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keeping chickens in the forest/woods

 
Mitsy McGoo
Posts: 22
Location: zone 6b in upper east Tennessee
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I'd like to know if anyone out there keeps their chickens primarily in a forested area of their property as opposed to a more open, pasture-type setting (I tried searching the site briefly but didn't see anything relevant - feel free to point me to a previous post if you know of one). I've read that chickens were originally tropical forest birds, and it seems logical that they would have better access to protein-rich food like bugs and worms and whatnot on a forest floor than in a grassy field (I don't have anything to back this up with), which is usually what I think of when I imagine happy, free-ranging chickens. I've begun to think that this idealistic picture is not really ideal for chickens at all. I have two pet chickens at my current residential neighborhood abode, and they tend to gravitate toward the bushier, shadier, treed part of the parcel (although I must divulge that I don't have any grass/lawn anyway). Once we move to our homestead, I intend to keep layers and broilers and am contemplating fencing in an area that includes some measure of forest, if not all.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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My chickens are in the woods and tend to stay under the trees instead of roaming out into the nearby meadow. They seem to be aware of the danger of hawks. They will sometimes go out there to catch grasshoppers but mostly stay under the trees. The only downside is one of the pens stays damp after a rain, because it is right under some trees. Ideally they would be in some kind of moveable pen to avoid soggy ground. They also like to be able to get some sun part of the day.

 
Jay Green
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Keep in mind also that the forest is where all the other preds like to lurk and can snatch one of your chickens in broad daylight in the undergrowth on the forest floor. A fox can be in and out before you even know he is there. If you are going to utilize forest for free range, it will go better for you if you have a vigilant LGD on duty and with the flock.

I've been freeranging 50 CX chickens on forest and meadow for the past 8 wks with a dog on duty. So far none have met their demise but it's a tough job for one dog to watch 50 chickens at once. I prayed over them and gave them into God's care and haven't lost any.
 
L. Jones
Posts: 80
Location: NW Mass Zone 4 (5 for optomists)
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When ours were free-ranging, they had access to both lawn/pasture and forest, and preferred the pasture, on the whole. No way to predict how your chickens will feel, though - they are individuals and rarely read and follow books that prognosticate what chickens will do. There are generally plenty of bugs in pasture. Even more if there have been grazers in the pasture a few days before the chickens are moved in.

Forest provides more cover for many things that eat chickens. Pasture provides hawk access. Many things think chickens are tasty.

We got out of free-ranging when the losses got too high. Some folks report success with a flock guardian dog - not where I really wanted to go with a very small flock, but certainly worth thinking about with a larger flock.

If you are fencing in an area, fence in at least 3 or 4 areas so you can move the birds and let each area recover. Otherwise you'll soon have bare dirt in a fence (even if the one area and the 3-4 areas are the same total area.)
 
Mitsy McGoo
Posts: 22
Location: zone 6b in upper east Tennessee
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Our St. Bernard actually watches diligently over our two pet chickens now (whenever he's outside), so I'm hoping to integrate some sort of perimeter for him to patrol into wherever I end up putting them (and see how well he does with more than just two). I definitely plan to use paddocks for rotation. Thanks for the feedback, y'all.
 
Jeanine Gurley Jacildone
pollinator
Posts: 1401
Location: Midlands, South Carolina Zone 7b/8a
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I eat eggs ONLY from 'backyard' chickens so I know what a good egg tastes like. Just recently I got some eggs from a friend who's hens live primarily in the woods. They do venture out in to the yard but tend to stay near the edge of the trees or deeper in the brush.

Those eggs were the best eggs I have ever had bar none! I don't know if it had anything to do with them living in the woods or not but it definitely got my attention and I will be thinking about that as my new chicks get older.
 
Mitsy McGoo
Posts: 22
Location: zone 6b in upper east Tennessee
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Jeanine Gurley wrote:I eat eggs ONLY from 'backyard' chickens so I know what a good egg tastes like. Just recently I got some eggs from a friend who's hens live primarily in the woods. They do venture out in to the yard but tend to stay near the edge of the trees or deeper in the brush.

Those eggs were the best eggs I have ever had bar none! I don't know if it had anything to do with them living in the woods or not but it definitely got my attention and I will be thinking about that as my new chicks get older.


That's very interesting! I'm glad to know my pseudo-plan seems viable. Does she utilize dogs to keep them safe or are predators not an issue for her?
 
