The change in seasons has become all to noticeable over the last few weeks, with the progression from summer to autumn marked by the onset of cold weather, rain and shorter days; already dampening the spirits of garden and gardener alike.
The chickens are not particularly pleased either.
Towards the end of September my wife and I decided to head away for a few days to the Isles of Scilly and our fantastic chicken-sitting neighbours agreed to look after the girls whilst we were off walking, fishing, cider drinking and generally enjoying being absent from the reality of everyday working life.
It was a brilliant and relaxing time away but when we returned it was to find that our birds had chosen this time to play up.
Like rebellious teenagers, released from the authoritative ruling of their parents, our birds had made life rather difficult for their interim carers; escaping from the garden, wandering around the road, laying eggs in random places, making lots of noise and generally causing trouble.
We felt rather embarrassed when we were relayed the long list of antics that the chickens had performed in our absence and were extremely grateful for our neighbour’s patience and thanked them for not turning the little buggers into chicken nuggets. I doubt I would have been so tolerant.
Whilst these escapades had no long lasting consequences, some of the other, more destructive activities that the rabble decided to partake in did.
In the few days that we were away, the birds managed to tune into their inner-anarchic urges; ploughing up huge swathes of the garden by digging around in the moss that had sprung up over much of the lawn towards the end of this summer.
As a result our garden was pot marked with bare patches of soil and dozens of small craters, as though a mini artillery barrage had rolled through our backyard; not a particularly good look, unless one wanted to dig a few trenches and successfully recreate the WW1 Western Front ‘vibe’.
Now, if it was my house I wouldn’t be that bothered; id simply fence off the worst affected areas and let the chickens run riot in the rest of the garden. As long as they carry on plopping out the eggs, I’m happy. But seeing as we rent our cottage, steps had to be taken to preserve the lawn; if left, it would only have been a matter of time before the garden was a sea of bare earth.
So this has necessitated some fairly dramatic changes and the creation of a very spacious, rather plush chicken ‘prison’.
Luckily we have a large path leading from the back door, down the side of the vegetable patch, towards the greenhouse and garden shed. When fenced off, this would create a nice holding area for the chickens to be housed; with a bit of grass to munch on, some old undergrowth to forage through and plenty of room to wander round.
It was however with great sadness I had to bring down the plastic fencing that surrounded my vegetable patch and incorporate this much needed space into the chicken’s new run.
Having protected this area somewhat fanatically over the last few months (patrolling along the perimeter, garden fork in hand, glaring at inquisitive chickens) it was rather depressing knowing the carnage that I would soon knowingly unleash upon it. I managed one final harvest of swiss chard and potatoes before giving up the remaining, juvenile crops to their fate; it took literally minutes for the birds to despoil the helpless plants once they had been successfully interned in their new living quarters.
Whilst the birds weren’t best pleased with their new arrangement – and my wife felt very guilty about restricting their movements – they have plenty of room to squawk around in, a greenhouse in which to take shelter from the rain and a once pristine looking vegetable patch to dig in and destroy. Compared to most chickens, I think they are still rather lucky.
It did take them a little while to get used to the fencing, with lots of confused walking up and down the perimeter and squawking initially taking place, but they soon settled down and now seem resigned to their imprisonment. Occasionally I do catch them looking longingly out into the rest of the garden and I do feel a pang of pity. Still; needs must.
So far there has only been one successful escape attempt and of course the perpetrator was our cunning Colombian Black Tail. Having given the chicken defences a thorough look over, I still have no idea how she managed to escape; I am waiting to discover an intricate underground tunnel system one day or perhaps a glider made out of twigs. Who knows!
This whole set-up is, I hasten to add, only a temporary arrangement; I want free-range birds who can graze, forage and potter about to their hearts content, so as soon as the law recovers I shall let them loose again to do what they may to our garden.
This recovery process has been aided by a fair bit of work from my wife and I; with a productive Sunday spent forking over the largest and worst affected areas of lawn, sowing plenty of grass seeds and firming down the soil.
I also invested in some green manure seeds to sow in any bare flower beds and borders so that, when fully grown, the chickens will have something to root around in and entertain themselves; a mixture of field peas, rye grass and mustard which should provide a fairly dense covering of greenery.
I made the mistake of severely cutting back lots of low level undergrowth that was springing up around the edges of the garden towards the end of summer; dramatically reducing the ‘playground’ areas which the birds so enjoy. I believe that this played a big part in explaining why the chickens suddenly decided to attack the lawn in such a determined manner.
Thankfully, everything in the ‘chicken-free zone’ seems to be recovering really well and you can barely make out the bare patches on the lawn any more. So all being well in a couple of weeks when the clocks go back I can release the girls again. Freedom!
I can’t wait to see how happy they will be and look forward to rescuing my rather sad looking – albeit very well manured – vegetable patch and having truly free range chickens once again.