Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 3. Tree Fodder & Tree Hay

The idea of tree fodder is inextricably linked with the changing landscape, the full domestication of animals, the concept of farming and the clearance of the forests. It should therefore come as no surprise that this practice of feeding livestock, which started with the prehistoric herders and mostly finished in Europe around WWII is, through forest gardening, permaculture and modern silviculture, undergoing a revival. Although ostensibly seen as a way of feeding ruminants and of particular and prescient value in drought-ridden and soil-eroded areas, there is no reason why it can't be used in our own gardens as a great way to feed poultry. The mother hen below is jumping up to pull down the hornbeam leaves for her chicks. This is just one method...

I stumbled across this practice quite by accident, as I have a real 'thing' about people snipping bits off our hedges. Nobody wants bad blood with neighbours, so I was quietly investigating who was making the tell-tale clipping noises when I discovered it was the chicks! As I have so often written in this blog, I believe poultry know more about their own dietary requirements than we ever will.

Early Forest Farming, Tree Fodder and Tree Hay - Lost Knowledge & Social History

From  Double D Delights Pinterest
If we take the UK for example, it has oft been quoted that prior to the clearance of the woodlands and formation of the royal hunting parks under King Cnut (Canute) at the beginning of the 11th century, a squirrel could travel across Britain by jumping from tree to tree without ever touching the ground. The earliest of the Anglo Saxon experiments in 'taming' wild animals were part-domesticated pigs or hogs, which were bred on a homestead and then turned out to feed in the forests with a herdsman or swineherd. Although the Stone Age farmed pigs were thought to have arrived from Asia, it was this secondary domestication of the wild European boar, which is perhaps the most interesting. However, over the Winter period the pigs became too difficult to feed and to all intent and purposes were returned to the 'wild'. Alone they could forage much further in the vast public forests to find the necessary beech masts and acorns and other choice arboreal items, with which to sustain themselves. These hogs were then re-captured in Spring and returned to foraging alongside their herders.

Furthermore, even as early as the 9th century, royal charters were drawn up to limit the foraging of hogs between certain periods of the year, which of course were the crucial Winter times, when the owner couldn't afford to feed his pig.  Seizure of property was permitted in the case of 'trespassing' swine, or perhaps more fairly under King Alfred, the introduction of pascua porcōrrum, or denbǽra, feeding rights, which became payable at the end of the fattening season, in pigs. So much was this 'rental' a part of rural life that the practice became synonymous with the month of November, as seen here above in the calendar page for that month in the Queen Mary Psalter c 1310 (British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts). Thus from a semi-wild food the pig became a currency, not only for such worldly usage as the payment of dowries and rents but also accepted by the clergy to say masses for the dead. It is a great pity that according to the accounts of this period I have read, themselves based on copious contemporary legal documentation, that pig keepers seemed to have lost the ancient art of Summer coppicing and tree-hay making known to their Neolithic ancestors. My thinking is, that as the former were living in a feudal system, relying on hierarchies inculcated by laws, they had abandoned the self-reliant savoir faire of the autonomous prehistoric herders. In fact the continuance of leaf and twig fodder gathering in Scandinavia, long after it had been abandoned in Britain, has been linked to the home-grown food production in the harsh Northern climes, whereas to quote Napoléon Bonaparte, England is/was a nation of shopkeepers, relying on trade and as such has always imported a great percentage of its food. 

The figure left, taken from a manuscript, shows a swineherd in the act of feeding his pigs by knocking down the mast. The title of the image is 'pannage', which is the Norman version of the Saxon denbǽra, unfortunately the original article, which I would have loved to read, has gone from trinitycollegelibrarycambridge.wordpress but the image remains on their Pinterest site

Furthermore, DNA studies into the bone composition of early cattle has revealed that prior to early man's forest clearings for grass pasture and cultivation of crops, Aurochs and their kind lived on and in the swamps and woodland fringes of forests. This is witnessed by the tell-tale leaf derived nutrients in their skeletal remains. It seems therefore logical that poultry such as chickens, which were originally 'jungle fowl' would also thrive better on a paleo diet.

