Backyards, bias, and botulism

I read with interest this week the report in The Guardian of an undercover investigation into the UK poultry industry. It exposed some ‘dirty secrets’ of the process and offered some insight into the problem of campylobacter infections that over 250,000 Britons pick up each year.

It reminded me however of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago which seemed to slip by the popular press regarding poultry litter and botulism. Not in humans this time but in ruminants instead……

” Towards the end of 2012 there was a flurry of media activity regarding a report written in 2010 on the risks to the poultry industry that the inexperienced backyard chicken keeper presents. I was quoted in The Guardian as having said something along the lines of it’s not the risk the backyarder presents the industry but the other way around, and whilst that ‘sound bite’ attracted comments of support it does seem a little bit glib and throw away. My reasons were not in response to the RVA report but in fact related to another piece of news that came out on the same day which seemed to slip under the radar. This report related to use of broiler house litter on agricultural land and the botulism risk it presents to sheep and cattle.

I’m a gardener and vegetable grower and whether it’s a truism or not I’ve always been of the understanding that spreading poultry manure (litter) directly on to plants is a no-no as its too strong and risks burning the plants, and so I compost it for at least 6 months.  Most folks who garden or grow their own also compost their green waste, it is after all not waste but stacked full of useful nutrients that have come from the soil and so can be returned to the soil. Those of us who keep chickens also know that adding poultry litter to the compost heap not only helps accelerate the decomposition of the waste but can add significantly to the end product.  It seems a sensible way to recycle both the green waste and poultry litter into something useful, and let’s face it poultry can produce a lot of waste.

The volume though is nothing compare with what would be produced on an industrial scale so what happens to that waste? Focusing in on broiler litter it would appear that up until recently the litter could be used as animal bedding! Now if you have never visited a broiler unit then might not be aware of the levels of stock and stock density in such places, and so you may not be aware that within the 1000’s of birds being reared it is quite possible that one or two individuals may die for whatever reason and effectively be trampled into the litter and go unnoticed. It’s also well documented that cattle and sheep exposed to broiler litter have an increased risk of contracting botulism if that litter contains decomposing poultry.

Checking the AHVLA quarterly report on potential food safety incidents January to March 2012 confirms 7 incidents of botulism were identified. Of these, 4 were directly attributed to the use of broiler litter as cattle bedding which resulted in a total of 270 cattle being exposed to a botulism risk and 11 cattle dying as a result. Aside from the fact that using one animals soiled litter as bedding for another seems most odd it is also alarming that this should occur given that DEFRA confirmed in 2011 that poultry litter is a category 2 animal by-product and that the use of it as a bedding for other animals is not an approved disposal method and anyone who does is at “risk of committing an offence under the Animal Welfare Act (England) 2006 if animals suffer unnecessarily or are caused harm as a direct consequence of such action.” It is in fact now also an illegal practice under the Animal By-Products (Enforcement) Regulations 2011.

The issue is obviously still a problem today despite the legislation as the AHVLA felt necessary to reiterate the point that poultry litter should not be used as animal bedding in their information note published at the end of October 2012.

The waste though still needs to be dealt with so what is the current guidance? Poultry litter can be applied directly to farmland in an unprocessed state as this is considered “low risk”. There are some restrictions though and if the land is pasture to be used for grazing then it cannot be grazed for 3 weeks after application, nor should it be cropped for feeding during that time period. It can however be cut for hay or silage production during that time.

So what of the other 3 incidents of botulism during that first quarter of 2012? These involved the exposure of 280 cattle of which 12 cattle were confirmed as having botulism and 9 subsequently died.

The root cause of each incident could not be pinpointed but it was suspected that the first was as a result of the cattle consuming a bale of hay containing a poultry carcass. In the second incident the AHVLA believed the source to be a carcass in a bale of silage that had been cut from a field adjoining a poultry unit. And in the third incident the AHVLA suspected the infection was as a consequence of the herd being “turned into a field where wash water from a broiler house had recently been sprayed and the field was also adjacent to arable fields where poultry litter had recently been spread”.

