Chicken shed dilemmas! Mistakes are tools for learning…

If the fox is getting too much to eat then it's time for a chicken shed.

If the fox is getting too much to eat then it’s time for a chicken shed.

By Marit Parker

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I love free range chickens!

But over the past couple of years I have lost so many to foxes I have been reluctantly coming to the conclusion that it isn’t possible to let chickens roam free around here, and I’ve been mulling over the pros and cons of different types of enclosure.

This morning, however, I found the remains of a young chicken inside the closed chicken shed.

A locked room mystery…

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A fox could not have got in, and as my fierce cockerel was in there too, a cockerel who has fought off foxes and survived, I don’t think it was a rat either. The only way in was through a gap above the door, 6’ from the ground, so I think the culprit was probably a polecat. Polecats are beautiful creatures with their bandit face markings, but just like ferrets, like their tame cousins, they are nimble and acrobatic. This adds a different set of problems to where to keep the chickens.

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The chickens have been shut away every night in a large hen house with perches, nest boxes and plenty of floor space. It’s big enough for most people to stand up in and has a full size door, making cleaning it out quick and easy. The generous dimensions means it’s been possible to leave the chickens shut in for a day or two, during bad weather for example.

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However, it’s in a very exposed position, looking straight across the valley to wind turbines on top of the next hill, so it’s no surprise that the roof has suffered from both wind and rain.

The gap at the top of the door, the perp’s entry point, appeared because one side of the door frame is also the corner of the South West shed (design flaw), and our prevailing winds are south westerlies. The frame has been patched and the hinges repositioned several times, but the door has dropped a couple of inches.

The popular permaculture solution for chickens is a chicken tractor. I always assumed this was a contraption on wheels and only recently found out this is simply the American term for a traditional chicken ark. I have an ark, but I only use it for broody hens and their young chicks. I tried putting my remaining trio in there today, but the cockerel was not impressed. In fact he was miserable. He couldn’t stretch his wings, and he couldn’t crow. He wouldn’t be able to defend his flock easily either, if a predator got in.

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My ark is in two sections: the coop and the run. This can make moving it complicated, although it does mean I can roll the triangular coop if it’s going further than just sliding it across parallel to where it was. I usually put the chicks and mother hen in a cat basket, because trying to move a run without squashing little chicks is a nightmare.

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I like the idea of an all-in-one unit, but I already struggle to move this one. If I made one big enough for Mr Cockerel to cock-a-doodle-doo it would weigh a ton! Chicken arks/ tractors are a great idea for bantams or hens, but not for full-size cockerels — unless you have a team of weightlifters handy. When there’s a hen with a clutch of chicks in the ark, it needs moving about once a week. If there were 3 or 4 hens in it, It would need moving every other day. That’s an important consideration.

Another problem here with chicken arks is that it’s a steep hillside. There are very few level places and even fewer without bumps and dips. Making the run secure from predators each time it’s moved means using an odd collection of wire, stone and wood to block all the gaps.

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So… I’ve moved the ark to a better position for this time of year (against a South-facing wall) and the hen and one remaining youngster are in the broody coop for tonight; the cockerel refused to move and is in the big hen house.

What to do?

If neither free range nor an ark works here, the obvious solution is a permanent run. Or two permanent runs, because the main problem with a permanent run is the chickens very quickly scratch it bare. Two runs means they can alternate, giving the ground and plants time to recover.

However, making a secure, predator-proof run is a big undertaking, so it needs thinking through carefully. It will be a permanent structure: it needs fence posts, and the wire needs to be dug into the ground (to stop predators digging under the fence). This means it’s quite an investment of both labour and money. Choosing a good site for it is important. I don’t want to have to move it, or abandon it and make another one somewhere else. Plus this patch will no longer be available for grazing or veg growing.

My options are:

  • Repairing the existing hen house and making two runs beside it.
  • Making a new hen house with two runs in a different location, using as much material as possible from the old one.

Both these are major jobs, and I have an urgent situation.

Looking around for inspiration I notice the empty goose shed.

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My daughter and I built this one afternoon when the teenage geese needed their own space. It’s basic but solid. It’s fox-proof, but not rat- or polecat-proof. Oh — hold on… I don’t think it has a built-in floor, so scratch fox-proof. Ok, so it needs a bit of work, but it’s small so it shouldn’t take too long.

The window is too big for this time of year. Ventilation is important, but too much is almost as bad as none. Slats over most the window would reduce the draft while still allowing fresh air in.

It would also need perches before the chickens would be happy in there.

Longer term it would need pop-holes and nest boxes.

And possibly extending…


Another cuppa needed while I mull this over…

While the kettle is on, let’s sum up by making a list of the things I need to think about:

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Looking at this, I realise there is another option: an electric fence. Foxes won’t cross an electric fence, unless it has shorted. That means keeping a strip of short grass along the fence line. It would need a car battery to run off. The big advantage is it can be moved relatively easily. It also means the chickens’ run can be bigger than a permanent run would be, and they won’t be limited to two runs: the fence can stretch in any direction from the chicken shed.

I already have an electric fence. With a bit of slashing back of undergrowth, this could be set up around the existing shed, so it means they can have a secure run quite quickly without major investment.

The chicken shed can be patched and repaired for now so it’s predator-proof. Then it can be moved and rebuilt in a better location next summer, rather than now, in the winter. Using an electric fence rather than a permanent post and wire fence makes choosing the location for the new shed simpler. Knowing the roof will be re-used makes it worthwhile finding a couple of sheets of strong board and asking someone with a head for heights to help me make it secure and weather-proof.

All that from a cup of tea.


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