There are many garden gremlins but chickens are the worst!
Chickens have many sterling qualities, but respect for my gardening efforts is not one of them. Forget snails, slugs and caterpillars, chickens are definitely the most destructive things in my garden.
The two worst problems are dust bathing and searching for worms. Unfortunately, both of these activities are at their easiest and most enjoyable in loose soil - anywhere freshly planted in a garden.
Dust bathing and preening is a necessary part of chicken maintenance. They do it to keep their feathers in good condition and to dislodge mites and eggs from their skin. Unfortunately, they don’t stick to just one dust bath. Any loose, light soil with room to flap about in is irresistible to chickens, and they simply don’t care that you’ve just planted delicate seedlings in that area.
Worms - well, theoretically there is no reason why worms are more likely to be found in loose soil than in compacted soil, but it’s harder to scratch in compacted earth so chickens seize the opportunity to scratch about in loose earth on the off-chance that there is something tasty concealed there. This year I planted hundreds of bulbs, and was surprised that so few of them came up. Instead of a solid wall of scent and colour, I had a few miserable looking leaves and no flowers at all. Closer inspection revealed that the chickens were at fault - they’d scratched the loose earth away from the bulbs as they were searching for worms.
Over the years I have tried pretty much everything to keep a garden and free-range chickens together, and have come up a few strategies. It’s important to be aware of your chickens’ favourite routes around your garden, and the chief danger areas. I have a raised bed surrounded by gravel, and the chickens always hop up onto the bed to avoid walking on the gravel. This means there is no point planting anything apart from established plants in the raised bed, as the chickens scratch away there on a daily basis. In the gravel, however, I can plant pots of seedlings and bulbs, knowing that the chickens won’t cross the gravel to reach them.
Small plants can sometimes be protected by placing stones around them to stop the chickens scratching at them, but young seeds need to be protected with mesh until they are established.
ABOVE: Barriers can protect young seedlings from your chickens. INSET: Chickens use this raised bed to avoid walking on the gravel.