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12 In Do/ Keep

Giving the Hens Free Range: Remodeling the Chicken Tunnel

My chickens’ living quarters consist of a windowed hen house with roosting sticks and nesting boxes, and a large, partially covered enclosed run. This gives them outside access at any time they like, plus dirt to scratch and bath in, regardless if I’m home or not. But, like ANY enclosed chicken run, it is a wasteland as far as growing plants and bugs go. And I like to allow my chickens to be free range, and give them pasture access. Not only does this keep them happy and healthy and prevent boredom, it also cuts down on feed cost.

free range chicken butts

Regardless of what you read, if you are in suburban or urban lot, there is no way you can harmoniously grow food and have free-range chickens. Chickens will do what chickens do, and if they don’t eat your plants outright, they will uproot them up with their scratching or tare them apart with dust bathing.

chicken scratching

So the solution? Give them free range access to limited part of the yard. For me, that’s the back half of the property, on the other end of the garden. I have nothing planted, so the chickens are free to be chickens. When we first started the garden, I petitioned this area off with a janky concoction of scrap wire, lattice and pallets. The space is large enough that they can’t decimate the area. But, its about 100 feet from the chicken house. So to get the birds from their coop to the pasture without destroying my garden, I use the ingenious idea of a chicken tunnel.

IMG_6781

The first version, tunnel.1, was constructed from 2×2, scrap 4×4, and chicken wire. The lumber was built to make a long rectangular cube, with the fence acting as one of the sides. We could pull up sections of the wire to let the chickens out in designated areas, and put them to work to clear weeds, or, they could move down the length of the tunnel to the back of the yard.  It worked perfectly well for about a year and a half, but as time went on, a few sections of the 2×2 broke and weeds intertwined in the wire, making it so we couldn’t pull them or weedwack the area.

chicken tunnelroosting

Tunnel version.2 abandoned the chicken wire and was made from no-climb welded wire. It was bent into a hoop and attached to a basic rectangle frame made 2×2, reclaimed from tunnel.1. This time, instead of placing it directly against the fence, I pulled it out about 18″, and planted a jasmine vine behind it, against the fence. I had the intention of planting more vines further down the line. Thankfully, I didn’t get far in the construction of this version before I realized my error. In version .1, the birds had access to the fence line, and therefore kept the rampant bermuda grass that perpetually invaded from the neighbors yard at bay. With the tunnel set back off the fence line, the weeds soon started to infiltrate my proposed planting area. So it was demolished and we remodeled.

tunnel version 2chicken in tunnel 2

And this weekend, we finished our third remodel, and I think we finally have a design that works the best: chicken tunnel.3. I still used the no-climb wire, because that shit is expensive and I already bought it. Plus, the wire is stiff enough to hold its shape without built framework. I simply bent it at a slight curve towards the fence, used U-nails to attach it to the boards, and garden stakes to anchor the bottom to the ground. I didn’t like how the galvanized wire was shiny and stood out, so Matt spray painted it a rusty metal color before we tacked it up. I transplanted my jasmine back to in front of the tunnel. Eventually, I’ll have a line of vines and shrubs that cover the run.

chicken tunnel long viewtunnel version 3

In addition to the removing piecemeal partition fence, we also built a low fence and an arbor. In the spring, I’ll plant kiwi vines on the arbor, and drystack urbanite to make a low bed in front of the fence to grow pollinator-friendly flowers.

arborbackyard free range

The only problem to any of these tunnels are they aren’t predator proof. More than once I have found Gaia in the chicken pen, looking for bread and pizza crusts. It would be just as easy for a raccoon to go to the pasture side of the yard, walk down the tunnel, and get into the hen run or house. So to keep them safe, we only let them out during the day and when I’m home. There is a door inside the run that is opened to let them out, then closed before nightfall.

IMG_2890gaia in tunnelIMG_2469


One more project finally finished this year! Happy New Years from my homestead to yours!

Free range access keeps backyard hens healthier, but they can easily destroy your garden. Read more on how we built a chicken tunnel to keep our ladies happy on the Sweet Bee Homestead.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    plumdirt
    December 31, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I just started the “so not this coming year, but next year (2017) I want to get chickens…” conversation with my husband. Thanks for sharing your various versions!

    • Reply
      Melissa
      December 31, 2015 at 3:09 pm

      every single one of my conversations with my husband start with “so I was thinking, NOT NOW, but one day….we could….”

      • Reply
        plumdirt
        December 31, 2015 at 3:18 pm

        Ha! I wanted to this year, but I travel for work frequently enough that adding another responsibility to his really long list seemed selfish. I’m hopeful that by 2017 the travel will have slowed enough and the kiddos grown enough that it’s not much (or often) added burden.

  • Reply
    FreshlyGroundHome
    December 31, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    This is a very cool idea. I’ve played with the idea of keeping chickens, should we move somewhere where its feasible. I’ll definitely have to bookmark this!

    • Reply
      Melissa
      January 2, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks for the hello!

  • Reply
    lovegarden3007
    January 3, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Hi Melissa! Just read your piece in the PD this morning. I live on about an acre in Penngrove and have a large (bee friendly) garden. When the gophers aren’t outsmarting me (damn the gophers! ) I’m able to grow most of our produce. I also garden with the children in my classroom. So glad to learn of your blog! Happy New Year!

    • Reply
      Melissa
      January 3, 2016 at 11:26 am

      Thanks so much! The one good thing about my horrible soil is that I don’t have issues with gophers! Happy New Year to you, as well!

      • Reply
        lovegarden3007
        January 3, 2016 at 11:51 am

        I didn’t either until I religiously composted it for five years or so and planted a gopher smorgasbord (unknowingly). I’m pretty sure they pass out flyers not to miss my garden each spring. My adobe soil is now lovely and crumbly from all the amendments. Harmony Farm taught me how to trap gophers– especially the one that took down my Brussels sprouts (90 days til harvest!) that one year. He crossed the line.
        If I had to do it all over again, I’d use gopher wire in raised beds. Like chickens, wire keeps critters where you want them– mostly. There is always the overachievers.

  • Reply
    Georgia AtTheLake
    March 5, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Read about the tunnel in this morn’s PD – cute idea! Thought I would add that your cat is, more than likely, hunting mice who come to eat leftover chicken feed that the chickens scatter – pizza and bread crusts may be his/her additional ‘treat’. Racoons are mostly nocturnal, but especially at this time of year, hawks are on the prowl. My flock is usually close to me, but recently, a new momma lost one of her chicks to a hawk whom I had been chasing out – he, the hawk, must have come back when I was away – such is the circle. Can only do so much. Beautiful garden!

    • Reply
      Melissa
      March 6, 2016 at 7:40 am

      Thanks Georgia, for your comment. Thankfully, we haven’t had any issues with hawks and the chickens, I keep them enclosed when we have chicks. And Gaia is searching out pizza crusts. She also gets mice, but she’s a gluten fiend!

  • Reply
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    March 21, 2016 at 7:47 pm

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  • Reply
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