Monday, 13 September 2010

garden hens


Man has been managing the land on these islands for at least three and a half thousand years.

During that time we have moulded the landscape into what it is today. Only in the past few years have we not taken nature with us.

Earlier, gradual changes have created niches for many different plant and animal species. We have created heaths by grazing our livestock, our mixed thorn hedgerows and hay meadows have become unique and diverse habitats and a wide range of birds have flourished because of our management of woodland. Our use of the countryside was in sympathy with nature.

In the second half of the twentieth century mechanisation, intensification, drainage and the use of pesticides, weedkillers and fertilisers has changed our landscape again. This time, the changes have not been gradual and the impact on biodiversity has been swift.

For a time too, we were wooed by the same siren voices so that weedkillers, chemical fertilisers and pesticides were the close companions of gardeners. Is it time for us to learn the lessons of our ancestors: we should manage our gardens and plots in harmony with wildlife and can look to the practices of the past that have been so successful for us and for wildlife.

This came to mind for me recently when we were chatting about our three aging pet bantams! I had always wanted to keep hens and persuaded my wife that they would be no problem in our small back garden. I built a run and bought a large roll of wire mesh so that I could allow them out onto the lawn for exercise.

Very quickly we dispensed with the wire mesh. 'The girls' would free range all over the garden and potter back to their run following us for a handful of corn or treats from the kitchen. We got used to their sandbathing, pecking and scratching. The garden began to benefit too. Our lawn became greener due to their natural fertilisation. Damage from snails and slugs was reduced as the hens sought out this natural food. There are no pests on our fruit bushes due to three pairs of very keen eyes checking frequently! Weeds too reduced as they pecked and scratched in the mulch under bushes and shrubs. The surplus seed cast onto the ground by greenfinches and tits from our bird feeders was greedily snaffled by our hens. Other unexpected benefits followed. Our snowdrops had formerly been in clumps but were now more widely dispersed. The same with our anemones. The same greening of the lawn happened with shrubs too. Where in the past borders had struggled on our sandy soil, there was no longer a problem probably due to increased fertility.

Of course, they brought challenges too. Salad crops had to be netted and one of the hens took a perverse pleasure in eating rhubarb leaves. Another became obsessed with scrumping ripe tomatoes from the greenhouse. Tolerance was needed too as they shuffled down into the sandy soil at the edge of flower beds to make sand baths. Or shifted the mulches onto the paths. And no matter how I explained, they could not understand that the patio was out of bounds.

In managing our ancient woodlands, pigs were used in a similar way to our banties. Use of pigs was termed 'panage'. Through panage our forebears controlled bracken and briars which are the woodland equivalents of our garden weeds. Surpluses like acorns and windfall apples were chomped up. Woodland flowers were distributed in the way that our hens moved snowdrops and anemones around. Pigs fertilised the ground.

And of course, the garden is much more interesting to look at with our three banties wandering around.

My wife has been persuaded of their value to such an extent that she is trying to persuade me that we should bring in some younger hens as our three reach pensionable age. I would never dream of saying 'I told you so'.

Husband, wife - and garden in agreement!

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