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
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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.

 

Adding new chickens to an established flock

Chicken keeping can be an addictive hobby. When I got my first three birds I did not consider the possibility of adding to the flock. The steep learning curve that I went through on dealing with these feisty and adorable feathered friends made me realise how much pleasure could be derived from having a small flock of chickens running around the garden. By the time we suffered our first fatality I was feeling more knowledgeable and confident about many aspects of chicken keeping and wanted more.

I had learnt that chickens thrive in a flock and that a lone bird could suffer from a lack of friends. Introducing new birds to an established flock can be tricky, but bullying can be minimised if more than one bird is added at a time. The established birds do not then have a focus for their anger at having their territory invaded by interlopers. I decided that the best course of action would be to add two new birds to my remaining two to ensure that I would never have to deal with a lone and lonely hen.

That first attempt at introducing new birds taught me a great deal. As I had one coop and run they all had to sleep together, but this lead to what looked like vicious attacks. Adding new birds also risks passing on diseases as new and old will not have the same resistances. After a failed attempt at putting all the chickens in together at night and hoping they would simply wake up and accept each other, I divided the run with a bamboo criss cross fence and gave the new girls a pet carrier with improvised roosting bars to sleep in at the far end of the run. This arrangement was far from ideal but meant that the birds were safe and could see each other without being able to attack.

Chickens may appear daft but they are capable of breaking through fences when they are determined enough to get to the other side. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because she wanted to. During my regular checks I would find the old girls in the new girls area of the run and the new girls cowering in the old girls area. How these birds squeezed through the small gaps in the barrier I had created perplexed me and I would add more and more bamboo canes to the improvised divide. My attempts to keep them apart were constantly foiled.

After a few days I decided that this wasn’t working but, as no bird had been injured, I removed the barrier and let them run together. The severity of the pecking had subsided and, although the new girls still acted unhappy, they seemed to be coping. Over time they were accepted and their life became peaceful. I had learned that introductions need to be better managed.

Four chickens still didn’t seem like enough so when we were offered a stray hen that one of my daughter’s friends had discovered roosting in the trees in her garden we looked into buying a second coop. Finding just the sort I wanted available second hand in our area made me think that this was all meant to be. Once again I was wary of adding a single bird to the flock so I purchased one more hen. We moved the existing flock to the new, bigger coop and our two new additions went in the old coop. Stray hen didn’t take too kindly to the friend I had provided for her but things settled down quickly enough with no injuries sustained in establishing the pecking order.

We now had enough housing and big enough runs for fourteen hens. As we only had six I was itching to get more birds. We gave the flock a few months of sleeping apart but running together in the garden before we put stray hen and her friend in the big coop and purchased four pullets to put in the small coop. With two separate houses and runs available, introductions became easy and something we could now do annually with ease.

Hens start laying eggs at around five months old. Those bred to be commercial egg layers, the little brown hybrid hens, should then lay well for around a year. Although they can continue to lay for a further two years after this, their eggs may not be as strong shelled and their laying can be less predictable. Commercial establishments replace their entire flock after eighteen months as they do not wish to feed any hens that are not laying good eggs.

Pure bred hens are not kept for commercial egg production. These birds have a longer life expectancy and will lay well for longer, but go off lay through the winter months and have a tendency to go broody in the spring. In order to keep the lines pure, breeders will keep a close eye on the flock and cull any birds with defects. They will also ensure that birds are kept in separate enclosures so that matings can be managed. If new birds are to be added then they will be introduced as chicks.

Small, domestic flocks are therefore the only ones where birds of varying breeds and ages run together. I have been told that the varying ages and colours are a factor in bullying issues. If I wish to maintain harmony then I should entirely replace all my birds rather than adding just a few at a time and allowing the established birds to remain when they stop laying. I should also keep just one breed so that all birds in the flock look the same.

My experience has shown me that this is good advice but still I do not follow it. I like having lots of hens and we are very fond of our birds. I will only dispatch one if she gets ill and I cannot make her better. I currently have several hens eating my expensive feed and producing no eggs; they can be recognised by their shrunken comb. A laying head has a large, bright red comb. This turns pinkish and becomes just a little ridge on the head when a hen goes off lay.