Deb Stephens
Posts: 374
Location: SW Missouri, Zone 7a
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books dog food preservation forest garden goat trees
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I think our chickens have about the best possible world. They have a nice, secure hen house that they roost in at night (locked in against marauding racoons and opposums) and a very secure 1/4 acre main pen around that. It is full of mature trees and shrubs. Then, they have access to the 3 fenced acres where our goats roam from off one-side of their smaller enclosure. The goat herd has dwindled over the years from 15 to only 6 goats, so they do not come close to eating everything in there (plus I take them out to browse in the woods and glades for 2 hours each day to get more variety). The goat area is clear of small shrubs and smaller saplings so only the really huge trees (oak, hickory, elm, ash, a few cedars, etc.) grow there with lots of wildflowers and native grasses beneath. It has both shady and sunny areas, plus a nice patch of bare ground where the goats like to play and hang out, and the goat shed (with a hay feeder). The chickens can hide in the shrubbery and trees when hawks fly over (and boy do they know how to hightail it for the bushes!). they can get dust baths over in the goat play area; forage for young plants and bugs in the grassy areas under the trees; bask in the sunny places;, cool off in the shade; forage in the goat's hay and pick through the droppings for leftover bits of grain; lay eggs in the hen house nest boxes or in the goat shed (and sometimes under brushpiles!) and just generally stroll around clucking and cooing to one another. They are very happy chickens who lay fantastic eggs. In 20 years I think we have only lost about 4 chickens to predators, (and we abut a national forest just on the other side of the chicken house) a few to random injuries and illnesses, and had most of them live to ripe old ages between 12 and 18 before finally passing peacefully in their sleep. I think giving them plenty of diverse habitat -- securely fenced -- and then letting them choose what to do and where to go works best.
 
Jeanine Gurley Jacildone
pollinator
Posts: 1401
Location: Midlands, South Carolina Zone 7b/8a
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Misty, she has had a few problems with predators plus she has had quite a bit of demand for her eggs and meat birds so she is expanding. To protect her investment she has built some very nice chicken tractors for her new birds. Plus she is now getting interested in growing more of her own food so is having to find ways to keep the birds out of veggie areas so mobile confinement is in order.
 
Jeanine Gurley Jacildone
pollinator
Posts: 1401
Location: Midlands, South Carolina Zone 7b/8a
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Another note on chickens (or other animals) and trees in the South. My husband and I are originally from up north. We had to change our understanding of what shelter means down here. The animals need no protection from the cold. They do need to be able to get out of the rain and wind in winter. But the real danger comes in the summer from the sun and heat. So having a tree shaded area that has good circulation is vital to keeping them healthy. In one of the coops there are two openings to allow a breeze to go through in summer. The adjoining yard is heavily shaded. The other (new) coop is just screened in and has lattice work walls on three sides and it is under the direct shade of a pecan tree - shade in summer and sun in winter.
 
Isaac Hill
gardener
Posts: 356
Location: Beaver County, Pennsylvania (~ zone 6)
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Yeah our domestic chickens descended from jungle fowl... they like forests.
 
Christopher G Williams
Posts: 69
Location: Ossineke, MI
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We let our 50 or so chickens and ducks range our property at will. We have about 4 acres of woods and 1 acre of open meadow. They rarely to never venture into the meadow. I think they appreciate the safety of the woods from air predators.
 
Tyler Kumakura
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Deb Stephens wrote:I think our chickens have about the best possible world. They have a nice, secure hen house that they roost in at night (locked in against marauding racoons and opposums) and a very secure 1/4 acre main pen around that. It is full of mature trees and shrubs. Then, they have access to the 3 fenced acres where our goats roam from off one-side of their smaller enclosure. The goat herd has dwindled over the years from 15 to only 6 goats, so they do not come close to eating everything in there (plus I take them out to browse in the woods and glades for 2 hours each day to get more variety). The goat area is clear of small shrubs and smaller saplings so only the really huge trees (oak, hickory, elm, ash, a few cedars, etc.) grow there with lots of wildflowers and native grasses beneath. It has both shady and sunny areas, plus a nice patch of bare ground where the goats like to play and hang out, and the goat shed (with a hay feeder). The chickens can hide in the shrubbery and trees when hawks fly over (and boy do they know how to hightail it for the bushes!). they can get dust baths over in the goat play area; forage for young plants and bugs in the grassy areas under the trees; bask in the sunny places;, cool off in the shade; forage in the goat's hay and pick through the droppings for leftover bits of grain; lay eggs in the hen house nest boxes or in the goat shed (and sometimes under brushpiles!) and just generally stroll around clucking and cooing to one another. They are very happy chickens who lay fantastic eggs. In 20 years I think we have only lost about 4 chickens to predators, (and we abut a national forest just on the other side of the chicken house) a few to random injuries and illnesses, and had most of them live to ripe old ages between 12 and 18 before finally passing peacefully in their sleep. I think giving them plenty of diverse habitat -- securely fenced -- and then letting them choose what to do and where to go works best.


