Undercover chickens

Chickens, agroforestry and cover crops - an ideal system

Organic poultry farmer Al Bryer tells us why he ranges his hens in an orchard and what the impact is on their welfare.


Why have you chosen to run your hens in an orchard?

In nature, chickens spend all day foraging for food, scratching and dustbathing under the shelter and protection of the jungle canopy. An orchard with cover crops is therefore an ideal environment to encourage confident and extensive natural foraging behaviour within a farming system. Apples that fall from the tree give the hens an unpredictable and therefore more rewarding treat. Cover crops provide fodder for the hens and attract insects to the orchard which bring extra sources of protein, giving the hens a variety of foraging opportunities to keep them happily occupied and exploring. The orchard is also surrounded by a woodland which provides extra shelter and protection from inclement weather.

Have you had any problems with predators on your range? 

I have had a problem with goshawks taking hens, so I now hang up free moving CDs on thread between the trees and this works well as a deterrent. I also run a cockerel within each flock of 60 hens. Cockerels are always on the look out for predators and they help to make the hens feel more secure. They also help to keep the natural pecking order and eliminate fighting between the hens!

chickens outside

What benefits do the hens bring to the orchard?

First and foremost the hens do the hard work in clearing the range, getting the ground ready for more positive plant species to be sown. I sow green manures of white and red clover, trefoil and vetch, and flowers such as yarrow, phacelia and corn marigold which attract bees and other beneficial pollinators. The orchard floor is then abundant with what l call eco-stations which bring plenty of life and biodiversity to the soil and growing system, working in balance with nature. As the hens clear the orchard floor, growing competition to the apple trees is removed. Their manure adds vital fertility to the soil, which facilitates health and growth. The hens also protect the orchard from insects which damage the trees, particularly the winter moth.

We are proposing to require that all our farmers provide natural cover on their poultry ranges. 

Studies of typical free range farms have shown that often only a minority of birds make full use of the range provided to them. Lack of shelter and cover on the range is often the reason why birds don’t range. Providing natural cover, particularly trees, has been shown to encourage better use of the range through providing shelter from aerial predators overhead, shade from the sun, dry areas for dustbathing, protection from the elements and a source of food, amongst other benefits.


hens enjoying being outside