Last year I predicted this threat could well become a reality in terms of keeping birds indoors and under cover for 6 months of the year. I didn’t want to imagine it could become a year round issue. There will be some tough decisions and tough times ahead for backyarders, the Fancy and poultry shows if this is what the future holds.
A free ranging poultry flock foraging for itself is a wonderful sight to see. By this I don’t mean the mega flocks of the commercial egg production units, but the smaller flocks you find on small holdings and larger gardens. Granted not everyone has the space to free range, or others find the conflict between the garden plants and the attention of the poultry difficult to manage, which results in birds kept within an enclosure but even then it needs to be secure because they too can be struck by probably the biggest risk for the free rangers, namely the fox.
I’ve written in this blog before about my concerns over the fox populations and then need for some sense and science to prevail through action research so we can understand better the dynamics of this incredibly adaptable creature. I won’t rattle on about it again as nothing is likely to happen that will have an immediate impact on the free ranging dilemma; better still to try and understand a little more about how to minimise the risks of a fox attack by understanding the ecology and behaviours of the British fox.
Firstly, not all gardens or small holdings are the same; in the main foxes tend to be active dusk and dawn but when they are active during the day they will visit when the site is quiet. Consequently the risk of a day time attack will be linked to some extent to the levels of disturbance around the poultry. I live in a rural location and a lot of the time I’m out and around my poultry with my trusty hound padding around the place. I keep my birds inside until dawn is well passed and somebody is always there to lock up at dusk. The heart though is in the mouth on those days when I’m off site for any duration when I know it is a busy period for the foxes in my vicinity, but when in this?
January sees the peak of the fox breeding season. The result is a lot of active foxes seeking new territory or mates, this can result in day time movement and so there is an increased probability of chicken and fox encounters. February tends to be post breeding season and this can be completely the opposite to January with very few day time sightings.
March is when the denned down vixen is being fed by the dog fox so he’ll do what he needs in terms of keep her fed and that will include grabbing a chicken during the day if food is short especially if those the chickens present easy pickings.
April and May are when the vixen needs to feed herself so she can produce milk for the cubs but the risks she takes tend to be less than in June and July when the cubs become much more active and are growing fast. Fully weaned they will be dependent upon the food she can catch, so again this increases the possibility of day time sightings. In fact I lost an entire flock of Indian Runner ducks last year at this stage with one being picked off every other day over a three week period. This I found out later to be a vixen feeding young cubs about half a mile away from my poultry paddock.
August again can be demanding for the vixen however the cubs tend to join her on foraging missions which in the main tend to be dusk to dawn adventures again. By September the cubs are beginning to become too big for the vixen and so by October the young begin to disperse bringing another period of day time sightings and possible day time strikes on vulnerable poultry flocks.
As the year draws to a close and the days become shorter it tends to be quiet for day time sightings. As such November and early December tends to be relatively quiet before ramping up again towards the end of the year as they head into the breeding season again.
Obviously this is not an exact science and much will depend upon the populations of foxes and poultry in your area, and ultimately the individual animals themselves, but I find this does make for a useful guide if I’m quantifying the risk and the probability of losing a few of my flock to foxes.
In normal circumstances I welcome broody chickens with open arms (although given the manner of some of my broodies I mean that metaphorically as you would be lucky to get anywhere near them!) However during the late summer months, and in particular during July and August, it can be a real problem if you find a hen that drops.
Not only are these months amongst the hottest in the UK calendar that can make the hen house an uncomfortable environment for a sitting bird, they are when the breeding season is over for me and even if I have fertile eggs available I don’t want young chicks being reared by a hen so close to the weather turning for the year.
There are other reasons too why the broody is unwelcome at this time of year. Firstly it is when that nemesis of the poultry keeper, the Red Mite, is at its peak. You might not have a red mite problem but a broody sat on a nest in Red Mite season can be an absolute magnet for these and other external parasites that can all too easily knock a bird out of condition. If this happens earlier in the year then there’s usually ample time for the hen to recover and recondition, but in August the moult, and the winter, are just around the corner and the bird should be ranging, building up reserves for what’s coming rather than depleting energy stores wasting her time sitting around on an empty nest.
This is when you need to deploy the Broody Buster.
Physiologically, a hen is designed to brood eggs as part of their reproductive process and the cycle of brooding in chickens is approximately 21 days from the point when they first start to incubate to hatching. During this time she will rarely leave the nest other than to quickly feed and drink. Her preening, dust bathing and feather care will also be curtailed and she will lose weight, lose condition and potentially pick up external parasites. If the eggs are fertile, and hatch successfully, the hen will leave the nest and care for her brood and also start to care for herself again. As such, the 21 day period is survivable for the hen and should not have any adverse impact on her long term health. However, if a hen is left to brood with no prospect of a successful hatch there is a significant risk she will remain broody for much longer than the 3 week period and in doing so damage her health (aside from it inducing other hens in the flock to become broody).
