Fowl deeds in Aussie backyards

By Steve Gray

More and more households are opting to keep chickens in the backyard along with a vegetable patch. Photo / Northern Advocate
More and more households are opting to keep chickens in the backyard along with a vegetable patch. Photo / Northern Advocate

In the time of our grandparents practically every street had a house or three with a chook shed in the backyard.

Mass production of eggs and chickens in huge sheds, and changing lifestyles, saw the decline of backyard poultry, but it's making a huge comeback.

Indeed, the humble backyard chook has made it all the way to the Lodge.

It's part of a resurgence in backyard gardening as people seek to cut food costs, eat healthy food, and grow and eat food for its taste rather than for its supermarket shelf life.

Other people are buying their own, concerned about the treatment some chickens get, trapped in small cages all their lives, their feet never hitting the ground.

Many Australian families have also recognised that a few chickens work splendidly in a symbiotic relationship with the backyard vege patch.

Lately, those joining the chook revolution include the nation's first family, with the Rudds installing a movable chicken tractor with half a dozen chickens.

The "tractor" is a light, portable chicken coop that can be moved around the yard, maximising the chickens' usefulness.

The Rudds are part of a growing trend.

Nathan Hobby, of Risson Produce in Ipswich, said sales of domestic chickens has grown 50 per cent in the past two years.

"Every lot of chooks we sell within a week," he said. "It used to take three or four weeks."

The Hisex breed sells for under A$20 ($24.68) and they will yield six or seven eggs a week, he said.

Kym Burnell-Jones, for 16 years a participant at Brisbane's Northey Street City Farm, said chooks are more than just walking egg factories.

"They're arguably the most useful animal we've got," she said.

"We can use them for preparing our garden beds, weed control, pest control.

"They obviously lay beautiful eggs, depending on what you put in -- that's what you get out.

"They're great for teaching children about responsibility and life and death and all of that stuff it's important to teach them.

"They provide excellent manure for our compost, feathers.

"They're just fabulous animals to keep."

She said chicken workshops at the Northey Street farm were constantly oversubscribed.

"There's a lot of people looking at getting chickens, if they haven't already got them," she said.

Ms Burnell-Jones said the feathered friends helped minimise labour in the garden.

Moving the chicken tractor around the yard, the birds will first target broad-leafed weeds and insects, cleaning up the lawn even as they fertilise it.

Left in one spot for long enough, the chooks will strip the soil, fertilise and even turn it over for new garden beds.

"We always use them before we replant a bed ... they'll annihilate everything, it's amazing the work they will do," Ms Burnell-Jones said.

"They turn the soil, put manure in it, put all the green stuff through it, and you end up with the most amazing soil, with hardly any work from yourself."

Chickens are relatively cheap to feed, eating garden waste, kitchen scraps and grazing the backyard for bugs weeds and grass.

"You can even sprout grain and grow plants for them. The more you can do of that the less you have to feed them grain," Ms Burnell-Jones said.

"They eat about a cup of grain a day per bird if you're not feeding them anything else."

You can grow your own grain, seed plants like sunflowers, or green manure crops.

And they are suitable for even small blocks.

But experts warn - buy your poultry from a good supplier. Many outlets sell chickens as "point of lay", meaning they are 16 to 20 weeks old and should begin producing eggs within weeks of purchase.

Buying point-of-lay chickens avoids the obvious trap of purchasing very young birds and finding one or more are in fact roosters. Also, you don't pay to feed them until they're close to producing eggs to pay you back.

The males are outlawed in urban areas and in any case are prone to become aggressive. Unless you're intending to breed, roosters add nothing to a backyard setting.

There are many breeds to choose from, so seek advice from a supplier or from others you know who already keep them.

There are also a number of books and magazines you can source, while the website backyardpoultry.com if full of useful information.

Your chooks can be vulnerable to foxes, domestic dogs and snakes, while eggs are attractive to snakes and goannas, so ensure your pet chickens are secure.

Their basic needs are: shelter from the weather and from predators; a variety of food (which the ABC's Organic Gardener magazine lists as the four Gs - grains, greens grit and grubs); clean water; a safe place to roost; and comfortable laying boxes.

It pays to be prepared before you go and buy the birds because if their lodgings aren't secure they can create havoc in the yard, as well as being vulnerable to predators.

There's also a need for a responsible attitude. The RSPCA in Brisbane becomes, unwillingly, responsible for about six or seven abandoned chooks a week.

Some are dumped in parks where they fall victim to predators, others are dumped because they have stopped laying.

Yet more are roosters, which cause a problem for the RSPCA because it is illegal to have them in urban environments.

Spokesman Michael Beatty said the RSPCA has come to doubt the value of chooks in schools.

"They bring chooks in and the kids incubate them and watch them hatch and supposedly that teaches them about life, but the problem is most of those chooks, and certainly all the roosters, end up with us," he says.

"We're not sure it really does teach (children) about life ... and our staff have to experience more death because they have to put them down."

That said, a couple of chooks in the backyard can be great fun as well as being productive animals providing eggs, fertiliser, weeding and garden preparation.

Just ask the PM.

- AAP

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