Foxed again…. or was I?

This time of year can be quite busy for foxes around these parts. There’s young mouths that need feeding and if the local rabbit population is a bit low then brazen foxes will head for my poultry flocks.

It is also that time of year that broodiness can start to appear in hens. Most of the time my hens will lay claim to a nest box in a coop but every now and then there will be one that furtively lays a clutch in a hedgerow or some undergrowth. Each day she will lay an egg in her secluded nesting site and each night she will roost in the coop with the rest of the flock.

Unless I’m very lucky I’m usually unaware of her activities until one day I don’t see her out and about, or she doesn’t emerge from the house in the morning with the rest of that flock. A sure sign she’s sitting tight somewhere and a fairly sure sign that if I don’t find her then she won’t make the 21 days incubation before being eaten.

Sadly this morning when doing the rounds I found the feathers of a cream legbar hen in the field. She came out of the coop the previous morning but I suspect last night was her first, and last night incubating the clutch (which I later found under a shrub).

Killed by a fox is my usual conclusion as they are the main predator around here and their modus operandi with single birds tends to be a feathers at the point of capture and feathers at the point where they have accessed and exited the property (as it’s likely to have been a squeeze). This morning though after a Horatio Caine CSI moment I reached a different conclusion which I believe lets the fox off the hook…

eyes2

Look at these two pictures…

20150514_075756 20150514_075902

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They are taken from opposite sides of some relatively small gauge stock fence. There are feathers on both sides with a lot close to the fence line. Something has gone through the fence with the dead bird. The legbar isn’t a heavy breed and a fox would have easily carried it over the fence or gone around as a fox is too large to squeeze through the fence. What we have here is a mustelid kill. This bird was taken by some ferret or polecat derivative I suspect.

So apologies foxes for jumping to the wrong conclusion and hello to a new predator most probably of the mustelid kind!

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Snow can be good

The snow is falling outside and for us its been a few years since we have any of any significance. I use the word ‘significance’ though not in the manner of a weather forecaster, a few inches of snow isn’t a lot to fall. Instead I mean that there is enough for it to be a valuable aid to the poultry keeper.

Snow means easily visible tracks!

If you think you might have a pest or predator problem then a few inches of snow can help in proving their presence. Rats will take the same routes they always do each night and they will leave a muddy track leading right back to their nest making it easy to target. Perhaps best of all though is the way the snow will help you find out a) if you have foxes visiting overnight and b) precisely where they are breaching your fence.

Fox tracks are easy to identify, they make a single set of prints where the back feet are placed in the print made by the front feet and this morning I located my breach which has now been repaired.

foxtracks2s

 

So before you go rushing into all that fresh virgin snow to build a snowman, take a quick moment to have a look around and see if anyone else has been there already.

Are things a bit late this year?

Its a question asked quite frequently when it comes to gardening or the flora and fauna of the countryside but for me I can’t say I can always provide evidence to support my answer. Ok I know the date when the swallows return or the first chiff chaff call but thats based on whether I’m paying attention and could, for all I know, be out by a few days or even weeks.

I was out taking some photo’s the other day and that was when some real evidence landed in my lap…. there are precisely 2yrs and 22minutes between these two pictures of the same oak tree… I guess that answers my question for this year at least!

May 12th 2010

 

May 12th 2012

 

Green Roof for the Chicken Coop

Every now and then I’m given a chicken house to put through some field trials and as a consequence I can end up with quite a few ‘buildings’ covering the field. It was on one such coop I figured I try a different kind of field trial by sticking a green roof on it. Why not, after all it’s a roof like any other so it would provide “the environmental benefits of having a living, breathing space where once there was nothing, transform an otherwise dull space into something aesthetically pleasing AND provide you with more growing space.”

This project will take you through how to go about constructing a simple and effective green roof on your chicken coop. There are options to buy ready-made matting that can be rolled out and attached to a roof but at over £20 a metre this can prove a little prohibitive, especially as this whole project costs less than £20 if you sow or propagate your own plants. Better instead to build your own, that way you can decide the planting plan and over the years it will pad out and provide the same effect as the matting. It also enables you to create your own personal blend of weather-hardy plants such as sedums, alpines, mosses, grasses, seasonal herbs, and house leeks.

In fact you could apply the same design principles to a shed, log store, over even a bird box!

What You Will Need:

  • An offcut of pond liner or damp proof liner
  • Geotextile membrane or some old blankets
  • Sufficient Yorkshire board to go around the perimeter of the roof
  • Screws
  • A sack of 10mm gravel
  • Peat free compost mixed with sharp sand
  • Drill
  • Saw
  • Screwdriver

Step 1

Identify a suitable roof structure ideally with a 9-10 degree pitch on it. Check it’s strong enough to take the weight of a saturated green roof and add supporting framework (crossbeams attached to the side supports & roof will help) if necessary.