Hi Deb - this is very encouraging to hear. I have a similar sized area that is treed that I was considering letting some chickens range in. Did you use electronet fencing? Also, did you supplement with any additional feed or did they solely eat off of the land?
 
Tracy Kuykendall
Posts: 165
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The ideal habitat for the majority of animals will be "edge" just enough over story trees and brush to provide shelter/cover and just enough pasture to provide the balanced food supply. The trick is getting the forest/pasture balanced to your livestock needs.
 
Deb Stephens
Posts: 374
Location: SW Missouri, Zone 7a
18
books dog food preservation forest garden goat trees
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Tyler Kumakura wrote:
Hi Deb - this is very encouraging to hear. I have a similar sized area that is treed that I was considering letting some chickens range in. Did you use electronet fencing? Also, did you supplement with any additional feed or did they solely eat off of the land?


That post is rather old and since then most of our remaining goats have died of old age -- we have 2 left now, one 14 and one 15, still fairly young for our goats. (Three of ours lived over 20 years!) We have also stopped raising chickens so we can eventually phase out animal care altogether and be free to travel. (As vegetarians they were always mostly pets anyway.) Our remaining chickens are now aged between about 11 and 16 years (with at least one around 17 or 18 years old) so they won't be around too much longer. So... things have changed a bit.

The open areas have taller grass and we have begun letting the two goats in to browse in the brushy area around the hen house now that we're down to only 14 chickens. None of them are eating up the available vegetation any more so we let them swap spaces whenever they like.

As for your questions... All the fencing is ordinary cattle fence in the goat area and the same faced with 6' chicken wire in the chicken area. That's it. Technically speaking, predators have always had full access to the goat area because anything that wanted to could go over or under the fence (or through the 4" x 6" openings if small enough). We never intended to fence anything out, just fence the goats in. It has worked fine because we've never lost any of our goats to predators although foxes, coyotes, opossums and raccoons (signs point to possibly even a bobcat or two) have been observed passing through. They all seem to have a live and let live policy. The chickens are/were safe as well because the only daytime predators we have ever had have been hawks. (We almost lost one hen about 15 years ago, to a hawk -- it had her on the ground and was plucking out her feathers when our, then one-year old GSD pup scared it away.) The only chickens we've lost to predators were to raccoons that managed to get into the hen house at night a couple of times -- once through a loose metal roof panel (since firmly nailed down); once through the door when a lock failed; and once through a window screened with poultry wire (the raccoon reached in and grabbed a rooster -- who stupidly perched in the window -- by the neck and pulled his head through and bit it off -- GRUESOME!)

So, despite ho-hum fencing and a rather relaxed lifestyle (and lots of local predators, including more than one reliable account of a mountain lion and black bear sighted less than a mile away -- we live within walking distance of Hercules Glade Wilderness, afterall) we have lost ridiculously few animals to predation.

As for food. We offer free choice scratch and laying hen pellets, but the chickens seldom do more than peck at it. They much prefer wild food like green stuff and all the rolly bugs, caterpillars and other bugs they find in abundance. We also feed back eggshells (ground up) and table/garden scraps. They have probably an 80% natural diet though. Even the oldest hens still lay eggs -- more than enough for us since we don't eat that many. I could wish for more to supplement the dogs' food, but since our 8 dogs are all getting old as well, (ranging from almost 9 to 15), we don't want to get more chickens to care for past the time we no longer have dogs. (We discourage broodiness now too, for that reason.)

Well, you asked a couple of simple questions and I've answered with a book, so hope that helps!
 
Mike Turner
Posts: 309
Location: Upstate SC
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My chickens tend to spend most of their time in my bamboo groves, especially when they are resting. But they will venture out into the pastures for short periods to forage under the sheep feeders and when the insect population in the pasture grasses is high.
 
Mountain Krauss
Posts: 130
Location: Northern California
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We have over 100 chickens on oak woodland. The trees are spread out enough for grass (and deeper rooted plants like mustard, wild artichoke, etc) between them, so they have access to pasture, but there's always a tree nearby for shade and protection from aerial predators. We used to have issues with coyotes, but we added 7 goats and 2 donkeys, and the coyotes haven't bothered us since.

Land looks something like this:

http://www.laspilitas.com/images/grid24_24/4554/comhabit/pictures/COW.jpg
 
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