Tra­di­tional poul­try-keep­ing

Poul­try-keep­ing is go­ing full cir­cle as the many ben­e­fits of tra­di­tional meth­ods, such as ‘fold­ing’ poul­try on grass­land and in stub­ble fields after har­vest, are once again ap­pre­ci­ated, says Jeremy Hob­son

Country Smallholding - - Contents - by Jeremy Hob­son

Fold­ing poul­try on pas­ture,

Long thought to be the do­main of the farmer’s wife, it wasn’t un­til the early 20th cen­tury that chicken-keep­ing was considered a prof­itable agri­cul­tural con­cern. John Grim­balde­ston, au­thor of The Farmer and The Hen: A Lan­cashire Love Story, and part-time cu­ra­tor of the Fylde Coun­try Life Mu­seum at Fleet­wood, says that his re­search shows that it wasn’t un­til around then that ex­perts be­gan to sug­gest “hens could be com­bined with other prod­ucts: about 100 per acre on pas­ture used for graz­ing stock; 200 per acre on or­chards” and that “fruit and hens were be­lieved to be a prof­itable com­bi­na­tion…”.

In his book, Bri­tish Poul­try Hus­bandry – Its Evo­lu­tion and His­tory, pub­lished in 1930, Sir Ed­ward Brown com­mented on the fi­nan­cial prac­ti­cal­i­ties of poul­try

— in par­tic­u­lar chick­ens — around the farm and noted that: “No other crop or stock need be dis­placed, and they can be kept on pas­ture, arable land or or­chard; they can also ob­tain much of their food them­selves, and houses and other equip­ment can be ba­sic … [and] re­turns are good for very lit­tle out­put.”

It was com­mon prac­tice at the time. Poul­try were either given to­tal free range or were ‘folded’ on

grass­land and in stub­ble fields after har­vest. There were many rea­sons for this. Just a cou­ple are that, in the lat­ter sce­nario, feed costs were cut due to the birds ‘glean­ing’ corn left after har­vest. Also the fields were ma­nured nat­u­rally by the birds. Other ben­e­fits were that hous­ing didn’t re­quire clean­ing quite so of­ten due to the fact that the birds were moved to pas­tures new on a daily ba­sis. There was a valid school of thought that birds self­med­i­cated by eat­ing herbs as they pecked about, too.


Although the ben­e­fits of keep­ing com­mer­cial poul­try in such sys­tems were un­de­ni­able, im­me­di­ately be­fore and after World War II farm­ing ex­pe­ri­enced many changes. The more tra­di­tional ways of do­ing many things were swept aside in favour of modern al­ter­na­tives. How­ever, although semi-in­ten­sive and in­ten­sive meth­ods of egg pro­duc­tion, first in­tro­duced in the 1930s, were well es­tab­lished by the 1950s, many pro­duc­ers were loathe to forego the tra­di­tional meth­ods com­pletely and con­tin­ued to keep birds in rel­a­tively free range con­di­tions.

Recog­nis­ing the im­por­tance of fresh air and fresh pas­ture, those re­spon­si­ble for the eggs that went into the mak­ing of the bed­time drink Oval­tine went out of their way to pro­vide their lay­ing hens with the best fa­cil­i­ties — not only in out­side runs, but also in the horse­shoe­shaped com­plex at their fac­tory at Kings Langley, Hert­ford­shire. Nowa­days the of­fices of Re­new­able En­ergy Sys­tems (RES), the orig­i­nal Arts & Craftsstyl­e ed­i­fice, was de­signed in such a way that the horse­shoe-shaped part — which housed breed­ing stock — would catch as much sun and nat­u­ral light as pos­si­ble.

As Lucinda Lambton re­marked in her book, Palaces for Pigs (English Her­itage 2011): “There had been noth­ing like it be­fore; the ar­chi­tec­tural de­tail­ing was su­perb… they [the chick­ens] had the bonus of ‘sun par­lours’ — large cages pro­trud­ing from the build­ing — in which the White Leghorns, with plenty of space to strut, could en­joy ‘clement weather’.”


After a pe­riod whereby much com­mer­cial poul­try­keep­ing was done in­doors or at least semi-in­ten­sively as at Kings Langley, there has been a def­i­nite re­turn to the type of poul­try and chicken rear­ing de­scribed by John Grim­balde­ston and favoured by the farmers of Ed­ward Brown’s day.

David Bland, a com­mer­cial poul­try ex­pert, con­sul­tant and ad­vi­sor who is now in his 80s, has wit­nessed the full cir­cle of poul­try man­age­ment tech­niques dur­ing the time he has been in­volved with the in­dus­try — cer­tainly as far as the fold sys­tem is con­cerned.

“As poul­try farm­ing and the breed­ing of dif­fer­ent pure breeds are now gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity, so the de­mand for fold units has con­tin­ued to increase,” he says. “Poul­try are also an ex­tra as­set to keen gar­den­ers who like the or­ganic ma­nure the birds pro­duce, as well as the valu­able as­sis­tance they give in killing var­i­ous gar­den pests as they scratch and weed each sec­tion of the veg­etable bed as it be­comes va­cant, nor­mally dur­ing the au­tumn and win­ter months.”

