Regulations insist that each farm must provide at least an acre of field for every 1000 hens and flocks are free to roam over the pasture during the daytime. Because they originate from jungle fowl they enjoy overhead shade and that means they may be reluctant to go outside in bright, sunny weather, although many farmers are now planting trees to give their hens shelter and a feeling of security whilst outdoors. Of course if it is cold, wet or windy, they can choose to stay in the warmth of the chicken house.
Probably the best time to see them ranging is in the early morning and from early evening until dusk. Naturally some grass closest to the hen house becomes worn but rotation of the paddocks means flocks have access to fresh pasture at all times.
The hens are fed automatically every few hours which ensures they always have a constant supply of fresh food. The feed consists mainly of grain, such as wheat, along with other natural ingredients like soya meal, and the addition of vitamins and minerals ensure the hens have a balanced diet at all times. The diet is supplemented by eating grass and other vegetation &ndash; and of course the odd worm or two
It is well known that hens allowed outdoors can be easy pickings for hungry foxes. But this doesn’t pose a major problem for free range farmers because they protect their flocks using electrified fencing. This gives a sharp jolt to any fox which touches it and once is usually enough to serve as a lasting reminder!
Recently, an increasing number of free range producers have been installing “multi-tier” systems where feeding, drinking and egg laying are on a number of different levels. One of the benefits of multi-tier systems over single-tier is that a larger number of birds can be kept in a house of the same dimensions. In these systems, manure is collected on belts and removed weekly. Consideration should be given to storage and utilisation of manure from the unit.
New developments in housing and equipment allow hens to be kept in large flocks – typically several thousand – and to benefit from insulated and ventilated buildings that come with ‘all mod cons’. Inside each house the hens have an area of wood shavings or straw where they scratch and dustbathe; perches to roost on; and constant access to food and water. They also have access to quiet and secluded nest boxes where they lay their eggs. During the day the hens will spend their time wandering between the house and the range area but when it gets dark they will come back inside and the farmer will close the ‘popholes’ once they are all safely tucked up. See also feed, nests, multi-tier and scratch area.
A hen’s natural instinct is to find somewhere secluded to lay its egg. That’s why inside every free range house there are specially designed nest boxes which give the hens the quiet and security they need to lay as well as ensuring the egg is clean, quickly collected and can be stored in a temperature controlled environment. In the winter additional lighting extends the hens’ daytime which ensures an all-year-round supply of eggs.
Free range birds live a healthy, outdoor lifestyle but as with any animal allowed outside there is an increased risk of exposure to disease. To counter this, free range flocks are under the supervision of specialist poultry vets, such as Alan Beynon from Devon. Alan regularly visits the free range farms he looks after and, working with the farmer, puts in place a health plan to ensure everything is being done to keep flocks in full health. Occasionally, if flocks are ill, they may need antibiotics but this is strictly controlled by the vets. Pictured: Hens need to be weighed regularly to ensure they are a healthy weight
Hens that lay organic eggs are always free range and the main difference between the two systems is the way in which the hens are kept. Organic hens are fed on a diet based on crops which have been grown without the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. There are also strict rules about the use of medicine to treat the hens should they fall ill. Another major difference between free range and organic is that flock sizes are smaller and the birds have to have more space within the house under organic rules. Organic houses are often mobile so that they can be moved to fresh pasture between flocks.