Bear in mind these are only known reported food safety incidents, it is distinctly plausible there are a number more that go unnoticed or unresolved.  By the same measure it would be equally sensationalist of me to highlight a major concern over such a relatively small number of reported incidents, and to not add that there are many industrial units that follow procedure in repeatedly checking broiler houses for carcasses as well as repeatedly screening the removed litter for evidence of dead birds. However the AHVLA have advised DEFRA in a letter printed in the Veterinary Record (May 2011) against the use of poultry litter on any grassland as “there is concern that the litter itself may contain the botulinum toxin, which could remain potent for many weeks”. Add to that the very real possibility that scavenging birds and mammals may pick up carcasses from fields spread with poultry litter (even prior to it being ploughed in) and carry them to adjoining fields and farms, then it’s easy to see the size of the issue and the concerns it raises.

So on the grand scale of things just how much of a risk do backyarders really present the poultry industry? They are a molehill in the mountain range of food production but perhaps it’s time their traditional techniques were engaged and explored and not battered when surrounded by industrial practices that contain so many question marks.”

I shall have to revisit the figures when the 2013 reports become available. It’ll be interesting to see if there have been any changes

Meanwhile you can read The Guardian report in full here



Feeding scraps & growing your own chicken feed (the way it was)

A couple of posts ago I blogged about my perspective on the EU legislation relating to the feeding of kitchen scraps to your chickens.

As a result quite a few people contacted me wanting to know a bit more about how folks fed their feathered livestock prior to the ‘meddling EU’ getting involved.

The premise behind it all really was to create chicken feed from the kitchen left overs, in other words food we would not eat ourselves due to it being less palatable (which today at best would be composted, at worst thrown away into a landfill site). These ‘scraps’ would then be converted by the chicken into something far more appealing such as an egg or meat – it seems a simple, frugal and sensible way of recycling, no?

As I’ve mentioned before, within the EU the feeding of kitchen scraps to livestock is regulated and strict guidance is provided on what can and cannot be fed to animals, such as chickens, that sit within our food chain. Prior to this legislation however it was common place to feed chickens scraps and in fact was encouraged as an economical way to convert kitchen by-product into eggs and meat by the very same organisations that no prohibit it.

Back in the old days common sense would be applied and no meat other than fish, or any non meat product that had come into to direct contact with meat (other than fish) would be fed to the chickens. (Sensible, and a bit of shame we didn’t remember that point, it could have saved a lot of hassle with mad cow disease and the like)

Most raw vegetables would be minced first before being fed to the chickens and a few, such as potato peelings would be cooked or steamed first in order to make them more palatable. Even the water from this cooking exercise would be made available to the flock as it contained valuable vitamins and minerals.


It might be against the law today to feed kitchen scraps in this manner however it isn’t against the law to grow your own chicken feed which would certainly supplement any commercially obtained feed or feed ingredients. Legumes such as pea, broad, French and runner bean are particularly beneficial being high in protein and are also mostly liked by chickens. It is best to dry them and then mince or grind them before adding them to the chickens feed. Other vegetables such as maize, brassicas (sprouts, cabbages), kale and sunflowers all provide an excellent source of supplements.

During the winter feeding sprouted seeds provides another excellent source of protein for your chickens giving the flock a welcome boost.

It is however important to note that if you do elect to grow your own chicken feed then do make sure you weigh up the space taken to grow the plants against the value of the food you get in return from the chickens. This is perhaps why in the past we made the best economical use of the waste from allotments and vegetable plots in the old days…..

Leghorn-Brown-Chick 2

Apple Tree Recovery – Pruning & how to revive an old tree

When we moved here some years back we were presented with quite a wilderness. The house was just about to reach at least its second dereliction in as many decades and the garden was in need of some serious help to try and bring it back to some semblance of order. A previous owner had planted up some wonderful fruit trees included a variety of Shropshire prune, plus a number of apple, cherry and pear trees however these had been abandoned for a number of years and its taken sometime to gradually bring as many as we could back into productivity. Ok, some people would advocate starting over with new stock plants but I really hate cutting trees down unless there is a very good reason such as disease or safety, besides theres something wonderful about a knarled old Bramley bursting into life again.

By the end of February is essential you have most of your fruit tree pruning complete before the plant begins to grow so heres a step by step guide to recovering a neglected spur bearing apple tree.


This particular tree has been pruned over previous years as it was in a terrible state so if you have one that really is a congested mess then execute this process over a 3 year period in order to control the regrowth and achieve a level of productivity without stressing the tree and exposing it to potential infection or disease.

