Posted on: January 31, 2020, in News

Written by Jon Bates, the Fordoun patriarch:

Having free range chickens at Fordoun has been one of the most interesting activities on the farm. Not only do the chickens give us delicious healthy eggs, they also fertilize pasture and consume kitchen waste foods. We have three chicken ‘caravans’ which collectively house 250 hens which in turn lay over 200 eggs a day. Each chicken caravan has its own family or flock of hens and although they might visit each other socially during the day when they range free, they return to their own family caravan at night.

The caravans are on wheels and have expanded mesh floors to allow droppings (chicken poop) to fall below onto the pasture. Every few days the caravans are moved to a fresh spot leaving behind a very fertile area. Inside are nesting boxes, perches and food/water dispensers.
The daily routine is consistent. 95% of the chickens lay their eggs between daybreak and 12 noon. We open the door to each caravan just before mid-day when we feed and water the hens and collect eggs. Prior to letting the birds out we spread restaurant waste food on the pasture near the pens. It is important that the chickens are enclosed for nearly half the day as this forces them to eat properly balanced laying mash with all the necessary trace elements and nutrients. If the chickens were to eat only the restaurants waste they would gorge themselves on our leftovers which would lead to an unbalanced diet and result in less egg production. The mix of scientifically balanced food and foraging, opportunistic eating is about as good as it gets for a hen.

Being out in the open and fee ranging does have its advantages. Firstly the hens are happy. They dig hollows in the earth in order to ‘dust bath’ which rids them of mites and parasites. They also eat green shoots of grass and scratch into cow dung to find worms and fly larvae.
When we first put cattle into the field with the chickens we were intrigued by the behavioural pattern that occurred. We first noticed a couple of hens looking up at the underbelly of a cow and then leaping into the air to pluck a tick from a rather alarmed cow. Soon all the cows and chickens got used to this. Before too long the cows would even lie down and lower their heads. Chickens would peer into the cow’s ears and under tails, spotting ticks which they swiftly removed. Ticks are great protein and good for the chickens. They are parasites on cattle and their removal not only prevents disease but also saves on the cost of dipping.

The disadvantage of free- range chickens is predation which occasionally happens. Mostly it is a Gymnogene Eagle or an African Grey Sparrow Hawk which swoop out of the sky onto an unsuspecting hen. The chickens do have excellent eyesight and mostly dash for cover under the caravans when a raptor is spotted. Over a year we estimate the predation of our chickens is about 5% of the flock. This is actually a small price to pay as we hardly ever have lost a chicken to ill health.

Every day, as twilight turns to darkness, the chickens walk up the gangplanks to the caravans and settle onto their roosts. The roosting perches are long beams which stand in 4 tiers set at an angle and rising from the lowest in intervals of 40cm. The prime position is in the centre of the top beam; it is the warmest and safest place. The most dominant hen will occupy this position and all other hens will arrange themselves in a specific spot – all the way down to the lowest ranked hens which will perch on the outside position of the lowest beam. Amazingly, if the chickens are marked, one discovers that this order of perching never varies. This behaviour is how ‘The Pecking Order’ saying originated.

Anyone visiting the chickens when they are free ranging can enjoy what we call ‘Chicken Therapy’. Sit quietly and watch the activities going on all the time. There is a continuous quiet clucking conversation amongst the hens. Every hen has friends that they like to hang around with. In the flock there are different personalities. Bold, timid, adventurous, bossy, loud, quiet, retiring or shy are all characteristics one can identify. Occasionally a squabble will break out as a hen finds a delirious worm or beetle and runs off to eat it before others can steal the meal. In addition to the ongoing clucking and purring, the hens make different specific squawks for communication. A loud ‘quaaak’ when a bird of prey is seen in the sky sends all the hens sprinting for the underside of the caravan. A series of ‘cluck, cluck, clucks’ announces the laying of an egg. Every now and then a ‘pecking order challenge’ will break out. The dominant hen will conquer another by mounting on the back of a vanquished hen whilst making a ‘squawk I win’ sound whilst the vanquished hen will make plaintive ‘OK I lost’ squawks.

This world of free- range chickens is spellbinding and many people become mesmerized watching it. Some have mentioned that in many ways it is similar to human behaviour.

For those wanting to purchase our Fordoun eggs; Kim from Happy Heart Foods sells our eggs at the weekly Earth Route Market at Notties Farmer’s Hall every Saturday from 07h30 – 11h00 and we serve them for breakfast at Fordoun!

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