Tree Fodder a Wonderful Unlooked for Result of our Garden Plan

When we came here to this abandoned field and ruined house, our first thought was to plant wind breaks or shelter belts to cut down the drying and chilling effect of the westerlies from the bay. We travelled by motorbike in those days but it's surprising how much bare root hedging beech and hornbeam you can get on the back of an old-fashioned tourer.

When the poultry came along, I did like the idea that they could and would use the hedges as a secondary and additional layer in which to roost and socialise but I little thought then about it providing nutrient other than aphids and maybe the occasional unlucky caterpillar. (Photo below: looking back from the top left hand corner of this one, 15 years apart!).

Over the years we have also shaped the hedges so that we have a lower layer of hedging and then an upper crown of leaves. This allows more light into the garden and most importantly into the greenhouses. The shelter given by these hedges is incredible, I'm reckoning we have on average a 2°C difference in our garden to our neighbours and we can sit and work here on days when the wind is howling around the neighbourhood. We have also welcomed creatures I haven't seen in other locations here, such as bush crickets and tree frogs and of course we have a large population of wild birds.

How the Birds Forage Tree Fodder, When and Why?

You will see several ways our poultry forage in the video, from the incredibly energetic to the leisurely grazers and the lazy 'we'll wait for you to do it' bunch.  However, these latter, seen below eating beech, are perhaps the most sensible, as they are getting maximum food value whilst letting me do all the work.


There is not a huge amount of detailed research available on the actual nutritional value of specific leaves but I have pieced together what I could find. This ranges from studies into pollution, using tree leaf nutrients as a marker to actual charts of leaf fodder breakdown, which includes basics such as crude protein and fibre as well as more detailed mineral analysis. I do feel though that there is a great deal more to come and with the renewed interest and need for fodder, this is sure to happen. Overall and just from observation our chickens are consuming leaves from June through to September. I compared this to the charts on-line for leaf fodder nutrition and find these as the high protein and high fibre months. 

In action: Our hens (right) 'grazing' on beech leaves. Trees growing on rich soil will produce nutrient rich leaves with differences in mineral content also occurring in limestone areas, where, for example, Sodium, Magnesium and Potassium content are higher. There are also some nutritional differences between the lower level leaves and those in the crown. This is interesting as one of the forms of taking tree fodder or making tree hay was to pollard the tree by removing the crown.

The following are the mineral contents of the beech, Fagus sylvatica, which, along with hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, my birds are seen eating in the film:

The main minerals
(above 20g per kilogram): Calcium  and Potassium

followed by:                    Iron, Phosphorus, Sodium and Sulphur

and in trace amounts:    Cobalt, Copper, Manganese, Molybdenum, Selenium and Zinc

Molybdenum is involved in enzyme activity and also in the assimilation of sulphur to allow for effective liver cell detoxification, antioxidant protection and brain and nervous system function.

The crude protein content of the leaves is around 20% (dry matter) falling off to around 14% in September. Fibre, hovers around 25% throughout the season but peaks in July to 27%. Fibre as we have discussed before is of great importance to poultry, in that not only does it aid the digestion of the bird but non-digestible fibre actually fosters the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Beech leaves are also used in tisanes or herbal teas because they contain anti-oxidants and Vitamin C.

Hornbeam (above),  Carpinus betulus, which is another of our hedging trees the birds consume, contains similar amounts of protein to beech but less crude fibre it also contains measurable amounts of boron, which works in synergy with other nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and Vitamin D, (which it converts to D3), to maintain mineralisation of the bones. Boron is also linked to cognitive brain function.


Research on sheep and their consumption of tree fodder has brought to light the role that tannins and phenolic compounds, which the plant produces to prevent leaf damage, may play in the prevention of parasites in and on  the animal. Sheep, self-medicate for internal parasites by eating leaves, such as oak that are rich in tannins and phenolic compounds. I have also read of mares about to foal eating leaves such as willow and poplar, the former for its pain killing abilities and the latter for its anti-inflammatory compounds. Traditionally beech leaves have been used for poultices and the tea as both an anti-inflammatory and for the treatment of respiratory conditions.

Another thing I have noticed with my poultry is that they readily eat up any Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) flowers which fall to earth. However, I intend to devote a whole article to hens and blossoms, so more of this later.


