Hen Keeping: Foxed!

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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.

 

Book Review: Once Upon A Flock

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Once Upon A Flock, by Lauren Scheuer, is the perfect read for those of us who keep hens, those who are considering doing so, or those who are simply curious as to why back garden hen keeping has become so popular. It is a humorous account of the author’s decision to acquire a small flock of hens, and how she then came to love and care for her feathered friends.

Illustrated throughout with photographs and sketches it is a visually appealing book as well as being an entertaining read. It also provides some great insights into the challenges that keeping hens presents.

The adventure begins when:

“one day, totally without warning, Sarah grew up. She retreated to her room and began morphing into a teenager – the sedentary, electronic type.”

Having lost her outdoorsy playmate, the author decided that her daughter’s place in the garden could be taken by chickens. Lauren already had a chicken keeping friend. She also had impressive carpentry skills so could make her own coop. When I was contemplating my own hen keeping adventure the initial cost seemed the biggest hurdle. Lauren could offset this by making everything from scratch.

Her initial flock were purchased as day old chicks which Lauren raised inside her house under a heat lamp. When the cute and fluffy chicks had grown and developed enough to become feathered they were relocated to the yard. Lauren describes how she regularly moves them to fresh ground, and keeps them safe while they free range. Training the family dog not to attack the birds was just one of the challenges she faced.

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Over the course of a couple of years she deals with sickness, changes to the pecking order, re-homing, a broody hen, death, and the integration of new birds. There is also a proliferation of eggs, extremes of weather, and the need for hen sitters whilst on holiday. The book reads like a story but manages to cover the basics of looking after a back garden flock in a useful but always amusing way.

Chickens each have their own quirky little characters and are great company in the garden as well as being entertaining to watch. Lauren obviously adores her birds, but she doesn’t shirk from describing the difficulties they can present.

The writing flows and the illustrations help bring each new challenge to life. This book was a pleasure to read and I will be recommending it to all my chicken keeping friends.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Souvenir Press.

Lauren blogs about her chicken keeping adventures over at Scratch and Peck.

Happy hens, tasty eggs

When I decided to keep a few hens in my back garden I envisaged them free ranging wherever and whenever they wanted. The reality has been a little different. Their scratching and dust bathing damages grass and plants, their poop gets everywhere, and unless fenced in they will not always stay within the confines of the garden. Over the years I have worked out how to keep both humans and birds happy by restricting their access to certain parts of the garden. By and large this works well for all.

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The hen garden offers free ranging space whatever the weather, but the girls are always happier when let loose on grass

After many months of rain, the ground has finally dried out, the grass is growing, and I am allowing my little flock to free range more widely. Yesterday, with the doors to the house flung open, we had an unexpected visitor.

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Much as I love my hens, they are not allowed indoors. Daenerys is one of four new birds that we purchased about a month ago and who can now run with the rest of the flock. They are very friendly and curious, perhaps a little too happy to explore. Despite having run chicken wire around our entire garden, one of these new girls has managed to make her way into our neighbouring woodland on several occasions recently. I only realised that this was happening when a lovely lady knocked on my door one evening last week to return a feathered friend she had come across on a nearby public footpath.

A mixture of fencing and garden netting should prevent them getting this close to the house, but it appears that this little lady has found a way to circumvent such obstacles. I will need to be a little more alert to their activities as I do not wish this to become a habit.

I currently have twelve hens in my little flock. One of my speckledys is broody so I am having to lift her out of the nest box several times a day to ensure that she eats and drinks. In this warm weather she could quickly become dehydrated, but she does not appreciate my efforts and clucks angrily when I remove her from her non existent eggs. This particular bird goes broody most years and I have asked my son to make me a broody cage in an effort to return her to the flock more quickly.

With the long days and the dry weather the birds can scratch, preen, dustbathe and stretch out in the sun from mid morning, when I collect their eggs, to early evening when I shut them back into their caged runs to ensure that they eat their supper of pellets and thereby lay well the next day. This is an ideal life for a hen and they appear happy and alert, with clean vents, glossy feathers and bright red combs.

We did have one sad day last week when one of my white sussex prolapsed and had to be dispatched. Upsetting though it is to have to do this, I still believe it is kinder to deal quickly with a bird who is obviously distressed and in pain. This was her chatting to a friend just a few weeks ago.

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We are getting a fair number of eggs so I am able to supply a few local friends as well as feeding them to my family. I do enjoy an egg for breakfast and I managed to make a near perfect quiche last week, no mean feat for a generally incompetent cook such as myself.

