Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The fox and the chickens

I enjoy having chickens around. They are industrious, not bothered by much, colorful, funny, and they lay eggs. Pretty good for something that costs less than $5 at Farm and Fleet in the spring.
We've had chicken off and on for years, but rather more off than on until lately. Several years ago, we delivered two lambs to a friend and came home with half a dozen chickens.

They were fine for a week or two, and then over a three day period, they all disappeared. Something had discovered them.

Dave  built  a chicken vault,  a wonderful coop, in the barn with corrugated steel on the bottom three feet, and hog panels on up to the ceiling. As I was filling the feeder, our barn cat jumped to the top of the corrugated metal wall and wove his way back and forth through the spaces on the hog panels. Obviously, hog panels weren't secure enough to keep the cat out.  I shooed him away and laced chicken wire to the hog panels.

The next morning, half  the chickens were gone. I searched for openings and tightened up a couple of spaces between wall and wire that might have been the problem. The next morning the rest were dead. Dave found one body stuck in the barnyard fence, but the rest had disappeared.

That night Dave set a trap. He put the dead chicken back into the coop and at dusk, he hid in the barn with his rifle hoping to catch the culprit in that act. It wasn't until full dark that he identified a soft , persistent background noise as chewing. "It must be out on the compost pile," he thought. Dave walked silently to the barn door and stood there, watching and listening. No, the sound came from above him. Dave pulled the door shut and a racoon fell to the ground in a litter of chicken bones, dashed across the barnyard , through the fence and up a tree.

Completely disheartened, I emptied the feeder and waterer. Dave filled the hole in the base of the racoon tree with chicken wire to discourage the coons. We gave up on chickens for the year.

In the spring we ordered an automatic chicken door and Dave installed it. Our grandson Jasper and I went to Farm and Fleet to buy chickens. Jasper chose two each of four varieties We released them into the coop with a brooder lamp to keep them warm. The chicks prospered until I began thinking that they were just about big enough to lay eggs. The next morning, half the chickens were gone. We checked the chicken door. It closed at dusk and opened at dawn. It should be working. The next morning, the rest of the chickens were gone. Obviously, whoever was eating our chickens worked after dusk or before dawn. Again we gave up on chickens for the year.

 Last summer, when grandsons Kieran and Simon came to visit, we decided to try chickens one more time so that the boys would have a chance to select them and play with them while they were still cute and cuddly. We  tightened up the coop again and unplugged the door. We would manually let the chickens out when the sun was well up and put them back into the coop in late afternoon while the sun was still out. One day, we were late putting the chickens back in the coop. By the time we thought of them, there was only one hen left, cowering in a corner.The next morning, six more appeared, but the eighth one didn't ever come home.

I set six foot hog panels around the coop, sectioning off an area of the barn for chicken use only. It wasn't as fun as giving the chickens the run of the barnyard, but it was still nice to step into the barn and hear them chattering.

  A few days later while we were washing dishes, Dave said "There's a fox in the pasture." Then he threw down his dish towel. "He's got one of our chickens!" We both rushed outside. The fox disappeared through the fence, but the chicken was already dead. Her warm brown feathers moved a little in the breeze, but her neck was broken, her head limp. When we stepped into the barn, six chickens flew back into their pen. Okay, so they could fly over a six foot fence.

Dave and I stretched three lengths of the temporary electric fencing that we use for the sheep when they are grazing our hayfield around the inside of the barnyard fence. That night, Dave woke to the sound of a fox crying, little short barks that went on and on in the darkness. In the morning, the fence was pulled out of the ground and tangled. The fox must have come through the woven wire and gotten caught in the electric fence.  Two days later, the entire fence was lying on the ground or leaning against the old woven wire fence, covered in ice and snow. If the wind blew the electric fence onto the woven wire fence once it was electrified it would short out immediately. This was not a good solution either. We tied the woven wire fence to the electric fence, hoping the extra wires  would produce a more impenetrable barrier.

That was a week ago. We still have six chickens. They still fly out of their pen and roam the barnyard. Yesterday we had a blizzard, restricting the animals to the barn. The chickens will be out again as soon as the sheep walk a path into the barnyard.

Hopefully, the fox learned it's lesson. But probably not. Yesterday we found two eggs in the barn garbage can. What a thrill.  We are agreed, we really enjoy having the chickens in our life.

For the rest of this winter, we'll appreciate every egg, every encounter with the chickens for as long as they live. Next spring, as soon as the ground is thawed, we'll wrap our barnyard in fencing with smaller holes so the raccoons, the foxes and anything else that threatens the chickens can't get in. It's worth it for the fresh eggs, warm and brown, but mostly, it's worth it for the enjoyment we get from the chickens.

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