Last weekend, we bought a 160-foot mobile, electric fence. This is something that I've had on my radar ever since I stumbled upon Justin Rhode's YouTube channel last summer. He masterfully moves these fences around to corral and protect his animals and then uses his birds to scratch, fertilize, and till garden beds. Once the land is ready to plant, he moves the flock to a new area. Suddenly the birds are made more valuable by becoming free labor and also by lowering the feed cost. It's a brilliant example of permaculture!
His farm is in North Carolina. I wanted to try to replicate this method here in Western Washington. We live in Kitsap County, which covers the entire Kitsap Peninsula. If you stand on the waterfront of any of the Seattle metro and look west across Puget Sound, the closest land you see falls in this county. It's beautiful here. Stands of giant conifer tower over the landscape. Rolling hills shape the roads in a gentle up and down dance. And if you take the time to listen, you'll hear an ever-changing song of migratory birds that often are never seen from the earth below as they pitstop in the treetops for a break on their journey. It's a beautiful place that I'm happy to call home. But we're not the only residents that like it here.
There is a myriad of predators that would like to eat my hens for dinner. We learned this first-hand last spring when one of our Easter Egger pullets became dinner for a cooper hawk. Sweet little Fluffy had flown the coop when we were expanding our run and had yet to complete the roof. A lucky hawk got a tasty morsel that day. In addition to hawks, we also have big birds, like Barred Owls and bald eagles that reside here year round. Oh and let's not forget the ground predators, like coyote, bear, fox, raccoon, possum, etc. It seems like everything in nature would like to eat our chickens, and I'm just not fond of that idea.
That fear led us to the decision to build a predator proof run around our coop. It's a good size for our flock, and the birds seem pretty content in there, but I always felt terrible. I wanted them to have access to fresh green grass and the all you can eat bug buffet, but fear of the chickens going into the woods and not coming back was too strong. We've put a lot into these birds, and I'd like to have the final say in culling.
This fear-based farming led to some problems last spring. Our wet winter and mismanaged dirty coop brought mites to the party. By the time I noticed, most of them had completely bald spots on their backs and vents. This, in turn, escalated into bloody pecking and ultimately egg eating. I was beside myself! How did this happen? That's when we decided to expand their coop and run, thinking they didn't have enough space. As a part of that, we built a roll-away nesting box so the chickens couldn't eat the eggs. And finally, I made chicken saddles to cover their bald rear ends to protect them from each other's relentless pecking. After a few weeks of panic and frustration, everything seemed to settle, and life in the flock calmed down.
Since then, things have been going fine. Our seven mature hens went through a hard molt and are now looking lovely. We gained an awesome rooster in our last batch of hatchlings that is protective and dominant, but not aggressive to us at all. And bonus, our three new layers add color and variety to our carton of eggs. Even still, it bothered me that they never got to forage freely.
My husband felt the same. On Saturday, he informed me that he wanted to buy the electric fence we saw at the feed store. I was so excited! An hour later we were back at home, fence in hand, and ready to roll. We made a pen that encircled our front yard and opened the door of the run. Without hesitation, the birds gleefully entered their new arena. They began scratching, pecking, and pooping just like I knew they would, and I couldn't stop smiling.
This fence was more than a physical tool that allowed us to free range the chickens on our terms It also an act of confidence in my desire to grow our homestead. My husband believes in my dream! Our agreement in all of this is has always been that he will build me what is needed, but the homestead is my responsibility to run. So him catching the dream, even in small pieces, and deciding to invest in something for my plan is amazing!
Fear is rooted in a lack of knowledge and experience. I was afraid to give the chickens their control. Do you want to know what I've witnessed in the last few days of watching them explore? Marshall, our rooster, has been doing his duty of warning the flock if an aerial predator comes close. He cranes his neck when the eagle calls from a distant tree. Just tonight, I watched as he communicated to the hens it was getting dark, and they all moved back into the run without me having to chase after a single bird. By surrendering control and trusting that these God made creatures know a thing or two has taught me so much humility. And I feel silly. Why was I so scared?
In all likelihood, we will lose a hen or two to predators by free ranging them. Yesterday a bald eagle swooped down, and the chickens scattered and hid to escape its clutches. It was a close call, indeed. As devastating as predator losses are, it's the way of nature. Predators eat prey. My job as their keeper is to do everything I can to ensure they have the best life in as safe of an environment as I can give them.
My next step is to move the fence to where I want the garden work to start. I have big plans for 2019, and the chickens are key to this endeavor. If you raise chickens in Kitsap and have any tried and true methods to protect your birds, I would love to hear your story. Happy Homesteading!