Animals and fruit trees are a natural partnership – after all, they evolved together, so it makes sense they work well together, as we’ve spoken about in this blog recently. It proved to be such a popular topic that we’re revisiting it this week.

One of our organic orchard buddies, Phil Marriott (who we mentioned in the blog), runs Shropshire sheep under his lemon trees, and points out that it has to be done right, or you risk quite a lot of damage to your trees. His sheep routinely eat the bottom metre or so of foliage from the trees (as you can see from the photo below).

People were intrigued by the fact that one of the keys to Phil’s success is that he’s developed a ‘dream team’, by immediately excluding anyone that shows a propensity to do the wrong thing, because it only takes a couple of days for a new and unwelcome behaviour to spread through the whole flock.

This behaviour might include eating bark (as we showed in the first blog), trying to climb the trees to reach more of the foliage, or pushing through fences into areas they’re not supposed to be. Or, all three!

Building a flock of compliant animals who are used to grazing in the way you want them to is definitely one way to minimise damage to your trees, but it’s quite intensive, so a more common technique is managing the animals behaviour and range with electric fences.

Electric fences can be used to manage animals as diverse as sheep, cows, pigs and chickens around your fruit trees, but of course they also have their downside. (Honestly, when is anything to do with animals simple?)

Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard
Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard

In orchard, small farm (or large garden) settings, the most common complaints include the fence getting tangled in long grass and trees, shorting out and becoming ineffective, and needing regular moving and maintenance.

On a farm-scale, many growers are moving instead to permanent netting systems to divide their orchards into small manageable blocks to shift animals through – but that’s a much more capital-intensive solution, which puts it out of reach for most gardeners or people with smaller lifestyle blocks.

Overall, the health of any farm or garden is usually going to improve when you introduce animals to the system, and caring for and spending time with animals is fabulously good for your mental health.

But of course animals take much more constant care than trees. You’ve got to pay attention to shelter, water and protection from predators, and be always alert to their health and welfare.

Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators
Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators

Despite the drawbacks, there is widespread agreement that the benefits of combining fruit trees with animals definitely outweigh the costs, which is why it’s one of the key strategies in our Permaculture in Action short course.

For many backyard fruit growers, chickens are the easy place to start, and they are a great fit with fruit trees.

The ideal situation is to be able to confine them around your trees for a short period, a few times a year, especially in spring and autumn. That way they’ll be providing the maximum benefits of cleaning up pests as these emerge from the soil in spring, and again as they are preparing to overwinter in autumn.

However, on young trees chooks can give the tree roots a pretty hard time if you leave them in there for too long, which is why it’s great to have another option for where you keep them the rest of the time.

Mature trees will also benefit from not having chickens around them the entire time, as the trees fare much better from having a diverse floral understorey growing under them (lots of flowers, herbs and even vegetables), and of course they are NOT compatible with chickens!