Hen Keeping: Foxed!

fox image

It is something every hen keeper fears, that a fox will gain access to the coop. After fifteen years of keeping my feathered friends safe, we suffered the trauma of a dawn raid by Reynard. In just a few minutes of mayhem the wily predator cut my back garden flock from sixteen to nine. It was a devastating event for all concerned.

We were awoken by the noise of distressed hens at 4.30am on an otherwise sunny, Saturday morning. Husband quickly pulled on shorts and rushed outside. Our lovely neighbours also heard the commotion – their bedroom overlooks the run – and spotted the fox circling and then in there. They told me the noise was horrible, unlike anything they had heard before from our not always quiet girls.

Hurrying to help, they opened the door of the coop to release the terrified survivors just before husband arrived on the scene. The damage could then be assessed – there were loose feathers everywhere. Six hens had been killed and two injured. One of the latter had lost all her tail feathers but appeared otherwise unharmed. The second had a bite mark in her back and had lost the use of her legs. We considered whether it would be kinder to dispatch this poor girl quickly. Over the years we have had several hens recover from what appeared terminal issues. We therefore disinfected her wound and placed her in the broody cage – an easily separated section of the run – with food and water at ground level. We kept a close eye on her daily, moving her gently and ensuring she drank and ate. She has since managed to stand unaided and we hope for continued improvement. She still needs to be kept separate from the flock by day when they are most active as hens pick – literally – on their weaker peers.

We installed our large, walk-in run in 2018 – I wrote about this here. Precautions were taken in its construction to ensure our hens would be safe from predators. We live by a wood so there are obvious risks. What we had not factored in was that the plastic cable ties securing the chicken wire to the frame would become brittle over time, especially in sunlight. In recent years we have noticed that some break and had replaced them. Tragically, we had not deduced that before they break they are weakened. The fox had gained access by pushing against the wire in its attempt to dig in. Enough cable ties snapped to open up a gap and allow entry. When our neighbour arrived on the scene he watched as the fox escaped by pushing through at the opposite end of the run from where it had entered.

The fox left in its wake so many needlessly killed hens. I understand this is its nature but there would have been some small comfort had it taken a bird for food.

Having carried out a basic clean-up to remove the bodies and loose feathers, new cable ties were added to secure the run as best we could. We now recognised that a longer term solution was needed. Elder son went on line and suggested we order metal cable ties as replacements. This seemed as good a solution as any. Following the arrival of the parcel a day later he spent a couple of evenings putting them in place along the ground level frame. We can only hope they are strong enough to hold back Reynard.

Our hens have been allowed to free range in our multi-level back garden since we first started keeping them. We only allow this when someone is home to keep an eye on any situation that develops. On a sunny afternoon after the attack we released the remaining flock under the usual supervision. One girl strayed downhill and the fox must have been waiting. I feel I let this poor girl down in particular and am now reluctant to allow any such freedom. Due to the size of their secure run they retain the legal classification of free range but this is not the point really. I want them to enjoy the variety of scratching around hedges, trees and more open spaces. Currently I just can’t bring myself to risk it.

While the shine has been taken from the joy I derive from hen keeping I will continue to keep a small flock as they add so much character to my garden. I recognise there are dangers attached to many activities that make life better and more fun to live. Whether greater freedom for my girls is worth the risk of a further fox attack in the garden, I have yet to decide.

Fox in the run, image captured by my neighbours, and a more peaceful picture of some of the survivors

Hen Keeping: Constructing the perfect walk-in run

It has been a while since I added to my posts on hen keeping but this is a topic I thought other back garden hen keepers may find of interest.

For many years now my birds have been kept in two brightly coloured plastic coops, both originally sourced from Omlet. The main coop, pictured below on the left, is a classic cube that can house up to ten medium sized hens. I doubled the size of the run from when this photo was taken and added raised roosting bars to decrease the risk of boredom in the flock, along with the resultant feather pecking. The coop on the right, a classic eglu, can accommodate up to four medium sized hens. In this I would house new additions to my flock until I could integrate them with my existing birds. I would also shut the coop and put broody hens on the roosting bars in the run to encourage them to forget about their desire to hatch chicks from the eggs laid, which we regularly removed. As we do not have a rooster, chicks were never going to appear however long a broody hen kept vigil.

This setup worked well until my aging body started to complain about the need to access the low runs to maintain food and water supplies each day, and to reach any hen who needed attention. In winter months an occasional bird would inexplicably decide to sleep outside in subzero temperatures and I would need to crawl into the run to lift her into the coop after dark. Poorly hens also tended to crouch in the far corners of the run, under the coop, and would require rescue for treatment.

Thus I decided that, if I wished to continue to keep hens, a walk in run would be a welcome investment. Using the experience gained over my years as a keeper I designed the following new setup.

First and foremost the enclosure had to be high enough to allow access without bending – a walk-in run. I wished to continue to use the two coops I owned as I remain happy with their performance and maintenance requirements. Having a smaller run for introductions, and a temporary home for broody hens, was also desirable. Finally, I wished the new run to be roomy enough that the hens would have plenty of space to scratch and perch on days when I was not around to allow them to free range in the larger garden.

As with the old runs, I wished the edges of the new enclosure to sit on paving slabs to prevent predators from digging underneath. Thus some groundwork was needed before construction could begin – such an enterprise always attracts hens eager to help.

The new enclosure was purchased from Cozy Pet and built over the course of a week by my husband and two sons. I decided on two adjacent and attached enclosures – 3x2m and 3x6m – to allow for flock separation, such as when new hens are introduced.

The frame slotted and bolted together easily, in the same way as a marquee would be constructed.

Attaching the sheets of wire mesh, which needed to be trimmed to size using wire cutters, was more fiddly. Many supplied cable ties were deployed to ensure no gaps could open to allow hens out or predators in. Half of the run was then covered with supplied tarpaulins, attached to the frame with bungees. Once the enclosure was made secure the old runs were removed from the existing coops and the hens moved in.

   

We could now purchase new hens, placing four pullets in the small enclosure, or nursery run as I am calling it, to settle in under the watchful eye of their big sisters.

The door between the nursery run and the main enclosure allows for access and will be left open once the flocks are integrated.

   

With the basic setup complete, further additions could now be added to make this a more comfortable and interesting environment for the residents. Straw bales were purchased, some opened for scratching and others left tied for interest and to provide seating for visitors.

I used sections of the Omlet cube run to construct perching areas for each enclosure. By attaching the original run door to the cage in the nursery run, which will normally be left open as pictured here, I have a broody cage for when it is needed.

Within the main enclosure the perching area is left open. I covered both of these cages with camping groundsheets, cable tied in position. I also attached camping groundsheets to the outside of the enclosure, behind each cage, that the perching areas may have protection from the elements.

The two coops fit easily into the spaces provided and open into the covered areas of their respective enclosures.

   

This leaves almost half of the main enclosure open to the elements but available for hens to scratch and peck. The birds therefore have weather protected spaces as well as areas where they may sunbathe.

   

An added bonus to this new setup is that I may sit with my girls and enjoy their company when there isn’t quite time to allow them to roam free in the wider garden. Shutting them in feels much more friendly when they still have ample space whilst remaining secure.