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.
Biosecurity is a buzzword in livestock farming but it is one that backyard poultry-keepers need to be aware of. No matter how small your flock of birds may be, good biosecurity practices should be followed, not only to minimize the risk of disease transfer within your own poultry, but also transfer to other people’s birds. Below are a few common-sense biosecurity measures to build into your daily routine:
- Keep poultry feed under cover to deter the attentions of wild birds.
- Ensure water is always fresh, and clean drinkers out at least twice a week, if not more.
- Replace any water that becomes soiled with droppings.
- Quarantine any stock that has been off site (such as to a poultry show) for at least seven days.
- Quarantine new stock for at least two weeks before bringing the birds into contact with existing stock.
- Clean your clothes and boots after visiting another poultry establishment, show, or sale.
- If you have more than one pen of birds, consider using a disinfectant boot wash.
- Don’t share transportation crates or feeding equipment with other keepers.
- Always disinfect transportation crates before and after use.
- Wash your hands before and after handling poultry.
- Keep vermin such as rats and mice under control.
Biosecurity is all about disease prevention. By following these simple precautions, you will go a long way to protecting your flock from infectious diseases.
A couple of Christmas’s ago I took a call from a poultry keeper who was going through their first winter with chickens. They were looking for advice on how to deal with the constant downpours of rain we’ve been having. We discussed different ways to keep the run as dry as possible and keep the chickens out of standing water and reduce the amount of muck they traipse into the coop, but one thing they said caught my attention: “The birds seem to get soaked every day, they didn’t even look dry when I let them out this morning.”
I asked if the birds emerged from the coop eager for a drink or to get some feed and I was told they just seemed to stand there looking miserable, particularly the cockerel. This suggested something more than just the cold wet weather to me, and as the keeper only lived a few miles away, I offered to pop around to take a look.
A casual glance at the cockerel would have suggested it was simply wet on its back, but its sunken stance along with a more greasy appearance to the feathers suggested a possible northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) infestation. I picked the cockerel up and parted the feathers at the base of the tail and the mite was very much in evidence crawling over the skin (and heading across my fingers).
These mites become far more active during our winter, as they prefer cooler climates. Once they find a suitable host bird they will multiple at an alarming rate. Like the summer pest red mite, these are blood suckers but unlike red mite these little nasties complete their entire lifecycle on the birds and are far more aggressive, feeding around the clock. The greasy look of the feathers is caused by their faecal deposits: they are capable of killing a bird within a matter of days if the infestation isn’t dealt with.
In this instance referral to the local poultry vet was required as the off-the-shelf products may not have acted quickly enough. Regular dusting of your chickens (for example with a pyrethrum-based poultry powder) will help keep northern fowl mite and other external parasites at bay, but dusting wet birds can be difficult, and given the soggy ground conditions the chickens’ normal dust bath may not be available. It is easy to understand how this new keeper was caught out.
The key is to inspect and handle your flock regularly. A lot of the skill in poultry keeping is husbandry by eye, as chickens can have a canny way of disguising ailments until it’s too late. So if you sense something isn’t quite right then check, double check and seek advice. Prompt action could save time, money and above all, the chicken’s life.
I’m quite vocal at times about the contrast between commercial poultry rearing and small scale or backyard keeping. I can be quite damning about some the legislation because I’m a great believer that in a large majority of cases one size doesn’t fit all. In fact the concept of one size fitting all seems to stem from the issue that pragmatism and scalability get side-lined. This is either because they are too expensive or are only relevant to ‘the little people’ who, by definition, are irrelevant in the grand scheme of the poultry world!
It follows on then that given my documented opinions I am sometimes challenged by people as to whether my attitude stems from a belief that small scale poultry keepers know better than the big boys and the authorities, or whether I’m just an outspoken idiot. I guess when I put these commentaries out there then it’s only to be expected that someone is going tackle me about them, I mean I’m hardly the Jeremy Clarkson of the poultry world (and have no intention of punching the Editor of Fancy Fowl) but I do realise that if you voice an opinion you are unlikely to find everyone is in agreement.
So. Do we know best? No, we don’t. I for one though do know that when it comes to livestock whatever you put into it needs to either come out again, or you better be very sure it has no consequences staying within the animal, and this is certainly one area where I think a number of small scale keepers and the Fancy can be found at fault.
