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VEG Design Solutions, Part One: the Chicken/Fox Filter

by Dan Palmer, Very Edible Gardens

When designing edible gardens, a site-specific problem will often crop up. One of the most enjoyable aspects of permaculture design for us is devising site-specific solutions to those problems. In this short series we give four examples, all bona fide VEG originals, with a new one each month for the next four months.

Part One – the Chook/Fox Filter

The Site-Specific Design Problem

In 2005 Dan from VEG lived in a Melbourne sharehouse with abundant veggie gardens, a woodrow-style chook tractor and several chooks, as shown below. Another chook tractor is shown in the next photo to give a better idea of what the thing looked like — a lightweight moveable bottomless chook pen.

As will happen, some slugs and snails soon found out about our gardens, told their friends, and started partying hard. We were manually removing those we saw, when one day we read this statement from Mr Bill Mollison: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.” We didn’t need telling twice, and the next day Dan bought two beautiful ducks home on the train. Khaki Campbell was the breed, known to be partial to a slug or three.

Now this is when the real design challenge began. Snails and slugs were no longer a problem. Every day we enjoyed watching proteinaceous slugs and snails being converted into delicious eggs in front of our eyes. But, as foxes were rife, each evening we would manually pick up the ducks and put them in the chook tractor to sleep with the chooks. The next morning we would then manually lift the ducks out of the chook tractor and place them in the vegie garden where they could do what they do best. This got to be a pain in the bum, and we wanted to know if we could eliminate it, such that we could sleep in if we wanted to and stay out late without having to worry.

The Site-Specific Design Solution

We were using an old plastic kiddies pond for the ducks to frolic in.

While pondering the pond, the realisation dawned. If we located this pond such that the water level was about the same as the ground level, and such that half the pond was inside the chook tractor and half outside, our problem was solved. After dark, and well after the chooks had gone to bed on the roosts in the chook tractor, the ducks would jump in the pond, dive underneath the edge of the chook tractor, and climb out to sleep underneath the chooks. Come the first rays of sunlight, well before the chooks woke up and came downstairs to work, the ducks would go through the pond in the reverse direction to spend the day plucking plump slugs out of our cabbages and lettuces. What we had created was a kind of filter that prevented chooks and foxes from passing either way whilst giving ducks free access both ways.

Note: Like many new systems we had a few bugs that needed tweaking. The main one was the first full moon. The moonlight was so bright the ducks thought it daytime and swam out into the garden! Not ideal, so from then on we put a piece of wood over the outside bit of the pond when the moon was full.

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15 Comments

  1. Incredibly clever design! How long did it take the ducks to realise they could move freely once they dived under and out? I also live in Melbourne and keep chickens. I have a main chicken run connected via chicken tunnel to a day pen on the substantial lawn. The day pen is moved to a fresh patch of grass every 4-5 days in a rotation of 8 cycles (a bit more than a month for the grass and clover to recover). The main problem is that some chicken breeds are less cluey/clever than others. The Sussex, Rhode Island, Barnevelder, Leghorn all seem to get the idea and run frantically through the tunnels after the morning feed to dive into the greens. However the Faverolles although very tame, aren’t the brightest of birds and stay put in the main run. Glad your ducks are fast learners!

  2. Thanks all for the comments. It took me two days to train the ducks how to use it. What I did was start with the pond half full so they could glide to and fro without diving then gradually raise the water level until they were enthusiastically diving back and forth. Sometimes I’d throw some food in for the chooks whilst the ducks were outside and it was hilarious to watch them, quaking like mad, dash across the garden and launch into the pond to secure themselves a piece of the action. Adam T your chook pulsed grazing system sounds fantastic – I’d love to see some photos – I can be reached through the VEG site if you’re up for sending some through. Funny you should mention using tunnels to channel your chooks around – you’ll see why in one of my upcoming installments!

  3. We had Muscovy ducks for quite a long time, until the foxes discovered them… but I would never have put them in the veggie garden, they ate anything with tasty leaves as well as the slugs! We did find them to be very useful in our zone 2 orchard where they virtually eliminated all the fruit fly problems by eating ant fallen fruit with larvae in them.

  4. Great idea. Currently in the UK we are inundated with the damn things. Slugs and snails of every sort, shape and size. The UK is being deluged with rain this year and we have now got 50% more slugs and snails than we usually have. What I would like to know is what particular breed of duck would suit my garden using a similar system of duck recovery as mentioned above? I have a plethora of foxes and badgers too so its a little bit difficult to keep them all out of the garden. Therefore I need some advice regarding breed of duck that will remain in the garden, not eat my veggies and not be put off by the mammalian visitors. Oh and also doesn’t have an aversion to bees. However I don’t want the problem of disturbing the neighbours with excessive quacking all night or day either. I work crazy shift patterns so I am not always around to put livestock to bed hence my interest in this idea.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  5. Nice idea, looking forward to your others! 2 queries:
    1. how do you move the chook tractor? (do you have ponds everywhere you need them, or would you dig-in the pond each time? Maybe its main use is for a stationary chook pen?)

    2. Won’t the foxes figure out to dig under the pen, or scuba-dive through the pond? (hopefully not I guess…)

  6. Hi Kev,

    Excellent questions. I forgot to mention these issues in the article and wondered if anyone would ask.

    1. We would move the tractor as per Linda Woodrow’s system with one person climbing inside and lifting the whole structure about 5cm off the ground then walking to the next spot (the chooks scuffling along with the dome). With our system we would have to move the pond after two areas were ‘chooked.’ This was not hard, but with a square or rectangular chook tractor you could get four spots out of each pond so maybe have a couple of permanent ponds (ideally uphill of fruit trees you can gravity fertigate).

    2. We had a 30cm wire skirt or fringe around the base of the dome, sitting on the ground, which we weighed down with old bricks. Though it might seem hard to believe, this system works very effectively to prevent foxes from digging underneath. Re fox scuba diving, the foxes never chose to submerge their heads in water dark and a little smelly with sediment and duck manure. Late one night I walked out the back at an unusual time to find one fox standing on top of the dome, and a second fox standing on the ground next to the dome, obviously in the midst of scratching their heads about how to get in. Possibly the foxes in our area were not so clever or something, but luckily they never cracked it.

    My best,
    Dan

  7. Raccoons eat fish and are pretty cleaver it seems like they would figure out how to get in, I was asking myself the same question emily. Also wonder if a coyote would take the dive?

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