I am a chicken shepherd. When my chickens are not in their completely enclosed PVC pipe pen, they are under my surveillance. I account for them by groupings, because they move too fast to count easily. That’s one advantage of getting a variety of breeds. As I weed nearby or sit on a chair in their pen and write, I scan the sky and trees for hawks. Hawks ate several of my chickens last year. I also watch for foxes walking down the neighborhood road, which has truly happened in the last few months. Foxes wiped out about 20 of my birds last year. The chickens forage in the tall weeds of their larger pen, oblivious to the danger, but aware of my presence. Whether I am inside or outside the large, open-top pen, some of them occasionally come over just for eye contact or to sit on my lap.
The larger pen used to be completely weed free, when the previous flocks of chickens ranged freely from sunrise to sundown. Until the hawks, foxes, and skunks feasted on 90% of them. The long range plan is to use electric fencing to deter four-legged varmints, and bird netting to block the flying predators. Until then, I let my chickens out about once a day.
I started letting them out in the evening. They had already been confined to the enclosed coop for a couple of weeks, so I was pretty sure they’d return there for sleep. This was okay for a few nights, but then sundown was getting later, and I was missing some evening family time. So, I suggested to my husband that if I let the chickens range in the late afternoon, he could try helping me herd them back into the enclosed pen when he got home from work. He agreed.
Herding them with our setup is a two person job. Sometimes, the dog, Kiwi, helps, too. I have been training her to be accustomed to chickens flying and scurrying under her nose. With her Scotch Pines Dog Training under her belt, she does quite well. Just last week, one of the chickens was playing jump rope over her swishing tail. The dog can be kept in a heel next to the moving herder; or she can be commanded to stay at a location that blocks an undesirable chicken route.
I tried to herd the chickens once by myself. I ended up calling for backup. It works best if one person, the moving herder, circles around behind them. Then, he or she walks along at a leisurely pace slowly waving a yard long stick in each arm. The sticks can also be: 1) used to tap on plants the chickens are under, 2) lightly clacked together to encourage chicken motion, or 3) used to block a chicken headed the wrong way. The moving herder uses the fence as a guide to keep them all headed to the smaller pen.
The other herder, me, helps funnel the chickens into the enclosed pen once they are close. This is a fairly stationary position to one side of the gate. Since I am the one who feeds them, frequently out of my hands, and I have picked them up a lot over the four months of their lives, most of them will respond to me tapping on the railroad tie or the packed dirt at their gate’s opening. It is like I am directing them to safety. The gate has a space under it when it is swung open, so if they get stuck for a moment behind it, they figure out how to pop under it one at a time. A few finally walk around it in a more dignified fashion.
We have never had the herding take more than 10-15 minutes. I don’t know how much progress they will make with weed control in 1-2 hours a day, but some is better than none. When I go out in the afternoons now, they are all lined up along the gate waiting to come out. When I open the gate, they rush out like ladies at the Day-After-Thanksgiving sale. I am sure it is healthy for them to get out in the open spaces, so I may have to come up with more useful activities for me while I shepherd them.