It’s not so much the food stuffs used in this instance (although obviously there are issues that need to be addressed on that point) but the regime of chemicals and drugs that get administered and applied willy-nilly. There’s many a poultry keeper I’ve spoken to who decided to keep chickens because they had become concerned over the welfare of the livestock used to produce meat and eggs. Some were uneasy about the cocktail of antibiotics and vaccinations that were being administered to the chickens that supplied the high street, and this led them to rear some of their own birds. By the same measure I’ve spoken to and heard of many more backyard poultry keepers who seem to have forgotten that Betty the Hen is in fact ‘livestock’ and therefore falls under a different category to ‘pet’. Being blunt this means the stuff you squirt all over your cat to prevent biting insects can’t be applied to your chickens unless the label specifically says so. This is because ‘cat’ isn’t something you see on the supermarket shelf. By the same measure injecting your chicken with a ‘cure’ that keeps you dog fit and healthy is also a bad call, on account of the fact your dog doesn’t lay eggs for Sundays full cooked breakfast.
And then there are those I encounter within the Fancy who apply all manner of unlicensed products to their birds whilst spraying industrial insecticides throughout their sheds to minimise the risk of disease and pests burdening their show winning flock. When I challenge them a defence of “ah but these are show birds” is offered but this isn’t a defence unless you have no intention of either consuming or selling on stock or eggs. Ultimately if these people release either eggs or birds from their flock then they are running the risk of putting something into the food chain that shouldn’t be there.
As a Kansas State University pharmacologist recently said, “what you don’t know about your chickens could hurt you and others”. People who use, administer and apply ‘off-piste’, under the counter medications and chemicals need to be aware that there are potential drug residues that could sit within the eggs and meat of the bird for an indeterminate amount of time. These people do exist too because if I for one had a pound for every time I heard “I use XYZ and look, my birds are fine, and none of them have dropped dead” then I’d be able to afford a few rounds at the pub for sure.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I might be outspoken about what I consider to be daft when it comes to the application of legislation surrounding what can and cannot be fed to poultry, but this is because I’m trying to apply common sense, pragmatism and scalability. However, when it comes to the control of medications and chemical treatments then there are sound reasons why they should not be used around livestock. This is because of the risk to the food chain, so unless you can genuinely claim to “know best” then be aware you could well be inadvertently dosing our food chain with fluoroquinolones , phenylpyrazoles and all manner of lethal concoctions. Eat that.
Even if you only keep a few birds as pets or for an egg supply for the kitchen it is worth keeping up to speed on what is happening within the commercial side of our ‘hobby’
c/o The Poultry Site
CHRISTMAS SPECIAL – An editor’s selection box of some of this year’s news stories that have had the biggest impact on poultry production and trade around the world.
Occasionally I receive content for the blog from folks around the web and this time I’ve been sent some fencing information care of Liz Greene.
If you follow any of the columns I write for various magazines then you’ll be familiar of my encounters with predators here in the UK, namely the fox, badger and a one legged escapee Harris Hawk. On reading Liz’s advice I now consider myself lucky not having to worry about bears, snakes, bobcats and raccoons!
Have a read… it’s all sound advice and thanks Liz for sharing it!
Fencing Your Chickens: What You Need to Know
When it comes to chicken fencing, there are two objectives — keep predators out and keep your chickens in.The first objective is easily the most important, as chickens have little-to-no means of protecting themselves. However, trying to herd chickens isn’t always the easiest task, so keeping them contained is just as necessary.
So what options do you have for fencing your flock?
Hardware Cloth (Wire Mesh)
Hardware cloth is excellent fencing material for chicken runs, as it’s the best option to protect against a number of small and medium sized predators such as rats, snakes, minks, and raccoons. Available in different sizes, the half inch size is ideal for creating a protected outdoor pen. Use the quarter inch size to cover smaller areas, such as the coop windows or vents. Hardware cloth is galvanized to protect against rust and while it’s a bit stiff, it can easily be bent it by hand.
Although it’s cheap, easy to install, and has chicken in the name, chicken wire should be avoided if you’re looking to keep predators from decimating your flock. This lightweight, octagonal-shaped wire will keep your chickens in, but it won’t keep the predators out. Raccoons and other dexterous animals are infamous for reaching through chicken wire and tearing apart the chickens they can grab. Chicken wire should only be used in daytime runs where you have direct supervision over your flock.
