It's easy to forget that the chicken run can harbour unwanted pests, bacteria, plants and weeds.
And, at a time when Avian Influenza (bird flu) has spread across the world, it's even more important to keep the outside space the flock uses as healthy an environment as possible.
So what must be done to be sure you are keeping your chicken run clean?
The steps in this article are based on government and research findings. Following them will help ensure that your run and your chickens are protected as far as possible.
There are seven different parts of the run which will need your attention:
Click on any of the above links to jump straight to that section.
How often should the run be cleaned?
At least twice a year, and at any other times when the risk of contamination is high, such as periods where Avian Influenza (bird flu) is spreading.
It becomes particularly important if your chickens have had to be contained inside their coop for any length of time, since lack of daily care can mean a build up of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Before we start looking at those areas, let's deal with the subject of Avian Influenza (bird flu). The way it's transmitted should guide our cleaning methods.
Bird flu is global. It is most common in Asia, Europe and the United States, but it is now seen in most parts of the world.
The disease is spread between birds (including chickens) from wild birds – mainly, but not exclusively, migrating waterfowl.
The virus which causes Avian Influenza can remain in any contaminated material for up to 50 days – longer in wet conditions(1). Its effects on poultry are fatal. If even one bird in a flock is found to be contaminated, the entire flock must be euthanised.
For that reason alone, it is critically important that outside areas are kept clean and safe.
For more detail about the symptoms and requirements of bird flu, follow this link.
Because bird flu is known to be most often spread by migrating waterfowl, it makes sense to ensure that your run, and any other areas where your chickens free range, are unattractive to them.
Birds such as geese, ducks and swans are all attracted by any form of water, large or small, so there is an increased risk to chickens unless you take steps to reduce their access.
Whilst many of us want to attract more wild birds into our gardens to counteract their depletion by chemicals and intensive farming, it's also important that we protect our flock.
Wild birds, in particular members of the crow family (including magpies) and gulls, can spread disease in faeces and feathers.
So it's time to review your run and make it less attractive to wild birds.
Feeding your chickens outside with an open style of feeder is a sure way to attract not only wild birds, but rodents.
This was a feeder I used before I learned the hard way. My run and coop ended up with three separate rats' nests – they looked on the feeder as an open house for grain, as did the wild birds.
Read my rat story here, along with how I solved the problem.
Not only was I potentially attracting disease, they ate me out of house and home! It was an expensive lesson.
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It's an easy place to start a deep-clean, because wild bird droppings and feathers are easily seen on hard areas such as concrete and brick.
So check your run for any solid sections and clean them first.
Be especially vigilant if the area hasn't been used for chickens for a while (or ever). Remember: viruses can remain active for 50 days or more. Some bacteria (such as E.coli, which can be transmitted through droppings) will survive for more than 60 days on hard surfaces, rising to 130 days in soil(2).
It's not a difficult job to make sure that our chicken run itself is well maintained, but it's something we often just forget to do.
Research has found that keeping the area is well managed – that is kept clean, free from poop and general mess – makes a difference to the levels of bacteria present in the ground.
In other words, good husbandry ensures that beneficial bacteria are retained in the ground, while those bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics and introduce disease are at least minimised and, if cleaning is carried out consistently, can be eradicated altogether(4).
So, if you do nothing else in your run, make sure that you put these simple steps into action at least once each week.
Chicken runs often contain "extras" our flock needs to enhance their quality of life: shelters to protect them from extreme weather; dust baths to control mites and make sure feathers are kept in top condition; swings, mirrors, logs and other "toys" to help entertain and stave off boredom.
Check your run for all of these – you may have forgotten some!
It's fun to introduce visitors to our chickens, and allowing children to have contact can be an excellent way of teaching care for other living creatures as well as lessons about where food comes from.
All of which is fine, as long as basic hygiene procedures are met.
In particular, be careful if your visitors have been in contact with any other poultry or birds in the recent past. Disease can easily be carried from one flock to another.
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.
1. UK Governments: How to prepare for when your free-range birds can be let outside again. Pub. Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2022.
2. Cleveland clinic: E.coli infection. Pub. 2020.
3. RSPCA: Best environment for keeping pet chickens. Pub. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2022.
4. Crippen, T. et al: How Management Practices Within a Poultry House During Successive Flock Rotations Change the Structure of the Soil Microbiome. Pub. Frontiers in Microbiology, 2019.