Brooding is primarily the desire to nest; incubating and hatching is secondary, shown by the fact a hen will brood fresh air if her internal switch is flicked. In order to break this behaviour it is necessary to place the hen in a non-nesting friendly place. The quarantine cage is an ideal piece of kit to use. First remove the plastic tray and place it on top of the cage as a roof (if the base is not removable then simply turn the cage upside down so the base now acts as a roof). Place the cage on two bricks in an exposed but shady outdoor position. Add food and water, and then place the hen in the cage. This can be done within the flock enclosure or away from the main group. The hen will protest and this is when a battle of wills takes place between the keeper and the hen. She will not like being unable to nest and will want to return to her favoured location. She will, however, settle. If, after a couple of days, her behaviour seems more normal (pre-broody) she can be returned to the flock. If she again becomes broody then repeat the process for a few days longer this time. Eventually she’ll lose the desire to nest, at least until the next time.
It might seem a little harsh but it can save a lot of heart ache and hard work.…. at least until the next time she growls at you from the nest box.
In case you don’t live in the Midlands area or didn’t get to see me pointing out of the anomalies in one country applying HRAs (High Risk Areas) and the neighbouring country not following suit.
My thanks to David for picking up on the story, it ran for most of the day and gave the issue and avian flu some much needed coverage
(it even fulfilled a life time ambition of mine by making it on to Farming Today on Radio 4)
Radically different approaches to bird flu lead to confusion at the English Welsh border. Read Dr David Greogry-Kumars (BBC
How to spot avian influenza (bird flu), what to do if you suspect it, measures to prevent it, Prevention Zones requiring birds to be housed, and recent cases.
Critical incidents are occurrences that let us see, with new eyes, some aspect of what we do. The critical incident in question is the outbreak of bird flu this winter, and whilst at time of writing we seem to be emerging, to some degree, from the strict prevention orders, it has given me a little time to reflect on what has just happened.
Reflection is something I’ve been taught and encouraged to do whilst studying for a Masters however I’ve recently found it useful to apply to the poultry breeding part of my life.
You simply ask yourself three questions, what happened, so what and now what.
What happened? – Europe, including the UK, was hit by bird flu over the winter of 2016/17
So what? – It resulted in a prevention order being implemented in December 2016, extended, and then extended with modification possibly until April 2017. This required enhanced biosecurity measures to be applied and birds to be kept indoors or in covered runs to minimise the risk of contact with infected wild birds. Not a simple task for a poultry keeping regime that relies on a free range, outdoor livestock.
The winters also seem to be increasingly wild and unpredictable in terms of their weather and it is safe to say that a husbandry technique that is built around free range and pastured rearing of poultry doesn’t work in gale force weather.
Now what? – In the short term my breeding programme is at best delayed, at worst abandoned for the 2017 season. My maintenance costs for the winter have escalated and I have limited stock available for the markets and auctions; not that there have been any to sell through due to restrictions on poultry gatherings, consequently my income from poultry for the year will be hit.
In the longer term is this really a one off. or will next winter result in the same problem or possibly the arrival of H5N9? I will assume that prevention orders will the occur in future years, and as it seems that “lock downs” are the easiest way for the authorities to minimise the risk of bird flu impacting poultry, then I will spend the summer months adjusting my husbandry regime such that I can fully free range in the summer (should there be no prevention orders in place), and I can contain the stock under cover during the winter months, should bird flu and the associated prevention orders reoccur.
It will be a different way of working and I suspect there will be more to consider than just the housing, however I’m not convinced that this is the last we will see of these types of prevention measures that we backyarders and smallholders have had to implement, so I encourage you all to look back and reflect in readiness for the next time it happens.
This might not be what people want but I can’t deny the logic behind the fact that if you can’t free range then don’t free range. It’s up to you to decide if that means don’t keep chickens, or do keep them but in a contained environment.
“UK’s Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens has said that egg producers in some higher risk bird flu areas should consider whether or not to continue with free range in future”
So…fancy some alternate facts? Read this emotional ‘plea’ to ‘save’ spent hens. They are barely a year old and looking for new homes Source: Hens could be slaughtered – unless people don’t come forward to offer them new homes – Coventry Telegraph
Yep, you read it right, farmer goes and buys 5,000 hens, puts them in a system where once they reach that ripe old age of around 72 weeks they are so desperately in need of a rest from laying eggs and want to moult that they slow down layning and therefore cease to be economically viable so get killed
It is the nature of that farming system. The ‘product’ or should we say livestock consequence is referred to as a ‘spent hen’. The value of a spent hen is around 10-30p per bird. All will go for processing returning a small payment of at least £500. Not much and but it is how millions of hens are disposed of because that is the nature of commercial egg production. Sell them all for £2.50 and you make a tidy £12,500 instead. Sure not all of them will get sold via that channel but sell 1000 and you get £2,500 plus the £400 for the remainder to be sold as ‘spent’, a far more tidy outcome for the disposal of a by-product of egg production.
I know I’m preaching to the converted if you read this blog but for the sake of the hens, poultry keepers and the industry as a whole, lets have a bit of transparency and stop inferring the producer is anything other than complicit in the fate of such animals and start reporting the actual facts.
And if you feel you might have read this rant before by me then you are not wrong… it was almost a year to the day that a similar story appeared in a paper and I blogged on it then
UK – The Animal and Plant Health Agency is warning farmers and smallholders not to feed catering or kitchen waste to livestock such as pigs and poultry, even if they are being kept as pets.