As a basic rule of thumb the first pruning activity should be the 3D’s, this is to prune out the diseased, dead or damaged branches, but by the same measure you should look to shape the tree into a bowl structure. This will let light and air through into the canopy which will not only mean healthy growth but quality productive growth. As my grandfather told me once ‘aim to create a bowl shape with enough space for a pigeon to fly through and it’ll see you right’. The old fella’s tips have never failed me yet!


What you will need


  • Pruning saw/Bow saw
  • Secateurs
  • Long handled loppers


Step 1

No action in this step, just observation. Take a good long look at the tree structure, try to visualise a bowl like shape. It’s always good to take step back and observe throughout the process also.


Step 2

Using a pruning saw remove all dead or diseased wood, cutting back to the main branch or trunk


Step 3

Look for any crossing branches, they will usually show rubbing on the bark as this one does. Remove them, they will cause a wound for disease in the long run.


Step 4

Prune out any whips growing on the main trunks, these will be unproductive and reduce the light and air in the tree if left to grow.


Step 5

Using a bow saw or pruning saw remove any central trunks that may sprout whips and interfere with the bowl structure you are looking for.


Step 6

Cut out two out of every three of the remaining new growth whips. Long handled loppers make this job quicker than ladders


Step 7

Prune the remaining new growth down to three buds from the main branch cutting about an inch beyond the terminal bud.


Step 8

Apply a good mulch of well rotted compost to keep the weeds down and give the tree a boost after its ‘surgery’


Step 9

Stand back, have a cup of tea, and survey the shape. Identify if there is any remaining pruning required in order to achieve that desired bowl shape


Fruits of your labours

Wheelbarrow compost riddle & drying tray

With having a fairly large productive garden and more chickens than you can shake a stick at, we create quite a bit of garden waste, though far from ‘waste’ it is, as we compost just about everything we can. We do this not only to supplement the vegetable plot but also to create our own potting medium.


We’ve found that mixing our home-made compost along with some of the composted PAS 100 green waste we buy in, and a bit of loam, creates a great recycled growing medium for a number of the pot plants we grow. The problem is though that whilst the green waste is screened, our own compost can be a bit lumpy, and needs riddling. The trouble is though that with the quantities the small hand-held riddles aren’t quite up to the job hence this simple device, a large scale compost riddle.


This design means I can riddle large quantities of compost directly from the compost bins and into the wheelbarrow.  I can also put the larger bits of compost that didn’t pass through the riddle straight back on to the cooking heap for further decomposition. You’ll be surprised at the quality of the riddled product.


The other useful element of this large scale sieve is that when it’s not in use it doubles up as an excellent tray for drying out onions and garlics, or ‘hardening’ pumpkins and squashes before storage. And when it’s not doing anything at all, it can be easily stashed away in the potting shed. The project will take no more than 30 minutes to produce and costs a few pounds


As a riddler...


...and now a drying frame


What you will need


  • Saw
  • Screwdriver
  • Drill
  • Tape measure
  • Wire cutters/Pliers
  • Staple gun



  •  Approximately 6metres of 25mm x 50mm treated timber batons
  • 1m x 0.5m sheet of weld mesh with 1cm holes
  • Wood screws


Step 1

Measure the width and length of your wheelbarrow to get the dimensions for the compost riddle. Ideally you will need either (or both) the sides or top and bottom of the frame in contact with the edges of the barrow.


Step 2

Using a handsaw or table saw cut the baton lengths according to the required measurements to make two frames. Sand off any rough edges.


Step 3

Drill and screw together each of the two frames using 2.5 inch wood screws. The joint need only be strong enough to hold the frame roughly in shape so a single screw will be sufficient.



Step 4

Using the wire cutters or pliers, cut the weld mesh to fit the frame. Make it a couple of centimetres smaller than the outside edge of the frame so as to avoid any sharp ends protruding.


Step 5

Lay the weld mesh over one of the frames and staple into position. If you don’t have a staple gun powerful enough then small U nails can be used but be sure to hammer them fully into the wood. 


Step 6

Place the second frame over the top of the frame with the weld mesh attached and sandwich the mesh. Drill and screw the second frame into place.


Job done, have a sit down and a brew now



“California Dreaming” – the Californian Compost Bin

Good soil can produce good crops, but being able to make good compost can create great crops! I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the ‘dark art’ of good compost making, and whilst what you put in is key, there is also an important element in terms of what you put it in. We have all seen the many containers available on the market with their various claims, however composting has been going on long before plastic moulding was invented.