Step 2

Attach the section of pond liner or damp proof membrane and make sure it overlaps the edges so water will run off and not seep into the roof. Staple into position and trim off any excess with a knife or pair of scissors

Step 3

Cut lengths of board to ‘box in’ the roof. This will stop the planting medium from simply washing off. Allow a 5mm gap between the board and the roof on the lower edge. This will help with water drainage.

Step 4

Staple the geotextile member (or old blanket) to the box sides. This layer will help retain moisture and reduce the need for frequent watering.

Step 5

Add a 2cm layer of the gravel to the roof. This layer will aid water dispersal and drainage.

Step 6

Finally add about 5cms of the compost and sharp sand mix and level it out. You are now ready for planting it up.

April: always a mixed month weather-wise

April in many ways represents a mid-point in the change from winter to summer. Its weather is well known for its April showers, it’s also well known for its changeability. I recall one day many years back when all four seasons occurred on one April day, from glorious sunshine through to snow. It particularly sticks in my mind as it was the day I was married! As such it’s a month that you make the most of the good weather and don’t grumble about the bad. With the dry winters we have had recently almost all rain is useful rain at this stage of the year.

4th April 2012. The snow started to fall. The previous week I'd been sitting in that chair in that exact spot in 23c sunshine

 

Four days later... 8th April 2012... sunshine & blooms

 

 

As the seasons turn, so does the wildlife in the garden. Bees and butterflies will be seen more frequently, warming themselves in the rays of sunshine. The resident birds will be well on the way to making nests and the females will soon begin to brood. Most of the winter migrants will have left leaving behind a few stragglers who will catch up later. New birds will be reaching our shores as the summer migration begins in earnest.

 

The vegetable garden will seem empty as most of the winter crops will have been used and without the aid of a greenhouse it’s unlikely that there will be anything to new to harvest but no matter, abundance will soon return. Around the garden there will be a flush of colour with daffodils fritillaries and tulips are bursting into flower. In the shrubbery flowering currants put on a show whilst forsythia and magnolia compliment them with dainty yellows and bold, creamy whites. As the month wears on the weather continues to improve and the intensity of colour within the garden shines through to meet the warmer, longer days.

Six days after the covering of snow and the garden bursts into life, the white snow replaced by white blossom

 

(If you are wondering what the chicken house is in the middle of the shot is a recycled plastic coop from Solway Recycling Limited – rather discreet and handy for the free range garden gang)

But remember the opening comment… the weather can and will change as April plays host to the contest between the seasons, taking two steps to the right looking out across the field and winter was dinging the bell for Round 2…..

A hail storm readies itself in the grey corner....

 

March – A month of firsts

I was digging through some old articles I had written and stumbled upon a section I wrote some years back. Each month I would need to produce a short section on what would be going on outdoors for that given month. Now given most monthly magazines can be working 2-3 months ahead of themselves then a piece that would appear in the March magazine would need to be written in December.

This piece was penned back in December 2008 I think and whilst its nothing extraordinary, it struck me today, with its 23 degrees C sunshine out there, just how unpredictable the weather and climate seems to be these days – my references to winter and snow seem rather out of place!

 

“March tends to be the beginning of the “firsts” of the year, the first primrose, the first bumble bee, the first catkin, the first glossy yellow lesser celandines appearing on the road verges. It is also the true beginning of the nesting season for birds with nests being built or repaired in earnest throughout the trees, hedgerows and nest boxes.

The first of our feathered summer visitors such as the Chiffchaff will be reaching the shores and pushing further inland. It’s a small green warbler often overlooked but always given away by its metallic “chiff-chaff” call as it perches on top of the now green tinged thickets and scrub.

Coots will begin to build their tower like nests from reeds and frogs will start to spawn in the pools and ponds where the rushes and irises start to wake up from their winter slumber..

Wild forget-me-not is coming into flower and on sunny days the first ladybirds sit there warming themselves as they come out of hibernation. Cow parsley will be ready to burst into flower after throwing out a profusion of fresh green growth complimenting the delicate white blooms of the blackthorn which sits on the bare stems like a reminder of the snow falls of winter. ” Mar 2008

 

March 27th 2012

Predator vs the Poultry Keeper

Nope, it’s not another spin off horror movie or a new video game, it’s a sad truth faced by many poultry keepers…chicken predation, and particularly during the winter months. Many folks ask me for advice on how to deal with various forms of predation but by far the most common is the fox. To lose one bird is sickening, to lose your entire flock to a fox attack is soul destroying, and has in my experience led to some people giving up their poultry keeping rather than continue to struggle with persistent predation.

Whether your birds are pets, or a functional part of your food supply, to find them slaughtered en masse from a fox attack is not a something you’d wish on anyone who keeps birds. More often than not you will find carcasses strewn across the garden with bits missing (the fox can be a picky feeder when food is a plenty) and in other cases you’ll simply find a mass of feathers. Either way it can be distressing.

