Part of the responsibility I feel in writing my blog and keeping my Facebook page involves bringing awareness to problems and concerns that all chicken-keepers face. We have a lot of fun with stories and pictures of the pleasant side of keeping chickens, but important topics that make us uncomfortable must be addressed as well. My hope in sharing my experiences is that they will provoke constructive dialogue and thought about how we handle these issues individually. How we care for and keep our chickens and property safe is important to discuss, but in the end, our choices are personal and not subject to others' approval.
With all the joys and benefits that come with keeping backyard chickens, there are at least as many heartbreaks and weighty decisions to be made about their care, chief among them, whether or not to permit a flock to free-range. This is a sensitive subject and for good reason- the stakes are high and the emotions it evokes, even higher.
In a predator-free world, who wouldn't prefer allowing their chickens to roam freely, unconstrained by galvanized mesh barriers to explore fresh, clean grounds, manage their own diets by foraging on insects and greens, all while getting plenty of exercise? However, we do not live in a predator-free world and choices must be made based upon our own risk tolerances and what we feel is right.
The Myth of Supervised Free-range
I find that writing about chicken-keeping topics in theory is much easier than writing about actual experiences because the theories must be held up to the bright light of reality. The theory of "supervised free-range" is that one can prevent or stop a predator attack from happening by being physically present with the flock. The concept of supervised free-range seems like a reasonable compromise between the two extremes of complete physical freedom and constant confinement to a limited area. My experience is that supervised free-range does not prevent predator losses. Just prior to dusk last night, a coyote silently and skillfully procured his dinner from my flock as I stood nearby. My rooster, Blaze, immediately rushed to aid his hen, but they were long gone by the time he reached the crime scene.
While I wish it were true that my chickens are safer when I am nearby, it is simply is not the case. Free-ranging chickens, supervised and unsupervised are fair game within the food chain. A predator's hunger takes precedence over any fear of humans and the speed with which they procure their meal, quicker than the eye. While I was armed with only a camera last night, even if I had been holding a loaded firearm, I could not have prevented or stopped the coyote attack from happening.
The attack itself, which occurred right behind me, is not depicted in this video, what the video shows is what was going on in front of me as it happened. By the time I turned around, the coyote was a vanishing blur and all that remained of my hen was a pile of feathers (also not shown).
There is no question that raising chickens on pasture is a more natural experience for chickens or that they are healthier as a result of being able to choose from nature's buffet of greens and protein sources. I prefer that my chickens live their natural lives fully and freely to confinement and if nature claims them back into the food chain, I accept that, grudgingly.
The messages I hope to impart by sharing this experience are that:
- the benefits and risks of free-ranging should be thoughtfully weighed;
- one's personal risk tolerance for loss should be carefully considered;
- what one flock-keeper is comfortable with is the right choice for them- others need not approve.
I am always mindful that we built our house in Nature's backyard, not the other way around and I accept the rules of the game that were in place before we imposed upon it.