Free Range Chickens: Safety vs Freedom

Bit of Earth Farm Chickens ranging freely over a few acres is a peaceful sight. Our chickens rush eagerly from the coop each morning to spend the day as they choose in the pasture, woods, and barn. On hot afternoons we see them in the shade, fluffing in cool hollows where they give themselves dust baths, then rest. Some like to socialize under the hay wagon. Some hang out on low branches of bushes and trees. They eat insects, greenery, sometimes a hapless toad. It’s clear many of them pal around with the same chicken each day. Some of our birds are pretty geriatric, 7 or 8  years old at least. The two youngest, Scritch and Scratch (named after the sound of Mr. McGregor’s hoe in The Tale of Peter Rabbit) hatched just this spring and their mother still keeps them close. None of the hens seem to care for the rooster’s attention but he guards them, mates with them, and clucks in a distinctive way when he’s found a tasty morsel to share.

Chickens are, like all prey animals, in danger when they roam freely. We lose a few each year to hawks. It is a loss we mourn. Such losses also don’t improve the tenuous economic venture of making enough money selling eggs to continue raising chickens. But hawks are part of the ecosystem. And when we weight the chickens’ freedom versus their safety, we come down on the side of chicken freedom.

We can see the value of this choice in their calmer behavior. We know they’re foraging for a range of nutrients because they eat a great deal less purchased feed and the egg yolks they produce are brighter orange.

But dogs are not part of this ecosystem. When a dog gets loose and attacks chickens it doesn’t kill one and eat it. It kills every chicken it can, leaving corpses behind. This is what I found the other day.

Feathers near the pond.

A trail of feathers by the barn.

More feathers close to the woods.

Ten killed and one badly injured. Feathers up the hill and on both sides of the creek show how desperately these birds tried to save themselves. Scratch is dead. So is our rooster, and many of our youngest and most productive hens.

I feel so sorry for what the birds must have gone through. And now, somewhere out there is a dog who had the time of his/her life chasing and biting, wanting nothing more than to get loose and do it again. I don’t blame the dog. I’m sure all that squawking and warm blood activates motivations far older than “sit, stay, come.” What I can’t understand is people letting their dogs run loose.

Such a dog kill has happened here two other times in the many years we’ve been raising chickens. A few years ago a neighbor’s dogs got loose, injuring some of our flock and killing others. Tragically, one of the dogs spent so much time chasing chickens in the heat that it died (we assume heat exhaustion) and was found in a dry creek not far from a pile of feathers. The worst attack was about 12 years ago, when 23 of our chickens were killed by a single dog. We’ve never been reimbursed for these losses.

This time we have no idea whose dog is responsible. Some of my neighbors insist this was the work of coyotes, but coyotes don’t kill so many animals and then not eat their kill. The attack happened, best we can estimate, in early afternoon. We can’t see the chicken coop or barn from the house, often can’t hear what’s going on out back either. Even if we were home we could have missed the whole thing.

So for now our chickens are penned up.

Their accommodations qualify as free range by all industry standards. They have a roomy coop, an anteroom with a roof and partially covered sides, plus a 21′ by 20′ outdoor enclosure topped by avian netting. Plenty of room for three dozen chickens. Still, every morning they cluster by the gate, remembering all that lies just beyond. They can be distracted by a pail of kitchen scraps but it’s not remotely the same as foraging on their own. My hand hovers on the latch each time. I want to swing the gate open, choose freedom over safety, but I’m not ready yet.

What choice would you make— freedom or safety?

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she's a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, ponder life’s deeper meaning, talk to chickens and cows, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art. Blog: lauragraceweldon.com/blog-2/ FB: facebook.com/FreeRangeLearningCommunity FB: facebook.com/SubversiveCooking FB: facebook.com/laura.euphoria Twitter: @earnestdrollery
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8 Responses to Free Range Chickens: Safety vs Freedom

  1. Debra Frantz says:

    Perhaps a trail camera or two positioned to monitor the areas the chickens frequent? That wouldn’t ease the trauma of what has occurred, but it might give you evidence on which to seek compensation if it ever happens again.

  2. katechiconi says:

    After I lost my second batch of chooks to foxes, I made a decision. The Girls had a huge enclosed run with trees for protection, dustbathing areas, green pick and an illusion of freedom. They preferred the half acre paddock, naturally, but this is where they met their fate. So after that I would let them out for a few hours when I was home from work and could keep an eye on them, and they’d put themselves to bed at dusk. It worked well until Mr Fox worked out that hiding in their run was the best guarantee of chicken dinner…

  3. We’re having a similar debate at the moment. Only have six ladies but debating moving them to the field for a bit more freedom but worried they may be more at risk there.

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