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.
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.
As another breeding season draws to a close I find myself looking back over my hatching records, and the cross section of growers I have on the go. In front of me on the wall is a ‘post-it’ note that states “No Eggs To Be Set After End Of May”. It is in my son’s handwriting, and to be fair it’s there for a good reason and acts as my annual reminder.
For too many years I’d still have my incubators whirring away in August, September and even early October only to find myself ruing the day I set the eggs. Why? By November and December the resulting hatchlings have outgrown their indoor facilities and need to go outside, but outside its cold, wet and muddy. Hands up if you too have learnt that lesson only to forget it the following year?
As a poultry breeder there is a constant temptation to set eggs.
In some years I’ve had hatchlings popping out everywhere, and it’s been a bumper season for sales, and so I’ve kept hatching well beyond my common sense threshold. The risk is though, you see it as the poultry equivalent of making hay whilst the sun shines, the trouble is ‘making hay’ is a harvesting event, setting eggs is more like sowing seeds. As a gardener you read the label, it tells you when to sow and when to harvest. You don’t get that warning when breeding poultry, so in many respects the note acts my label.
He wrote the note I think primarily because he too ends up having to help out and when the weather is poor, pushing a wheelbarrow along a path with 6 inch of mud on it, whilst the wind successful empties the contents of said barrow across the paddock, is a spirit sapping task even for the most happy-go-lucky individual. I’ve written about it before but the winters at the moment seem to be more mild and more wet, with occasional unpredictable extremes such as having a BBQ in March one year only to be under 3 feet of snow the same month the following year, and as such I’ve shifted my breeding plans at least for the time being. I’ve shorten the window of time for setting eggs, and lengthened the period of time the males are apart from the females…… and I have to say I’ve found it altogether more manageable.
As such sense is prevailing and this rather faded post-it note has served me well. It has also meant I’ve had more time in the summer to just enjoy watching the youngsters growing outdoors on the grass, rather than spending hours indoors covered in dander and dust dealing with day olds. You never know, I might even venture towards a summer holiday one year!
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.
As one of the 25% who does suffer with hay fever I found this rather handy…. unlike suffering with hay fever and running plant business is.