What is a chicken run and why have one?
Ideally, most of us would like to free range our flock: that is, allow them to range freely on our land. But our individual situations mean it's not always possible.
We don't all have time to chicken-sit our hens to make sure they come to no harm as they free range.
Predators, traffic, neighbours who don't want them in their gardens - and their ability to destroy our own plants - may all mean our chickens have to be enclosed somehow.
But happy chickens love to be outside. Their natural behaviour is rootling round amongst grass or leaves for bugs (and in my flock's case, the occasional frog!), or lying with wings outstretched to the sun, or digging a dust bath under their favourite tree.
Which is where runs come in. The run is simply an enclosed space where your flock can safely roam. And of course, the more outdoor space you can give them, the happier they'll be.
You'll see different figures in various places for this, but the correct absolute minimum space for a chicken confined in a run is one square metre (about 11 square feet) per bird. For small breeds like the Silkie you can allow slightly less; for larger breeds you should allow more.
That is, though, a bare minimum. The more space the flock has, the better, particularly if your coop is a small one. Chickens who don't have enough space are prone to become bored and / or aggressive, so behaviour you really don't want such as bullying, feather-pecking and egg-eating become far more likely.
Allowing the birds to have enough space to indulge in their instinctive behaviours lessens the likelihood of that, and of disease becoming a problem.
Yes. Hens in battery cages in the US, for example, have a space about the size of an A4 piece of paper.
Those cages are actually illegal in the European Union, where hens must have enough space to nest, perch and scratch in bedding.
But space allowed in commercial egg production is not what any of us, hopefully, would want for our chickens. Hens there survive but, sadly, suffer.
Make as much room for your hens as you can.
It's still possible to keep chickens in your small garden or back yard. Just make sure you don't overdo the numbers. It's always tempting to buy more chickens, but keep your flock size appropriate to the space you have.
Bear in mind, too, that hens are sociable creatures. They don't like being on their own. Three hens in a small garden is an ideal number. They have company and, should one unexpectedly die, the others still have each other until you can introduce another to the flock.
So even if you have a bit more space, keep your chickens happy by leaving the number at three and allowing them more space each, rather than increasing the numbers.
A good way of making use of space in a smaller area is having a raised coop like this small one of mine, which has a run area underneath as well as to the side.
This coop was my first. It was advertised as holding 6 hens but in reality that's far too many. 3 would be an absolute maximum. I used it within a larger run because I don't see it as being big enough for even 2 hens to be happy.
These days, I still use it within my large run, but only for individual chickens who need to be separated from the flock because of bullying or illness.
For inspiration about creating a chicken friendly back yard, take a look at my book review.
The short answer is "very".
Foxes, coyotes, dogs, raccoons, rats, pine martens or any other member of the weasel family, birds of prey -- all predators have different ways of getting into your run and therefore your coop. And once that happens, your chickens are instantly someone else's dinner.
Here's what chicken runs need, to be as secure as we can make them:
Here's a more detailed article reviewing the different types of fencing for a chicken run.
(Links in this section are "affiliate links", which means that if you click and buy something, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you).
Whichever type of ground your run has, it should be in as well-drained an area as possible, with some protection from the sun. Trees are an excellent choice. They also provide shelter from the wind and roots can make a great place for your flock to dig out a dust-bath.
The obvious answer might seem to be grass, and if you have a big enough area, grass is ideal. Chickens can spend their day happily scratching around for bugs, and creating their own dustbaths in whatever shade they can find.
But even a small number of chickens scratching around, as all chickens love to do, can very quickly turn what might seem like a large area into a mudbath in winter and a dustbowl in summer.
One possible answer is a "chicken tractor" which is basically a movable run. Something like this...
The chickens are moved temporarily to a piece of land enclosed by the tractor. When they've finished there, they're simply moved to another part of the run.
It gives grass time to re-grow, and can be very useful when putting chickens to work turning over a vegetable patch ready for planting. They'll remove all the weeds and fertilise the patch as they go!
If you don't have a large area to cover, these pine pellets are a possibility. Usually used for horses, they're ideal an ideal way of soaking up mud.
The pellets are made of shredded pine which soak up the moisture, expand and then fall apart, leaving your run covered in a kind of fluffy sawdust rather than mud.
It's not cheap, but it's very effective - and safe.
Wood chippings and other mulches are generally expensive, but a possible alternative if you have a small-ish run. As an added bonus, they can be composted when the run is cleaned out.
The downside? Dusty in the heat, they tend to go to mush in the rain, so unless you can cover at least part of your run they're not an ideal solution. And never use cedar chippings - the oils and fumes can be toxic to chickens.
For a very small run of two or three chickens, hemp bedding is an excellent choice. It's expensive but very absorbent, sustainable, natural and does not contain mites or lice, as some wood chippings have been found to do.
Coarse sand, also known as builder's sand, is another possible solution for a small to medium-sized run. It drains easily, has the advantage of being a permanent dust-bath and the flock can still scratch through it to the bugs and worms in the soil beneath.
You'll need to use a thick layer though - anything under about 6" will simply be absorbed into the soil beneath. And if your run is exposed to the sun in the summer, be careful about heat on your chickens' feet.
Chopped straw: if you have a small, covered back yard run, you can use chopped straw. But unless it's covered, it's not ideal in winter. Damp weather means it doesn't dry out well, and damp straw creates spores, which can cause problems for the respiratory system, and harbours mites.
If you're going to use it, keep it dry and clear out any that remains wet.
See this article for more detailed information about the best flooring to use in the chicken run.
It should go without saying that chickens kept confined need to have their surroundings kept clean. Not doing so will attract vermin and disease. Bird flu is known to have developed from dirty surroundings.
For large, grassy areas, or flocks using the tractor method, this isn't so much of a problem as droppings never stack up.
And sand in the run is easily kept clean by scooping droppings out with something like a kitty litter scoop every day. Using a metal scoop avoids issues of vermin eating plastic.
Other coverings in smaller runs need to be kept free from droppings as much as possible. Pick up the worst every day, and completely clear the covering every month.
If the run has a hard base like concrete, use a power washer and a strong disinfectant. For soil, try using a ground sanitiser.
Here are some possible solutions to a soaking run.
It's much easier for chickens to keep warm than it is to keep cool. Heat exhaustion can be a killer. So there needs to be provision in your run for the flock to keep cool during the summer months.
Chickens who can't free range, especially if they're in quite a small run, can easily become bored. And boredom will lead to all manner of problem behaviours.
Here are a few tips to help.