The lat­ter has be­come in­creas­ingly re­alised and many small-scale chick­en­keep­ers have re­turned to what in Amer­ica are known as ‘chicken trac­tors’, whereby birds are kept in move­able coops and runs. Once the birds have fer­tilised the soil, the ground is then either used to grow vegetables, or the land is kept as im­proved pas­ture. In this one can see cer­tain sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Bal­four Sys­tem (see box, right).


Keep­ing poul­try on pas­ture shared in har­mony with other live­stock has long proved to be mutually ben­e­fi­cial. As David Bland points out: “In the past, it has been found that dairy cows pro­duce more milk off grass where folds have been re­cently, and that this grass also makes the best qual­ity hay.”

It is a method to which farmers and small­hold­ers

are re­turn­ing. In some cases, rather than open fields, free range or­ganic poul­try pro­duc­ers are adopt­ing a method known as an agro­forestry sys­tem. Un­doubt­edly birds en­joy the cover of tall veg­e­ta­tion and so, by mix­ing trees and shrubs with other crops, they are able to pro­vide a per­fect habi­tat for freerange poul­try, as well as en­sur­ing that any crops grown after the poul­try have been moved on ben­e­fit from their valu­able ma­nure. It is also thought that the flock will have fewer res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems.

Lewis Wescott, vet and knowl­edge­able poul­try en­thu­si­ast, says: “It makes to­tal sense in that in­creased ven­ti­la­tion from out­door liv­ing helps enor­mously in stop­ping res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions due to there be­ing no build up of am­mo­nia, as may be the case in an in­ten­sive unit. Also, when birds are reg­u­larly ro­tated be­tween pad­docks, they are far less likely to be prone to ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal par­a­sites.”

Nev­er­the­less, Lewis strikes a cau­tion­ary note: “It has to be said that mites can har­bour in trees and the birds are ob­vi­ously more vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors.”


The agro­forestry sys­tem is a pos­i­tive move com­mer­cially as far as both chicken wel­fare and the con­sumer are con­cerned. In the UK, Sains­bury’s part­nered with the Wood­land Trust to pro­vide trees for its poul­try farmers’ out­door units and it claims the en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated for its Free Range Whole Chicken, SO Or­ganic is “en­riched with hedgerows and trees to… en­cour­age nat­u­ral be­hav­iours”.

In Italy An­to­nio Bacha­toni is ex­per­i­ment­ing with chick­ens on his

seven-acre olive and wild as­para­gus or­chard, while Luigi Emil­iani keeps freerange chick­ens in an area of mixed wood­land. He also grazes meat-pro­duc­ing geese in a neigh­bour­ing vine­yard, but warns “young vines re­quire pro­tec­tors to pre­vent geese from eat­ing the bark”, although that isn’t a prob­lem “once the stems be­come larger”.

Poly­face Farms, owned and run by the Salatin fam­ily in Vir­ginia’s Shenandoah Valley, USA, com­bines rais­ing cat­tle with keep­ing poul­try on the same land. According to Joel Salatin, they use mob­graz­ing, whereby cat­tle are moved through one-acre, elec­tric-fenced pad­docks on a daily and ro­ta­tional ba­sis after which poul­try are brought onto the same pad­docks in order to scratch and peck about in “the fly egg-laden ma­nure”.

Joel de­scribes a sys­tem in which the birds’ mov­able roost­ing and mo­bile lay­ing houses are shifted ev­ery four days. He is of the opin­ion that do­ing so not only pro­vides the birds with up to 15% of their feed in­take and nu­tri­tion straight from the land (the re­main­der is given in the form of grain), but that their scratch­ing and peck­ing helps to spread the cat­tle ma­nure evenly.


With a va­ri­ety of nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring food­stuffs avail­able as part of their daily in­take, it’s no won­der that pro­duc­ers of pas­ture, or agro­forestry-based geese, ducks, chick­ens and tur­keys be­lieve that the sys­tem is the ideal way to en­sure suc­cu­lent flavour and tex­ture in their ta­ble birds.

As far as the gen­eral farmer is con­cerned, John Grim­balde­ston points out that his­tor­i­cally “in times of eco­nomic re­ces­sion, milk, fruit and eggs pro­vided a reg­u­lar and al­most in­stant in­come through the year, un­like stock rear­ing, which tied up cap­i­tal un­til the an­i­mals were sold”.

Where poul­try-keep­ing can be in­cor­po­rated with other live­stock, veg­etable and/or crop-grow­ing for mu­tual ben­e­fit, then the meth­ods in use a cen­tury ago must surely pro­vide food for thought as well as eggs and meat for the ta­ble, ir­re­spec­tive of whether the pro­ducer is a com­mer­cial farmer or a smallholde­r sim­ply want­ing the best for their live­stock and their land.

Hens and mo­bile poul­try units with cat­tle in the back­ground at Joel Salatin’s Poly­face Farm in Vir­ginia

Chick­ens in an ark that is reg­u­larly moved onto fresh grass

White Or­p­ing­tons in 1910 free rang­ing and en­joy­ing a wood­land en­vi­ron­ment

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