Bark filled pens are the best way to manage the ground in pens that birds have to be confined in for any length of time. It also provides the birds with an improved quality of life. It can be decidely frustrating for birds to be able to see the outside world but be prevented from getting to it, or teased with only rare visits out.
One of the very worst pen management circumstances a poultry or waterfowl keeper can find themselves with, is a wet bare soil area. This is the quickest way to bacteria soup and seriously ill chickens. Unfortunately far too many people find themselves in this situation having spent a great deal on an undersized permanent pen for birds in a corner of the garden.
Do not despair – there are solutions to give your birds a decent quality of life, and even reward you with a superb source of mulch for your garden.
The best time to set this up is at the beginning of your poultry keeping, I wlll mention some of the remedial actions at the end. Even if you are going to let your birds out most of the time, either free in the garden or protected behind electric netting using this method to provide your birds with a perfect place to sulk on wet grotty days, to have an established dust bath and somewhere you can shut them in temporarily if needed.
Many people buy a house with an integral run, like the one to the right. This has a door at the end of the run to let birds out, and the birds can shelter underneath the house if the weather gets horrid. If you live in an area of persistant grotty weather then putting a cover on the run top is a good idea to provide a bigger dry area.
To set up a bark area the MOST IMPORTANT thing is to lay down either slabs or, even better, the permeable ground cover membrane for paths and gardens. This prevents the soil from mixing with the bark and is vital to prevent disease. It also allows you to clean the area thoroughly when required.
The best bark to use is the coarsest you can get hold of. If you can source bark straight off the tree direct from a timber mill so much the better. Otherwise you can get it in bags from the garden centres. The reason for coarseness is to allow the droppings etc to pass through for as long as possible. The activity of the hens will break it down over time.
When setting up the pen the bark should be 4 – 6 inches deep. This creates a depth that the muck and rain can get away from the birds, the acidity will help to neutralise it and the top layer gets to dry out. This top layer will be what the birds will haev to work away at, so keeping them entertained and reducing bullying that happens so much with birds enclosed in small spaces. Bugs and grubs are attracted to the bark environment and its easy to ‘seed’ the area with wheat and rake it in so the birds can scratch for it, that which germinates gives them welcome greens.
How often it will need turned over depends on how often they are using it, how wet or dry it is, how many in what space etc etc. There are always plenty of ‘depends’ and very few rules in any animal husbandry. Using a fork in dry conditions you can turn the bark about a bit, keeping it light and aerated.
After some weeks, or even a couple of months, of good maintenance it will eventually become obvious that the bark needs replaced. When it has broken down to fine bits and the muck and wet are no longer passing through. At this point remove it all and pile it up in your garden. Left for 6 months to continue to rot it will become the most perfect mulch. Give the area a really good clean and wash down, refill and start again.
If you are starting from a soggy muddy mess !! the best is to remove some of the worst of the mud before laying down the membrane, remembering to create a drain line out of the area. If you fear, or know from sickness in birds, that you have a serious bacterial buildup then you can treat the ground with Oocide first.