Having experienced my hens eating beech and hornbeam last year and having already observed them eating lucerne/alfalfa hay out of their nest boxes, I am now decided on making leaf hay this year as an experiment. However I can already confirm that my quail certainly prefer Sweet Chestnut leaf bedding to hay or rather straw in the Winter!

Hedges of edible leaves can be planted in any garden to form not only a secondary living space for poultry but also as an additional repository of valuable food and potential medicine. They also provide additional areas for wild life and invertebrates and thus another potential food item. (See left, Stanislas awaits the descending caterpillars). Although leaves may in the long run only form an additional supplement to your birds diet, they are no less a valuable one and in line with our ancestors, help to put us one step nearer to autonomous poultry husbandry and self-reliant living.

.. and now if you'd like to sit back and watch both my own film and a very interesting one on leaf hay...

If you have enjoyed this blog and found it interesting then please think about subscribing, sharing it and/or commenting. Please also feel free to ask questions. 

All the very best,


Providing Forage for Organic Poultry Part 1

Learning from the past. If you are setting up a forest garden  to run your poultry through it, you are probably going to be short of certain wild pasture more

Providing Forage for Organic Poultry Part 2

Continuing an in-depth look into forage and discussing the what, when, where from and more

Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 1 Grass

For centuries farmers and homesteaders raised poultry on a forage-based diet supplemented only by a handful of grain and the occasional table more

Food for Free. Fabulous Forage Part 2 Chickweed

Stellaria media an incredible food and medicinal for poultry, an in-depth look at this ubiquitous more

©  Sue Cross 2016


  1. Regarding the article from Trinity College that you wanted to read, it can be found here:

    1. Thank you so much for posting that, much appreciated. All the very best from Normandie, Sue

  2. Awesome. Anecdotally I've heard stories about folks being shot in rural North Carolina when fence laws were adopted in those rural communities that challenged the practice of forest farming. Pigs had never been penned in those areas. As I heard it told these laws coincided with a chestnut blight that limited wild food resources for the hogs. You can imagine the conflicts that occurred between neighbors when animals were foraging across property lines.

    1. Hi, Thank-you for your comment and for sharing the information about North Carolina. I think it also highlights what I suspect to be true of most countries in the World, that the idea of common land is something most people associate with the Middle Ages. However, if you take the UK, for example, 5% of its land is common. Most of this was registered in 1965 under a Common Land Act, when the rights were written 'in stone' as it were. There are notable exceptions to the rule, as in the unregistered Forest of Dean and the New Forest, the latter has semi-wild livestock, mainly ponies and I have visited an order of tree planting monks in the former, so these forests very much retain their Mediaeval 'roots'. I think it would be very interesting to look at the actual grazing rights and free 'pannage' in all these common areas, some of which are within towns and cities. It would possibly tip the scales for many people who would like to grow food and raise animals/birds but find themselves land-poor.
      As for the hogs in North Carolina, the owners would have had a big problem on their hands. My sister keeps pigs in a wide woodland setting and even there, they still like to forage beyond their limits. A pig once roaming-free and then penned would be in a belligerent mood to say the least!
      All the very best,

  3. Just stumbled across your wonderful blog. Am contemplating useful windbreaks in Maine but am also about to seriously prune some fruit trees Do you have any thoughts on how to store prunings for winter forage in a damp climate? Any ideas would be welcome.

    1. Hi there, Thanks for your kind comments, much appreciated. I am going to do some experiments in tree hay when I prune my beech and hornbeam this year so your question is most opportune. I think the main thing is to prune when the leaves themselves are dry, if that is an impossibility then you will need to dry them carefully before you stook them. An airy barn, would be good but shorter length prunings could be just dried indoors, hung on a clothes dryer in the kitchen? When I watched the film on tree hay above, the branches were tied tightly together and I got the idea this was to keep them more palatable. I see the guy from Knapp wrote in the comments, that they were made into bundles and stored in tight ricks in the barn and that the interior of the bundles was still green a year later. I know my birds ate the organic lucerne alfalfa hay I got for their nest boxes. That was dried in a specialist hangar but was still green and smelled fantastic. I have written to him for more information, so if I get anything, or find out more I will let you know. All the very best, Sue