Equally whether you live in a rural or urban environment, these cunning and effective predators can turn up at anytime and pick off a bird, or wipe out your flock in a frenzy of surplus killing.

 

I’ve seen many ways of mitigating the risk of a fox attack, everything from fencing techniques, to mannequins carrying movement sensitive lighting. In most cases these additional measures can avoid a clash between the predator and poultry keeper, but on occasions the boundary is crossed, and co-existence is compromised. Pragmatism in these situations is called for, and whilst the current legislation does provide for lethal and non-lethal management techniques these are not that easily executed by the backyard poultry keeper.

This information pamphlet from Natural England does however offer some excellent insight and guidance on how to best manage your stock but also what can and cannot be done in terms of management of the problem.

Poultry keepers over the centuries have always had to struggle with a level of predation, particularly if you elect to totally free range your stock.but by deploying clever management techniques to protect your stock it is possible to minimise their risk of encounter with predators such as the fox, and by the same measure reduce the need for you to have to manage the predator.

Build a bird box!

This is a part of an old article I wrote some years back but on the request of a twitter friend Heather Wilde of @KidsNorthWest I’m uploading it here as she’s holding a bird box building party soon so hopefully she’ll find this timely and useful 🙂

Birds are an integral part of any garden, be it an urban one or one out in the sticks. More and more people are feeding birds (click for a novel bird feeder idea) and enjoying this doorstep wildlife spectacle, and what better way to further enhance it than to provide some simple accommodation for them to raise young in.

 

I’ve been a keen bird watcher since I was a child when my mother gave me a collection of children’s “Things to Do” cards she had received by collecting Batchelor’s soups labels. Within the pack was a card about bird watching and how to start a field note book, and I thought I would give it a go. We only had a small back garden on an estate in a village near Leeds, but having spent many an hour at the kitchen window I’d recorded in excess of 30 species of birds there in my first year of ‘watching’. I was hooked and still am to this day, be it rarity turning up locally, the first swallow of the year or a house sparrow feeding her brood on the window ledge.

 

Over the years I’ve lived in both urban and rural settings, and for some reason that escapes me I’ve developed a habit of making and putting up a bird box at the beginning of each year. Winter is a good time of year too, it gives the box a chance to weather and settle before the breeding season starts in earnest. It’s an extremely simple and cheap thing to do. It requires minimal woodworking skills and is perfect for getting the kids involved in something that might just have the same impact as the cards my mum gave me all those years back.

On top of that it’s a great idea for new and unestablished gardens that may not have the natural nest sites for birds. Of course you could just buy one ready made however different birds have different housing requirements just like people.

 

This design alone can be modified to attract around 7 different species of bird by simply changing the size of the entrance hole – 25mm for coal, blue and marsh tit, 28mm for great tits and tree sparrows, or 32mm for house sparrow and nuthatches.

 

Many garden bird species are declining in numbers year on year, yet they are an essential element for the success of our garden ecosystem, so why not spend a couple of pounds and a winter hour knocking up some accommodation for them, you’ll be repaid by the bucket load when you see the first young appearing at the entrance hole.

 

And just to prove I’ts not beyond anyone’s reach to build, my youngest son (with some assistance from his older brother) performed almost the entire build himself. I built one myself at the same time and I have to declare, his was better!

 

 

What you will need

Tools:

  • Saw
  • Hammer
  • Measuring tape
  • Galvanised nails (3cm)
  • Drill
  • Hole saw or large drill bit
  • Bored teenager or enthusiastic youngster ‘optional’

Materials

  • 15cm x 2cm x 142cm tanalised plank
  • 15cm x 5cm rubber strip (car inner tube, pond liner etc)
  • Small hook and eye fitting

 

 

Step 1

Using the template below, measure out the cuts to be made on the plank. Most hand saws have 90 and 45 degree guides built into the handle these days, or alternative use a set square. Then cut the sections out.

 

 

Step 2

Having decided on the entrance hole size, drill the entrance hole. It needs to be at least 125mm from the base. This means the nest will be low enough within the box to minimise the possibility of predation by cats.

 

Step 3

Attach the side panels to the back piece using the hammer and nails. Be sure to check the sides are positioned directly opposite each other or the rest of the build will be out of line!

 

Step 4

Side the base into position between the two side pieces and nail it to the sides. Drill a few small drain holes in the base. This is precautionary measure as the completed box should remain dry inside.

 

Step 5

Making sure that you have the entrance hole nearest the top, place the front section on and nail it to the sides and base.

 

 

Step 6

Nail the rubber strip to the roof section first,  and then nail the flap to the back section. Hinging the lid in this way means you can easily access the box to clean it out at the end of the season should it be required.

 

 

Step 7

As a further precaution against predation, add the hook and eye to the lid. It will also stop any gusts of wind flipping the lid up.

 

Step 8

Decide on the location for your new nest box choosing a sheltered spot 2 metres or more above the ground. Face it between northeast and southeast so it avoids the worst of the weather and is not exposed to too much sun.