I’m also a bit of squirrel when it comes to gardening books, and regular browse the second-hand book shops looking for something different. It was whilst in such a shop at Whittington Castle I stumbled upon a 25-year-old copy Lawrence D. Hills “Month-by-Month Organic Gardening”. Inside it was a short section describing the Californian cylinder, and so curiosity got the better of me and I bought the book.

The Californian cylinder is an American invention as the name would suggest and was created by a keen organic gardener who had to work with poor soil conditions, he went by the name of Captain James Macdonald. It’s a simple concept, and perhaps not overly different from some designs at first glance, however its very quick to construct and very cheap to build, with practically no woodworking skills needed and the majority of the materials being available in the dark corners of most gardeners potting sheds.

This cylinder is 4 feet in diameter and about 3.5 feet tall so will hold a serious amount of waste. Use some chicken muck or a bit of “Chairman Mao’s Special” as an activator, and, if my maths serves me well, and reluctantly stepping into metric for a moment, it will, when full, create around 1000 litres of compost. Not a bad return for a couple of hours work and at best, a fiver of cost!

The Californian Compost Cylinder

What you will need


  • Saw
  • Mallet
  • Border spade
  • Measuring tape
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver


  • Feather board (4-6 inches wide) 4 x 5 foot lengths
  • 2×1 batons  12 x 8 inch + 4 x 16 inch
  • Stock fencing 3-4 feet tall x 13 feet long
  • Garden wire and twine
  • Cardboard or carpet for lining

Step 1

X marks the spot. Select the location for your cylinder and lay two of the planks in an X on the ground. Cut the outline using the border spade

Step 2

Using the border spade dig out the air channels, these need to be 5-6 inches wide and the same again deep

Step 3

Cut the planks to length and line the channel, use a mallet to knock in the end sections on plank. Be sure to have them overlapping the side planks for support

Step 4

Using the mallet again, knock in the short pegs to support the lining planks. These should 10-12 inches from the centre point of the cross

Step 5

Now hammer in the outer support pegs, one short one long. The diameter of the cylinder is 4 feet so these need to be 2 feet from the centre of the cross. Drill holes in the longer pegs.

Step 6

Put the length of stock fencing in place and shape to a cylinder. Secure the ends using garden wire.

Step 7

Now attach the edges of the cylinder to the longer pegs using garden wire. This will hold the shape and anchor it to the ground

Step 8

Line the walls of cylinder inside with old carpet or cardboard. Using a screwdriver, poke holes in the lining and tie it to the cylinder using garden twine

Step 9

Cover the bottom of the cylinder with twiggy material. This will help keep the air channels clear. Your compost cylinder is now ready for filling.

Once full the waste will take around 3-6 months to rot down depending on the weather. Emptying it is simple enough, just remove the ties holding the stock fence in place, peel it back and dig the compost out. Once emptied simply re-attach the stock fence, re-line it with cardboard and away you go again.

Leaf Mould – excellent source of soil conditioner

Leaf mould is one of the simplest things to create yet its source, dead leaves, are probably one of the most wasted sources of lasting humus. Come the autumn time I’m horrified to see people burning leaves, when I would without hesitation, happily take them all. In fact I might even venture to offer to clear them up!


A very quick, simple, cheap and ultimately effective way to compost down the leaves is by creating a leaf mould bin in a corner of the garden. It costs around £7 if you need to buy in the materials and will take less than an hour to make.


Leaf moulding is a way of creating excellent soil enhancer or mulch and is the one of the best ways of improving your soil structure, be it sandy soil or clay. Left to their own devices leaves will break down over a period of a couple of years however by heaping them in a bin (and adding some ‘household activator’ – read tiddling on them) you can accelerate the breakdown to around a year. This method was said to be pioneered by Dr Peggy Ellis of the HDRA and to some is known as a ‘Peggy Pile’.

A simple wire frame 1mx1mx1m will do the job


When collecting the leaves don’t worry about mixing up leaves from different trees, they will all rot down in the end, although where possible avoid those from holly trees, in my experience they take much longer to rot, and come the following autumn when you want to use the resulting ‘compost’ you’ll find their spiky leaves will still provide an unwelcome jab to the ungloved hand.


Once the bin is full put a bit of old carpet over the top just to weigh it down. The pile will shrink over the year as the leaves rot down, but in the end you will be left a valuable dollop of material which will benefit your garden no end.