Encouraging free-range hens to venture outside their sheds has long been proven to be beneficial to their health and welfare.
However, in many commercial systems, it is common for only a small proportion of hens to use an outdoor range, while those that do remain close to the house.
To tackle this issue, the Woodland Trust says planting properly managed woodland can help provide shelter to birds, encouraging them to range further from the chicken house.
By giving them the opportunity to exhibit more of their natural behaviours, it says trees can help boost welfare, potentially bringing significant economic benefits to poultry farms.
“Poor range use is associated with injurious feather pecking, which is one of the biggest health and welfare problems for poultry units,” says Helen Chesshire, a senior adviser at the Woodland Trust.
“There’s hard, scientific evidence that having trees encourages a higher proportion of birds to range, and by ranging they will be able to exhibit more natural behaviours, which reduces the risk of feather pecking.”
In addition, tree cover can also help to reduce nutrient load, parasitic contamination and packing in areas close to the house by drawing birds away from the shed, Mrs Chesshire says.
Want to plant trees on your farm?
The Woodland Trust offers free advice and support to farmers who are interested in planting trees on their land.
Its team of woodland creation advisers carry out tree planting assessments, design planting schemes and identify where you can apply for funding and support to plant trees.
The trust then works with farmers and landowners to monitor the results over subsequent years.
“Planting trees goes from a health and welfare benefit to a direct economic benefit in terms of the quality and the amount of eggs the birds lay,” she adds. “It reduces seconds and the proportion of white eggs, which brings more financial benefits to a business.”
Interested in planting trees on your farm? Here, Helen Chesshire answers questions you may have about how to plant and manage trees on your poultry unit:
Where can I plant trees?
As a general rule, trees should only be planted on former arable land or improved grassland. If the land isn’t either of those, you should check that it isn’t ecologically valuable or has any archaeological features which trees might damage.
What are the best types of trees to plant?
The best way to choose trees for your site is to look at what is already growing well in your neighbourhood. That way you can identify which species suit the local climate, soil type and wildlife of the area. The Woodland Trust website has a full list of native trees and shrubs you can consider, such as oak, alder, rowan, hawthorn and dogwood.
How should I plant them?
Tree planting is often restricted by the location of sheds and the shape of your field, but there are ways you can design your planting to suit your site and your birds.
Options include planting trees close to the shed with a clear view of tree cover from pop-holes to encourage ranging; planting groups of 15-30 trees with the bulk being at the field edge to create shelter; and creating corridors between belts of woodland to encourage hens to explore further out into the range. Further design ideas can be found on the Woodland Trust website.
When should I plant trees?
For bare-rooted saplings, aim to plant your trees between mid-November and March. Cell-grown trees can be planted as early as October. If you have clay soils, it’s better to plant in November or December.
Should I plant shrubs too?
Planting shrubs on the edges of tree groups creates a graded woodland edge which will encourage birds to explore. Graded woodland will also act as a windbreak, making the area warmer and providing better shed screening.
It’s important to remember to prevent the lower branches of shrubs being in contact with ground vegetation, as enclosed areas can encourage hens to lay outside.
How can I encourage my birds to range?
To encourage chickens out of your sheds, you should plant trees close to the units – shrubs and trees planted 10m away will encourage birds outside while giving enough access space for machinery.
The trees closest to the sheds will be under the greatest pressure from the birds and may be difficult to establish, so it’s worth planting at a higher density to make up for any losses. You can move to a lower density behind them so the birds have visibility and are encouraged to roam further.
What do I need to do to maintain my planted areas?
The bases of all newly planted trees have to be kept weed-free to make sure the young trees can access as much water as possible during the growing season.
Weeding should be done as soon as the growing season starts for the first two or three years. After that point, the tree roots should have developed enough to make weeding unnecessary.
Weed-free circles around the base of the tree can lead to hens scratching up to the tree stem, which damages surface roots. To prevent them, it’s worth creating a weed-free ring of vegetation about 10cm adjacent to the base of the tree. If trees are still suffering from pecking around the roots, you can fit a square of plastic garden mesh around the tree to provide a more peck-resistant surface.
How to I maintain my trees once they are older?
Keep an eye on your trees by inspecting them every month. One of the most common issues is vegetation growing inside your tree guards, which can smother the trees.
Despite your best efforts, it’s likely that 5-10% of the trees you plant will die within one to three years, and these should be removed and replaced the next winter. If the same species are dying, your conditions might not suit it and it may be worth considering a different variety of tree.
After three to four years you can start pruning trees to reduce damage caused by birds trying to roost on lower branches and prevent vegetation from growing into lower branches, which can lead to hens laying outside. Most native species are best pruned in winter.
Long-term you may wish to thin your trees to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients. When you thin depends on your initial planting density and how quickly the trees grow, but typically the first thinking of new broadleaved wood takes place between years 15 and 25.
However, if you want to maintain ground vegetation, you should think as soon as you see that the trees’ shade is reducing ground cover, which could be as early as year 10.
For more details and advice on woodland design, tree planting and maintenance on free range poultry units, visit www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/farming