Free ranging chickens, an awesome sight right? I always have this picture of an old homestead with an old lady wearing wooden shoes (yep, I am Dutch) and an apron feeding her chickens that are just out and about. Unfortunately, that is not my experience with free ranging chickens. And here are the reasons why I will never ever have chickens free ranging on our homestead again.
Please note: this post might be a little negative about chickens. That is not my intention though. I love keeping chickens, they are awesome! And fresh eggs from your own chickens are the best eggs you will ever have! If you are thinking about getting chickens I would say go for it! If you have an enclosure to keep them in they are so easy to keep, and you can feed them your foodscraps. They are a necessity on any homestead! Even if you have just a small piece of land, consider getting yourself some chickens!
Chickens are known for eating almost anything, they are basically pigs with feathers. That’s good, because you can feed them leftovers and cut down on your feedbill. Not so good when your chickens free range. Nothing is safe, they get into everything. Pretty flowerbeds? Forget it, the little rascals will come right in and start tearing it apart with their pecking and scratching. You want to grow your own vegetables? Well, not with free ranging chickens, the will come right in and make a mess of it. We have cats on the homestead to keep rodents away, but I do feed them catfood to keep them close to home. Turns out, chickens love catfood, so much, they will chase off the cats so they can eat it.
They poop everywhere! It’s like they make it their personal mission to make sure every surface has at least one little pile of poop on it. Especially in places you don’t want them to poop. And it smells! Chickenpoop is one of the worst smells I know, and I have been around a lot of poop. On the steps by the frontdoor, all over the trampoline, and basically on anything you are likely to touch. If anybody has a magic potion that gets the chickenpoop smell off of my hands please let me know! I can’t even count the number of times I accidentally grabbed chickenpoop. Also, really nice, when a familymember (usually one of the kids) gets chickenpoop on their clothes and don’t notice and you end up getting it all over the house.
They lay eggs wherever they want, if you are lucky you find the eggs before they go bad, otherwise they are just wasted. And I’ll have you know that cleaning up rotten eggs is not one of my hobbies. Because when I said chickenpoop was one over the worst smells, I forgot about the smell of rotten eggs, that is even worse. Kids tend to always find the rotten eggs and come inside with a bucket full of rotten eggs that they are really excited about because they found eggs! Well, try getting the rotten egg smell our of your house…
Another downside of them laying eggs everywhere is that they go broody, and all of a sudden you have 40 (!) chicks running around. I know, chicks are cute! But little chicks turn into big chickens, and half of them will be roosters. Which is ok, because you can slaughter them for meat. But the problem is that they are wild chickens, and not so easy (really hard) to catch. After a while they stop coming inside at night and roost in the trees. So you have 40 chickens on the loose with no way to catch them, pooping everywhere and eating everything.
This leads me to my last reason for not wanting free range chickens. Bird flu. There was a bird flu outbreak in December just 4 km from our house. This is serious business and all poultry had to go inside. Not cool when you have wild chickens. We tried for days to catch the remaining 6 wild chickens, but no luck. Until I realised they were roosting in the sheepstall at night and we could easily close the door on them.
Please consider this before you decide on letting your chickens free range. The picture in your head may be idealic, but reality not so much. And you can still give them a large outside enclosure or even a mobile coop with chickennet around it that you can relocate. That way you can enjoy your chickens, they can enjoy their freedom (though limited to suit you). I’ll tell you from experience that once your chickens have tasted the freedom of free ranging, keeping them inside a fence will be really hard.
We will be building a mobile chicken coop (the first one listed below), so we can use the pooping, scratching and eating to our benefits. You can make chickens work for you. Do you have a piece of land you need cleared? Put the chickens on it, they will have it cleared in no time, while tilling the soil and providing it with manure. You can also dump your compost into the chicken run and save yourself some work, because they will turn and spread the compost for you, speeding up the process.
Here are some links to mobile chicken coops:
The Chickshaw (Abundant Permaculture)
Chicken tractor (Abundant Permaculture)
A-frame chicken coop (Ana White)
A collection of different mobile chicken coops (Backyard chickens)
There are also some great tutorials on YouTube for building a mobile chicken coop!