Chickens and trees – a perfect marriage

I almost became a chicken farmer for a few years.  Anyone would be forgiven for wondering why a forest scientist became so interested in chickens.  I had spent many years developing and testing improved hardwood tree varieties (genetic research), and improving growing methods (silviculture research) but was ever-mindful of the extreme longterm payback for woodland owners.  My mind inevitably turned to novel ways of generating income by diversification while the trees were growing for some 50 years or more.

Agroforestry was an obvious place to start.  Arable crops can be combined with trees but overtime result in reduced crop yields and the trees, being open-grown, are often poor in quality without intensive management.  What about animals: cattle eat trees and pigs uproot them, but what about chickens?  On learning that broiler chicken production had one of the highest economic returns of any farming system I was definitely interested in finding out more.

Silvo-poultry arks
Silvo-poultry arks at one of the research farms

An introduction to Professor Marian Dawkins of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford was of monumental importance.  Coincidentally Prof Dawkins had come to the same idea about combining chickens and trees but from the perspective of the chicken, rather than the tree.  Her  ground-breaking research had shown that only a tiny percentage of ‘free-range’ birds ever actually left their huge houses, usually containing 20,000 birds or more, even though the birds had access to open space beyond. She realised that chickens originated from jungle fowl and were essentially agoraphobic: where the chance tree existed in a barren field, the chickens would crowd under its shelter.

So the concept of silvo-poultry was born: a system that would produce quality trees in a true forest system, while supporting free-ranging behaviour in chickens.  The chickens would not only provide much-needed cashflow but also fertilise the trees while they establish, and even control competing weeds.  The trees would encourage the birds to range more, reducing behavioral problems due to boredom and crowding, and even improve taste for the consumer.  Financially such a system would generate annual profit while a valuable long-term investment was maturing in the trees.  The best of both tree and chicken systems combined in a perfect marriage.

chicken and tree posts
Read more chicken and tree posts

However, was it possible to prove that these ideas, so good on paper, would actually work?  Find out in a later post.

Gabriel Hemery

5 thoughts on “Chickens and trees – a perfect marriage

  1. Hi Gabriel,

    As a recent graduate in agroforestry (MSc Bangor) I find this very interesting indeed. To my mind, temperate agroforestry systems deserve greater attention than they currently receive. The question is, of course, can they give financial returns that compare favourably versus alternative land-use options over a given time horizon?

    Don’t keep us in suspense re. your results for too long please 🙂

    Regards,

    James

    1. Thanks James. I agree that these systems are much under-explored. Thanks for bearing with me re the timing of my posts: I didn’t want to reveal all the chickens in my basket at once! If you really can’t wait you can see some peer-reviewed and popular articles referenced on my publications page. One of these is an article that explores the financial models in some depth. Gabriel

  2. Hi Gabriel,

    I’ve had a read of the relevant papers you mentioned and there is quite clearly significant potential in this system. I have a few questions if you don’t mind:

    — Are the trials still ongoing?
    — Have any government agencies (e.g. DEFRA etc) showed interest?
    — Are there any efforts (either planned or underway) to disseminate the findings to the wider farming community?
    — To your knowledge has any independent adoption by farmers taken place?

    Cheers, James.

  3. James – to answer your questions:
    1. No the research trials were closed due to lack of research funding after only 3 years.
    The research plots at Northmoor Trust are pretty much derelict. At FAI Farms near Oxford there are still poultry on the site but I suspect that the experimental design is not longer in place.

    2. Getting funding from Govt was very difficult at the time. Defra told me that as this was agroforestry then there was no support available as it sat between the forestry and livestock budgets! This despite the concept that this was what sustainable land mangement should be all about.
    We did however get enthustiastic support, including some funding, from DEFRA’s Livestock Science Unit.

    3. Wider dissemination- there were quite a lot of articles published in the practical press at the time, and also some high profile farm visits with a large number of farmers visiting the trials at both sites.
    There is unlikely to be any additional promotion of the findings as the research element has closed. It would be super if interest was rekindled as the system seemed to be of great interest while it was running.

    4. I do know that as a result of our findings Tesco planted trees on their free-range farms. Other smaller-scale systems also learnt from the research.
    Lack of uptake was the main reason for the project closing. You can imagine that balancing the research elements with commercial outputs was extremely complicated and sometimes restrictive. Tesco who originaly funded some of the research adopted many of the findings for their own farms and the research co-operative was unable to expand to fill the new market. Waitrose took on the birds but quickly also wanted to expand. By then I had left my job so was no longer at the helm. Essentially if four other farms had joined with the two already producing birds, then a fully operating commercial system would have satisfied the supermarket.

    Feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss this further.
    Gabriel

  4. Pingback: Money grows under trees « Gabriel Hemery

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