There are a few different types of electric fencing that work for chickens — two and three wire systems, electric netting, and combination electric and standard fencing.
Two to three wire systems work well to deter medium to large predators — but snakes, rats, and mice can pass right through. Electric netting keeps the lion’s share of predators out, but tends to be more expensive and trickier to maintain.
Combination fencing is the best bet as it’s an easy way to deter predators and is fairly inexpensive. Simply add a ground wire four to six inches from the bottom of your current fence and another wire along the top to deter climbing predators. Connect wires to a 5,000 volt charger to both contain chickens and stop predators.
Whatever material you ultimately decide to build your fence out of, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Bobcats, coyotes, and foxes are fantastic jumpers and can easily clear four foot fences. Chicken fences should be at least five feet tall, though six feet is better in my opinion. Cover the chicken run with wire mesh fencing or game-bird netting to discourage hawks and owls from dropping in and grabbing one of your chickens.
Badgers, foxes, and raccoons will dig under a fence if the ground is soft enough. Bury wire mesh fencing 8-12 inches down into the ground and then 8-10 inches outward. Place bricks or gravel over the turned out wire before covering it back over with soil.
While solid fencing is a deterrent to predators, it isn’t always foolproof. It’s not enough to simply install a reliable fence, you also have to be vigilant about maintaining it. After all, your chickens are counting on you to keep them safe.
Some years ago I wrote an article about this new-fangled plastic poultry house I just been sent to try out. I recall at the time thinking there was potential in the idea, there were limitations too, however I could see the value in using them particular for the back garden keeper with a flock of 3 or 4 birds. It was quite an innovation though all the same and warranted a closer look
Time has passed by and this year I decided to pull together the top four most well-known manufacturers (and their entry level sized housing) and have put them through their paces in a 6 month long trial. (Since my original encounter with recycled plastic housing there are more and more players emerging so now seemed a good time)
At the time of blogging I’ve just heard that we could well be in for a really hard winter and as such I intend to keep the trial running until next spring so I can genuinely comment on their respective performances should the weather really turn hence I’ll be release this gradually as I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, so to speak.
You might be wondering why now and why little plastic houses? Well I have been and quite be very vocal about the mass produced b*ll*cks housing that’s flooded the market over the last decade; most of it genuinely is rubbish and so frequently results in a negative experience for the keeper and often in welfare issues for the birds. Sure, you pays your money and makes your choice but by the same measure I’m a Yorkshireman and, despite that idiot David Camerons comments about us, I will say we hail from the ‘short arms and deep pockets side of things’ and will avoid excessive spending where possible. As a result though I’ve been quite keen to find out if the advantages of plastic really do mean the price tag is worth it, particularly as I’m frequently asked “what about plastic houses?”
The Runners and Riders
Just so we are straight on one thing, I’m not claiming plastic is the way forward just yet. If you want housing for more than 8 to 10 birds you would be better off with wood; it’s cheaper, easier to customise and easily repairable. Plus if, like me, you have multiple coops of breeders and growers then affordability and practicality will drive you down the wood route no matter what any cash rich hobbyist will claim.
This is about the one or two coop backyarder who is keeping chickens for a few eggs and the enjoyment and therefore is willing to make the investment in their housing as a balance against reduced ongoing maintenance costs. It’s because of this that at the end of the day it’s precisely why plastic beats wood hands down on these little houses. Zero ongoing maintenance and cleaning that can involve 30minutes, a pressure hose and an old bath towel even in the depths of winter. Add on the fact that purchasing one second hand has a massively reduced risk of bring pests or disease into your little flock you can perhaps start to see it makes sense.
So who are the runners and riders? They are
the Eglu Go UP from Omlet,
the Green Frog Designs Chicken House,
the PetzPodz Chicken Pod,
and finally the Solway Recycling Eco Hen Loft.
The price of each can depend to an extent upon the optional extras but in many respects they all land within £100 of each other when bought new other than the Solway house which tends towards the most cost effective end of the market (however doesn’t come with a run option.)
Check back soon when you’ll find out who fairs best in the field trials on the Welsh/Shropshire borders against a set of criteria that I think will sort out the wheat from the chaff.
I found this via a Farmers Weekly article and whilst it’s not something that is likely to be needed by small backyard keepers, it is worth remembering that we should ALL practice good biosecurity.