Keeping chickens as a hobby is very popular at the moment and many gardeners are finding space for a few chooks in their own patch. It’s been particularly trendy amongst urban gardeners, ourselves included: we have a run with 6 hens that make us self sufficient in eggs and chicken shit (the latter a vital addition to our soil’s fertility). They are also fascinating, relaxing animals to watch as they go about their chickeny business of scratching, pecking, clucking, and dust bathing. They are intelligent, social, inquisitive birds, that I’d recommend to anyone who has the space to accommodate a decent sized run and (importantly) the time to look after them.
There are plenty of magazines, books and websites offering advice on keeping hens on a small scale. One of the most active and interesting blogs is The Garden Smallholder which generally has some good advice and ideas. Back in November, however, a post about preparing a new kitchen garden caught my attention, specifically the fact that the writer’s chickens were let out onto the plot and that:
Let’s think about that last point, that chickens provide “excellent pest control”. It’s a statement that I’ve seen repeated many times in books and articles, and it usually doesn’t solicit any comments. But the logic behind it is that hens can differentiate between “pests” and “non-pests” in a garden, that they will gobble up the slugs and cutworms, leaving behind the worms, beetles, spiders, and other beneficial (or neutral) invertebrates. This is nonsense, of course: chickens will eat anything they find and do not differentiate between the different elements of soil biodiversity*.
For this reason we don’t allow our hens to free range on our vegetable patch: we want to keep the soil’s fauna intact, allowing the earthworms to aerate and turn over the soil, let the beetles eat the slugs, give ground-nesting bees some space in which to live, and so forth. A few weeks of digging with chickens present would destroy all of that.
The vast majority of invertebrates that live in the soil are not pests and a significant proportion are certainly good for our gardens (particularly the earthworms and carnivorous beetles). Allowing your chickens to feed freely on these animals will significantly reduce your soil biodiversity, which is a bad thing in its own right (if we accept that these animals are a measure of your soil’s “health” and productivity), and could reduce the numbers of invertebrate-eating wildlife, such as thrushes, hedgehogs and toads, visiting your garden.
If you want your chickens to eat garden pests my advice would be to take the pests to them: scoop up several slugs with a trowel, throw them into their run, and watch the birds excitedly scramble for their treat. But remember that slugs play a positive role in the garden too, demolishing huge amounts of garden waste in compost bins and (in our garden) eating up cat shit. That’s a topic for a future post though.
*I made a comment to this effect on the Garden Smallholder post but the blog owner saw fit not to allow it to appear. Draw your own conclusions from that.