The permaculture chicken niche –

Looking for an organic method of reducing insect pests in your orchard? You might want to consider poultry! There are many benefits to letting chickens or ducks roam around your orchard. These lovely birds can help you manage both weeds and insects without the use of pesticides, while also naturally fertilizing your soil. And don’t forget the eggs!

NOTE: It is technically not legal to have chickens in the City of Philadelphia unless you have 3+ acres of land. Permits for educational sites are also sometimes granted.  There are currently many people working to change the law in Philadelphia, see “Resources” at the end for more on local owners and activist groups.  Many other cities do permit the raising of chickens, with varying degrees of restriction; check your local regulations.  If you or your organization cannot have chickens, one solution may be to partner with other chicken owners and have them visit your orchard site at a few key times each season.

Reducing Insect Pests

Many common orchard pests–such as the codling moth, plum curculio, fruit flies, thrips and other lepidopteran pests like leaf rollers and leaf miners–spend part of their life cycle in the upper few inches of soil where chickens love to hunt. Chickens will eat insects in all three stages of development: adult, larval, and egg. They scratch the top of the soil, searching for insects, some in their pupal stages, and eat them. Understanding the life cycle of your insect pests can help you determine when to run chickens in your orchard for the greatest effect.

Fewer Fungi

Chickens will also eat fallen fruit, lessening insect pests and fungus-related problems the following year, but they are generally not tall enough to bother the ripening fruit growing on your trees (especially if well pruned). You do not want chickens in your orchard for the entire year. It is best to allow chickens in your orchard in early spring, when the pests are still in pupal stages of development and before the adult pests emerge. Let the chickens back into the orchard when your fruit is starting to ripen; as pest-ridden fruit drops to the ground, the chickens will take care of it for you. They can also roam your garden in the autumn, which will help clean up the diseased and pest-ridden fruit before the winter, as well as any pests still living there. Just beware if you are growing citrus trees, as citrus is not recommended for chickens to eat.

Weed Suppression

Another huge benefit of letting chickens into your orchard is how they will help you to suppress weeds. Weeds will compete with your trees for nutrients and are also a habitation for unwanted pests. Usually, the weed seed bank remains in the top few inches of soil. As previously mentioned, chickens will scratch the surface of soil to find insects, and will also find and eat these weed seeds. You might even want to plant an edible forage cover crop to give your chickens extra food while in your orchard. This will also add nutrients to your orchard soil. The cover crop should not be more than 3 – 5 inches tall, so that the chickens can reach it. Examples of cover crops you could use are alfalfa, clover, kale, turnips, turnips, mustard, and cowpeas. See resources for more.

Happy orchard chickens –

Increased Soil Fertility

Added fertility is yet another benefit of allowing chickens to roam your orchard. On average, a meat chicken will provide 15 pounds of manure per year, while a laying hen will provide 22 pounds. The phosphorus in this manure is especially helpful, but overall the chickens’ manure will add to your orchard’s soil fertility and soil biology.


If purchasing chickens just for this purpose, you might want to consider which type you want, as not all chickens will search as voraciously for seeds and insects to eat. The best type for your orchard is the Red Ranger chicken, who was bred to hunt and will leave no piece of your orchard untouched. Descendents of the Freedom Ranger chickens, who were the original foragers, the Red Rangers are meat chickens that are bred in the United States. While a chicken such as the Cornish Cross will wait to be fed, the Red Ranger’s foraging skills make it ideal for your orchard.

Red Ranger hens and rooster –

Housing and Protection

Before acquiring chickens, you must always consider their protection from predators, their medical needs, and their food source for the entire year, not just while they are in your orchard. You might want to use movable fences to move them around your orchard in an organized fashion. If you have a larger orchard, you can also use large, open air, movable “chicken tractors,” which are an efficient method for controlling the movement of your chickens within your orchard.

NOTE: Although the content above refers to chickens, ducks and other poultry can be equally effective in many of the described benefits provided to orchards. In fact, ducks are often superior insect foragers and usually cause less damage to understory plants, so can be better suited to help in food forests.



This POP TIP compiled by 2015 Education Intern, Rachel Baltuch, and Program Director, Robyn Mello.
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