I have been planning to write a series of posts about what I have learned from our experience with raising chickens over the last 5 years. A heartbreaking incident this week has prompted me to start with the toughest lesson of them all.
We use a natural approach to farming and with raising chickens that means allowing our flock to free range. When I say “free range” I mean that the chickens roam the farm, and at times the neighboring properties, and even cross the road (that’s a topic for a future post) scratching, pecking and foraging for their food. We are aware of the inherent danger of predators when raising free range chickens, but we feel the benefits of healthier chickens, healthier eggs and stress free birds far outweigh the risks. Over the years we have lost a chicken now and then to a hawk, or found a chicken body with no head that left us wondering what kind of predator does that, and occasionally we have one or two come up missing, apparently carried off to become dinner for one of God’s creatures.
This week was different. It was bright and sunny Monday afternoon and my husband had been to the farm around 4:00 P.M. to check on the chickens, give them fresh water and take Scout and Trooper for their afternoon walk. He left the gate to the chicken yard open as some of the chickens were happily scratching and pecking in a pile of straw near the chicken yard.
He came home for dinner and then waited until 6:00 P.M. to return to close up the coop for the night. He called from the farm, “Something Bad has happened” he said, his voice quivering. “A fox got to the chickens, I’m going to be here awhile,” he explained. Quite awhile later he returned to the house telling me that as he pulled in the driveway he witnessed the attacker (our neighbors claims it was a coyote) running off. There were dead chickens scattered around the area. He found 9 dead chickens. He only counted 17 chickens who had returned to the coop for the night so there were still 5 missing. He needed to put new batteries in his flashlight before returning to search for the missing birds. I offered to go along but he refused my help, as he wanted to protect me from the horrific scene. Upon searching the area he discover two more dead and the other three were completely gone, apparently carried off by their assassin(s).
Last Spring we became aware that there were fox living in the area when we got a call from a neighbor telling us that a fox had tried to get some of our chickens as they were foraging in her yard. She witnessed the attack and scared off the predator by banging on the window. We ended up with one injured chicken who we nursed back to health. We took further measures to protect our flock. We began leaving them penned inside the chicken yard when we were not at the farm. Several times a day we, along with Scout and Trooper, would walk the farm, especially areas that do not have open sightlines, and make our presence know. My husband mowed the overgrown ditch that runs along side the chicken yard including about a 20 foot strip into the neighboring field to open up the sightlines. He also mowed a series of paths through the field so that we were able to walk/patrol that field as well. As we continued these practices through the summer and fall we heard stories of several neighbors who had lost large portions of their unprotected flocks to violent fox or coyote attacks.
With the snow and cold of winter the chickens have spent much of their time either in the coop or at least in the chicken yard. We were recently discussing how happy we were that our flock was thriving in spite of the bitter cold temperatures that we have had this winter and that egg production was increasing due to the longer hours of daylight. There were many days that my husband spent at the farm this winter mostly cutting wood or riding the snowmobile and during these times he maintained our routine opening the gate so the chickens had access to the farm and making his (human) presence known. With no recent predator incidents he grew comfortable that he could leave the farm for short periods of time to retrieve things he needed at home or bring the boys (dogs) back to the house. Our lack of vigilance proved to be a fatal error.
I am not looking for your sympathy as I tell this story but hope that you might learn a lesson from our mistake. I think we have gained a better understanding of the predator’s MO. He is sly, sneaky, and cunning. He is an opportunist and will cause much damage (death) quickly. He may run from confrontation but will likely return to the scene of the crime when no one is around. With this in mind we realize that we will have to maintain constant vigilance in order to protect our flock.
We are also reminded that (as my husband likes to say), “Nobody ever told us that farming would be easy” and (my reply), “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.”
Now that I’ve got the tough stuff out of the way be sure to follow along as I will soon be answering the age old question of “Which Came First?”