I like little brown hybrid hens as I have found them the easiest to deal with. If I had my way then that is all we would keep but the rest of my family prefer variety. Thus we have brown, grey, black and speckled birds running around our garden. The variety does look very pretty but each acts differently and we do have occasional issues with broodiness and bullying. Giving the birds enough space minimises most issues as boredom and overcrowding can exacerbate problems.

Having put all our existing birds together in the big coop recently, we purchased four new pullets yesterday. At around seventeen weeks old they look very sweet and seemed to settle in well to their new home. I will be spending a lot of time with the flock over the coming weeks, ensuring that all remains well. As we drove to the farm that supplies us I reminded my husband and children that I wanted four little brown hens this time. We came home with two light sussex and two partridge leghorns. My daughter has named them after the angels from Supernatural and they are beautiful.

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Gabriel, Castiel, Balthazar and Lucifer settle into their new home

Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 4

I keep my little flock of back garden hens in funky coloured, plastic coops. For the first, smaller hen house I consulted my children and we agreed on the colour purple. It has a very pleasing, rounded shape that reminded me of an egg. We called it The Purple Palace. Our second, larger coop is pink which we thought sat well alongside purple. It was picked up second hand so we didn’t really choose the colour. It is raised off the ground allowing the hens to forage and shelter underneath. We call it The Pink Penthouse. I opted for plastic over the more traditional wood for ease of cleaning. Both coops can be quickly taken to bits, power hosed and reassembled when required. Cleaning the coops is never going to be a job to look forward to so making it as easy as possible helps.

Both coops are cleverly designed with integral perches, nest boxes, hatches, removable poop trays and externally operated doors. Our hens have always seemed very content in them, although from time to time we will find a bird determined to sleep in the nest box rather than perch. As this is not good for their feet, legs and feather condition it is to be discouraged. We bought the coops with attached wire runs which provide safe enclosures when we are not around to allow the birds to free range. We have plastic food and water containers that match the coop colours and these attach to the sides of the runs. I have cut and stripped suitable branches and run these above chicken head height in the runs to give the hens somewhere to perch in the day. The roofs of the wire runs have a rather untidy looking collection of shower curtains, camping ground mats and sun shades attached to help protect the hens from the elements.

There are many hen keepers who dislike these plastic hen houses, prefering the look and build of a traditional, wooden coop. I have been very pleased with plastic. One of the issues that chicken keepers must be aware of is the possibility of parasites infesting the hen house. These tiny creatures can make a bird’s life miserable, causing itchiness and discomfort whilst feeding on their blood. If left untreated these tiny creatures can eventually kill a hen. The most common parasite is the red mite which will burrow into the wood of a coop and be extremely hard to eradicate. Mites cannot burrow into the solid structure of a plastic house and power hosing then disinfecting the crevices that do exist will take care of any that try.

I learnt a great deal about keeping chickens from reading widely on the subject; on the internet, from my growing collection of books and from a specialist magazine I subscribed to. I also become quite active on a couple of on line discussion forums and after a couple of years of keeping chickens myself felt confident enough to start giving advice to the many new domestic poultry keepers who were joining the hobby. My enthusiasm for our plastic hen houses resulted in me volunteering to work at home and garden shows for the company that sold them. Although I only managed to do this for a few months before family commitments precluded me from continuing I did enjoy the experience,

Working the shows introduced me to a wide variety of people. There were many who already kept chickens and all had their own firmly held beliefs about how best to treat their birds. The company that I represented was more interested in the new, urban chicken keeper looking to keep just a few hens in a small garden. These people welcomed my advice and experience and I made many sales. Days spent at the shows were long and tiring but I enjoyed the expenses paid travel and the non stop chicken talk. I also learnt about keeping rabbits, guinea pigs and bees as the company sold housing for these creatures. The sort of chicken keepers we signed up wanted pets to cherish. Those who were critical of our set up were generally more interested in keeping utility birds – good egg layers that can be fattened up for meat at the end of their laying lives.

I am not a vegetarian and will eat chicken so have looked into raising birds for meat. Given the way broiler chickens are raised commercially I know that I could give a meat bird a much better quality of life prior to dispatch. It is perhaps a project for the future though. While we continue to choose our cute little pullets in small numbers, give them names and cuddle them daily it is hard to consider ending their lives in order to eat them. The old ladies of our flock can continue to look forward to a peaceful retirement for now. It may not make sense financially, but what pet does?

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