24 September 2012

Borrowing Ducks and Corralling Chickens

This Spring we tried a new approach to combat the slug infestation in our garden beds: a pair of our neighbor´s ducks. Whereas chickens mostly ignore slimy slugs and their hard claws and beaks can destroy a mulched garden in minutes, our borrowed ducks shuffled their smooth bills along and among the garden beds sucking down slugs and their eggs like efficient vacuum cleaners. With their lazy waddle and quiet quacking sounds, they made the usually gruesome task of slug elimination peaceful and adorable, plus with the bonus of a large duck egg in the morning; churning garden sprout predators into yolk-rich protein. They completely ignored the sprouting fava beans and the leftover cabbages going to seed on their winter stalks, vegetation which the chickens would have devoured to the roots upon sight. Within a week the ducks had eradicated the slugs and moved on to more playful adventures such as splashing in our rainwater lagoons and wandering the forest conversing through the fence with the chickens now permanently corralled for the growing season.

It was a hard decision to corral our chickens, which we used to afford free-range of the property every afternoon, but they sealed their own fate wrecking havoc in our gardens, gobbling up the first bean plantings, even sneaking into the greenhouse and cropping the winter lettuce to stumps. In addition they laid their eggs in all sorts of hidden places outside of the henhouse, some of which we have never found. So we divided our chickens into two flocks, one left in the original henhouse with a permanent outdoor run and the other set to work on grass within the smaller confines of a mobile coop. The mobile coop is rotated as the chickens eat down the grass and expose the tree roots in their space so that their destructive habits aid us in clearing a patch of land for future plantings, and the hens also deposit their natural fertilizer as they work. Plus now we know exactly where their daily eggs are laid. However, being corralled the chickens are very dependent on us for food, no longer able to seek out the extra proteins that hatching insects and sprouts might have supplied them in different parts of the forest. In addition to their daily grain, we cook a soupy mix of kitchen scraps with wheat husks and toast egg shells in the oven which we crumble with sand for their digestion. Of course any grasses and weeds are also tossed to them, too.

The corralled chickens are more labor-intensive to keep, but the benefits so far appear to outweigh the costs. Being able to freely cultivate the land with our vegetable gardens or even plant flowers without worry that a wayward hen might discover the loose earth and begin a feeding frenzy is a huge relief. Certainly we miss the chickens´ efficiency at cleaning up our crumbs and even their company, though honestly, they were a little intimidating in large, roving groups, always eyeing us as if we might be their next meal. In fact our chickens are rather noisy and annoying neighbors who made a habit of pooping on our porch and knocking on the door with their beaks when they were ready for dinnertime. We keep them because their eggs are deliciously nutritious and their manure makes great fertilizer, both of which we also now know exactly where to find thanks to corralling. And the flock in the mobile coop is even preparing a grassy slope for future Fukouka-style cereal plantings, grains by which the chickens will one day directly benefit.

In the mean time, job well-done, the ducks are returning to our neighbors, but we have saved a few of the pair´s fertilized eggs. This year when one of our hens goes broody, hopefully she will be incubating ducklings instead of chicks and we will have the adorable quacking sounds of slug removal to look forward to at the next infestation.