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Today I took delivery of a new shed so I need to go out and dismantle the old one, which has rotted through in the damp weather we suffered through the winter. I use it to store all my feed and other chicken paraphernalia, so damp is an issue. Like my chicken coops, the new shed is plastic so I am hoping it will prove to be more durable than the wooden one it replaces. Unfortunately it was not available in funky styles or colours. I call my coops the Purple Palace and the Pink Penthouse. The new shed is unlikely to be given a name.

 

Dealing with poorly chickens

Warning to those who may be easily distressed: this post deals with death and dispatch.

Hen keeping is a fun and rewarding hobby but, as with most things that are worth doing, it has it’s challenges. On a day to day basis there is the poop and the general untidiness that is inevitable if a flock of hens are allowed to free range in a back garden. There is also, from time to time, the issue of what to do with a poorly chicken.

I have bought a total of twenty-two pullets over the five and a half years that I have been keeping hens. I have also been given one hen of indeterminate age. My two coops currently house ten girlies so, from the maths, you can work out that I have had to deal with a fair few fatalities. Some of these birds have died of natural causes, others we have dispatched to end their suffering.

I spend time with my flock every day, observing their behaviour to ensure that all is well. When a chicken is ill the signs can be fairly obvious: their stance is hunched and their manner lethargic; they will not run with the flock with their normal enthusiasm; poop may be runny or blood streaked; feathers may not be as clean and glossy as normal.

Internal injuries can be caused by egg laying. This may manifest itself with blood on the egg or the vent; it can also cause a painful looking gait. In the worst case the chicken may prolapse which is very hard to put right. Treatment is painful for the suffering hen and the risk of repeat high.

Any sign of blood on a hen will draw the rest of the flock to attack. A minor cut from a nasty peck can be disguised with gentian violet antiseptic spray, but a major injury such as a prolapse can turn a friendly flock of happy hens cannibalistic. In the worst cases that I have had to deal with I considered it kinder to dispatch the suffering bird rather than treat and then risk a possible repeat followed by likely attack if I were not on hand to remove the afflicted fowl.

Our hens are more than just egg producers but probably less than many family pets in our family ‘pecking order’. I am not a particularly sentimental sort of person but cannot bear to see any living creature suffer; deliberate cruelty, particularly to trusting animals,  makes me intensely angry. However, I am fairly stoic when it comes to allowing nature to take it’s course. With my flock of chickens I will assess each situation as it arises and decide on what I think is best for the individual hen.

Unless I am convinced that the chicken is in such pain that she is suffering badly and is unlikely to recover, I will try to treat illnesses. Simple remedies such as adding poultry spice, cod liver oil and apple cider vinegar to the food and water will often be enough to aid natural recovery. Minor injuries may require that a hen be temporarily removed from the flock for her own safety but, in many cases, recovery is possible.

Sometimes I get it wrong and will come down in the morning to find that the poorly looking hen has not survived the night. It is a very unpleasant task climbing into the coop to retrieve and dispose of what had recently been a funny and feisty little character. I always wonder if it would have been kinder to dispatch. However, when a hen recovers from an illness, I am so grateful that I gave her a chance.

Hens require a warm, dry house in which to roost, plenty of open space in which to scratch and a plentiful supply of food and clean water. They thrive on routine. I would not take a hen to a vet as I feel it is kinder if I can work out for myself how to deal with each bird. The stress of travel and treatment can negate any benefit from medicine; many ailments can sort themselves out in time with minimal intervention.

After a particularly harsh winter I had three hens in my flock looking poorly and not laying. They were amongst my older girls and had each had previous issues with sniffles and deteriorating condition that I seemed to have successfully treated. During one week in the spring I lost all three of them; it was a distressing time. It seems likely that the flock picked up some bug and the weaker birds succumbed. I treated the remaining girls and put off buying the Easter pullets that I add each year until I was happy that all existing girls were well. Happily I now have a healthy flock, all of whom lay.

Commercial hen keepers recognise that a flock of hens of varying ages will be more susceptible to illness and cull all birds at a certain age, replacing the flock entirely. As a back garden hen keeper I allow my hens to run free until I feel it is not in the individual bird’s best interests to keep going. As I have said, they are more than just egg producers for my family.

The key to keeping hens in this way is the ability to dispatch a bird quickly and humanely; it is not a pleasant thing to have to do. For those keepers who regard their hens as much loved pets it would be too distressing an option so will not suit everyone. Others will not feel confident enough to do the deed themselves.

So long as my birds have been treated kindly and given a happy life then I see a quick death at the hands of a keeper who has regularly handled them as the kindest way to end suffering. I still see it as a last resort though. I much prefer to allow my birds to reach the end of their natural laying life and then enjoy a retirement spent eating, pooping and demanding respect from the younger members of the flock. Even when they are not providing us with eggs, they are still a joy to have in the garden.

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