for them all – they scratch the new hay all over the coop, and even out the door too. Well, we just see it as part of the energy cycle – coop hygiene day is also composting day – so it all goes into the compost and gets re-applied to feed the plants a few months later. We’ve also put in brick paths in the heavily used areas, which has also helped a lot containing the mess, especially over the wet winter.
Similarly, the chooks scratch the mulch everywhere, especially onto the paths, even though we have raised the edging of the paths where they frequent the most. It’s a fun little project collecting “big” wood throughout the neighbourhood after it is blown off during the storms – and then playing jigsaw puzzle to find the places where they fit on the path’s curves. So it has just become (one more) routine job to periodically rake the mulch off the paths and throw it back under the trees. Fortunately one of the kids loves doing that particular job for pocket money. The other one, not so much… Our chooks also love digging out patches on the paths for their dust baths. There are so many other suitable areas where they can do it, but they just have to dig out the paths. Initially we provided a neatly made wooden dust bath for them, but they never used it, so it has since been removed. Maybe if they were holed up in a coop they would have used it.
Paths before and after raking
My word, the fowl eat anything and everything! While the ducks have cleared the area of all snails, which we’re very glad about, they have also polished off most of the water plants in and around the pond. So, the one thing I would do differently if I ever start ducks from scratch again is that I would plant the water plants in underwater wire cages that you can’t see. This would enable them to eat whatever sticks out, but it would give the plants a chance to regrow and stay alive. That is, if they don’t pull the plants out of the pots through the wire anyway? The cages would form good protection for fish too – they don’t need protection from the ducks as such, but they do from other birds. I may even do that as a little project in the spring or early summer when it’s warm enough to venture into the water. (It’s hardly the kind of project you’re going to be able to orchestrate from the side.) The ducks are quite light on the rest of the garden though; they trim stuff, they don’t really demolish it. Oh, unless they can dig a mud puddle in the middle of a path, so forbid if you forget a water hose on overnight…
The chooks, on the other hand, do eat things. Our experience is, they either demolish it, totally, or they leave it alone, totally. Mind you there is a little bit of middle ground when it comes to the grass and clover on the paths. They peck at it and eat bits of it, so the areas really close to their coops look a bit worse for wear, but the paths and open areas further afield still look quite nice. The one thing we learned very quickly is that you cannot leave a new area open to them, especially not if there are open soil and seeds involved. They just scratch it all apart and gobble up whatever they can find. So we use temporary fences quite a lot – not to fence the chooks in, but to keep them out of newly planted areas until they are established. That’s one thing we will have to live with – we will probably forever be fencing off areas and regenerating them, but so far it seems to work OK in our setup. Except, the brochure doesn’t warn you – the temporary fencing is a little logistical nightmare to move. They just don’t roll up neatly and the posts keep getting tangled up in the net.
Of course the fowl themselves aren’t the only consumers. Together with chook food comes LBBs (little brown birds), local doves and mice. It’s a natural package deal – it just happens. We started off with open feeders, but they’re a nightmare with the little birds and the doves – they are forever in the coops – and that’s where you get diseases from. So we have since invested in good solid treadle feeders, which we keep outside the coops. It saves a great deal of work, it saves a lot of feed and it reduces the amount of running and “flying mice” as I’ve heard them called. We still feed the ducks in small open feeders, I haven’t seen them use the treadle feeder yet, but between them and the chooks they quickly gobble up whatever’s there.
So we adapt as we learn to live with fowl. Interesting times indeed.