The problem and some solutions
‘Chicken sick’ ground, egg selection, and more, with Andy Cawthray
Like me, there are a number of people who have areas of land that a flock of chickens get controlled access to. This might be an orchard or open paddock, or perhaps a shrubbery or soft fruit patch. The rest of the time they live in a large enclosed run. One such person approached me the other week. They have 18 layers who have controlled access to orchard land but live in a large run the rest of the time. The run had no grass and, in their words, ‘looked chicken sick’.
This can be a problem when confining chickens to a small space, particularly those that fall into the layer category. Layer breeds and hybrids, by their very nature, are not only frequent egg layers but also extremely frugal in terms of manufactured feed consumption if given the opportunity to free range. Over the years, I’ve found them to be amongst the best foragers of any fowl, hunting out morsels and stripping through foliage in preference to eating their compound feeds. As a consequence, they will denude an area of any ‘life’ if it is too small. Those of us who had to confine our birds to a covered outdoor space during the bird flu prevention period will have witnessed not only how quickly chickens can clear an area, but also how quickly it can start to look ‘chicken sick’.
In these situations you can buy a ground sanitising product. There are a few available on the market; however, be mindful to follow the instructions as, in some instances, it is not a simple case of spreading it willy-nilly across the chicken run.
Alternatively, you can use some form of ground covering or topping. My advice in the case of where land has already become sick, is to remove the top couple of inches of earth. This will be heavily contaminated with faecal matter and most likely be harbouring parasitic worm eggs and other possible pests or disease. Compost this soil and use it on a flower bed next year - that way nothing is lost in terms of biomass from your plot.
Some people will then put down a semi-permeable membrane such as weed suppressant matting or Mypex. This can help when it comes to the point of refreshing the ground covering as it acts like a cloth that can be lifted. However, I’ve found this only really works in very small runs. It does, however, help delineate the top dressing from the soil beneath, so in this respect serves a useful purpose.
Next you need to select the type of ground covering. There are quite a few suppliers and different options such as rubber chippings made from old tyres, or chopped rubber made to look like wood bark, many of which are used for safe coverings in children’s play areas, and so make a safe option for the flock. Alternatively, you could use sand or gravel – much will depend on the budget you have available.
If you decide to go with wood chip, then make sure it is hardwood. Softwood chippings rot very quickly and will need replacing much more frequently. Do not use ornamental bark chippings. It might seem like a good idea, especially as they are relatively cheap and readily available as a path covering from garden centres, but don’t do it. They decompose quickly and, as they rot down, fungi and mould grow on them. The resulting spores can cause respiratory problems for chickens. The classic example is aspergillus which thrives on bark; if ingested by poultry it can cause aspergillosis, which is difficult to treat successfully and will cause the slow death of the infected bird.
One final piece of advice is to do it in stages if the run is large. Break the area down into sections and start with the section nearest the pop hole. Work out how much you can clear and top dress in a morning, keep the birds in the house, clear and top dress the area then put up a temporary fence and release the birds, restricting them to this area only. Clear an adjoining area, move the fence, allowing the flock access to that area also, and then move onwards a section at a time until you have cleared the whole area.
It can be quite a bit of work but by the end you will have a rather tidy looking permanent run area that can be more easily maintained than bare soil. You will still need to maintain the area with regular poo picking and raking over to bring the lower layers to the surface (this is done to expose any parasite eggs to the sunlight which tends to kill them off) but, with care, it can last a number of years before needing replacing.
A chicken on ‘sick’ ground