The family Christmas wound up as a family project; moving the ‘chicken tractor’ to a new home. Chicken tractor? Well, these four hens roam the garden all year round, scratching, fertilizing, weeding, breaking down old mulch, destroying pests, supplementing their own food supply with their own efforts, eating greens as needed, staying fit, laying eggs and generally providing good service for a few handfuls of grain each week. They get themselves out of bed, put themselves back there at the end of each day, and seem to live contentedly within this year-round routine with fairly minimal effort by cook and gardener.
Nevertheless, the old chicken shed – built way back when our grown sons were just small boys – had gradually deteriorated to the point where the rats were able to get in under the walls and the pigeons were forming flocks around the feed trays and getting trapped inside. Something had to be done, so chicken shed #2 was formally proposed and constructed through the Christmas-New Year break into early 2014.
Metal walls are fully sealed by cementing them at ground level. Ventilation is provided by wire mesh so small that not even a sparrow can get in, and the bottom edge of this wire too is buried below ground level so that rats can’t dig their way underneath it.
Metal grain bins – sealed with close-fitting lids – were moved inside to make ingress by vermin just that much harder. Perches – essential to chicken peace-of-mind by being above fox height – were built at two levels because chickens ‘leap’ rather than fly upwards and need a system of steps to get to the top.
The bottom of the hen house is covered in deep straw to simplify cleaning but also to capture night-time chicken poop below the perches; this mixture of manure and old straw makes the best compost. It will eventually end up in potting mix or on garden beds as a natural fertilizer after composting. Straw is changed regularly.
A hanging feeder keeps the open-grain tray above mouse height, should one ever get in there.
The roof overhang makes sure that rain falls away from the walls. The floor is total sealed and the door is a really strong welded metal construction covered with small mesh wire. A cement step keeps the cook’s feet dry as she goes in and out. The egg boxes are sturdy old beehive box sections filled with straw and easy for the hens to enter.
Finally, the hens do need to be able to pop in and and out at any time of the day for feeding, drinking and egg laying; this necessary aperture is one point at which rats and pigeons could potentially breech the other security measures. So the opening is set well above ground level and accessed by a stepped ramp that the chooks can climb – even in wet weather. We’ve found though that pigeons finally figure out how to fly through such an opening to the food inside. So we used the ‘delicatessen method’ of keeping birds out; colourful plastic strips form a curtain across this entrance and the chooks have learnt to push through this as they enter and exit. The strips flap about in any small breeze and scare off even the most courageous of birds.
This hatchway is built from a hinged steel ‘cat door’; a tough hardwood wedge is used each night to lock this door against foxes and to hold the door open during the day for regular chicken activities.
So it all gets done, the chooks get moved across with some little persuasion and after much forlorn hanging-about at the entrance to the old shed. With luck this shed should last for the next twenty years.