I’ve become a chicken fancier, a “mad chook lady” my husband teases me. I find them fascinating I must admit. In the way a crackling fire is mesmerising, I love to watch the pecking order politics and peculiarities of a flock of free range chooks. The antics of a couple of young roosters vying for the attention of the ladies and the vigorously contested position of Top Cock is especially amusing.
There is so much to learn about them too, especially when keeping a sizeable flock of Heritage breeds in good health and happiness. Sure, anyone can keep a few hens in their suburban backyard with limited prior knowledge and, happily, there has been a great resurgence in backyard chook-keeping. However, I submit there is more to it than meets the eye, especially when you start to dabble in breeding. Keeping roosters, collecting and storing fertilised eggs, incubating (using broody hens or an automatic incubator), hatching, brooder boxes, feeding chicks – it’s quite a learning curve.
Those that truly value their chickens for all the incredible things they offer will make the effort to learn all there is to know. However, it seems to me, there is apathy from some “amateurs” (and I use this term loosely) towards the health and welfare of their flock. Chickens, it often seems, are viewed as expendable. Even my husband jokes that “they only cost $15 each” (shows how little he knows!) When they get sick, there seems to be little thought given as to why or effort made to heal them and preventative measures taken to stop it happening again. The same must be said for protecting them from predators and I am roundly guilty of failing in that regard. Foxes are everywhere in the Perth Hills and they need no second invitation to wreak havoc on a hapless and helpless flock of chickens who haven’t been secured for the night (another reason I am so keen to build a safe new set of yards for my chooks).
Even though they are infinitely more useful and rather charming, chickens are rarely given the same status as a family pet. Whenever I catch Zen, my beautiful, lazy, food-obsessed Labrador (who we adore) stealing the chooks’ food scraps from right under their beaks, I tell him: “the day you give me eggs and meat, manure, tilling and pest eradication services, you can have all the scraps.” Never gonna happen.
Chickens in permaculture
Chooks are marvellously industrious creatures and the ultimate best friend of any gardener. They’re an integral part of any permaculture system and are the oft-quoted example of a closed loop system given in every Permaculture Design Course (PDC).
I have completed a PDC and a Certificate III in Permaculture. I have lofty aspirations to create my own utopian permaculture paradise at Edgefield and with baby steps I might eventually achieve it. But permaculture is patient (thank goodness) because so often I am not. One of the “take home” lessons I remember clearly from my Cert III is the advice not to bite off more than you can chew (a bad habit of mine) because “lofty aspirations” and unrealistic goals will only demoralise and set you back when they’re not achieved. My mantra is one small job at a time. For example, my current project (aside from building a new house for ourselves) is to build a magnificent chook palace for my growing flock followed by an integrated vegie patch and covered orchard… hmmm, my mantra doesn’t seem to be working. I think I will have to make do with my “rustic” little chook shed for the time being.
Despite my impatience and ridiculous project wish list, which will keep me busy till 2024, we are achieving the incredible by designing and building our very own beautiful, passive solar house. We hope to make as sustainable as possible. It may take us a while to fulfil that brief. Patient I may not be, but stubbornness, perseverance and a good work ethic I have in spades.