Son... I say, Son, 'Something' is stealing my Chickens'
Whilst Foghorn Leghorn may have been a delightfully captivating character in the cartoon world of yesteryear, we do not all have the luxury of such a loud bombastic personality as a deterrent in our own coops.
You may not be old enough to remember of course, but his strangely appealing character would start out with much mischief and aggression, but he was usually on the losing end.
While his attempts to thwart, or offer sage advice to, his adversaries may not have ultimately been successful, we do need to employ more reasoned life-saving methods as a responsibility to our feathered friends.
Monsieur Reynard is often the first thought and worry whenever the issue of poultry predators comes up; they are indeed cunning and the primary hunter of chickens.
Whether it is an urban fox or the countryside variety, neither are necessarily nocturnal, especially urban foxes that are more desensitised to humans, and always seeking an easy meal. In fact many people today purposefully feed foxes in their garden but this will not stop them from taking a nice, inviting, warm chicken for dinner.
Foxes will often kill your girls in one sitting with the aim of individually taking them back and forth to their den, so just because you see it running away doesn’t mean it won’t be back. But, although it may kill all of them it can actually only eat one or two before being full and therefore won’t want any more.
I remember vividly as a child, a fox killed 87 out of 100 chickens my parents had and only took three – what we discovered in the hen house was a massacre. Making sure that your girls are safely locked away each night in a sturdily built house is very important. However, if you are lucky enough to live on the Isle of Man there are no foxes on your island, so that’s one problem solved.
How do I know if I have foxes around?
There are two telltale signs that foxes have visited your garden. The first to look for is fox faeces. A couple of inches in length, thin ribbon or tube-like in shape, and black in colour, it is fairly easy to identify. Secondly, are signs of digging, especially around your run but also around places like compost heaps where they might go digging for grubs and vermin.
How do foxes get at my chickens?
Foxes are versatile, sly and crafty creatures. They will scramble over fences or walls as high as 6ft (if they can get a ‘purchase’ on them), or tunnel below them so they can get into your flock, although this does take longer. They can leap up to 2-3ft with a good ‘run-up’. They are also armed with strong teeth and this means they can chew through weak wires, like old-fashioned chicken wire, and also chew or scratch at softwood, plastic or flimsy plyboard within an evening.
When are foxes most active?
They are mostly out and about first thing in the morning and at dusk. They are also particularly active between February and May when they need to collect food for their cubs and then, later in the year, between June and August when the cubs first leave the family unit. At this time they will be brazen enough to visit during the daylight hours. Urban foxes, however, are less fearful and have slightly different routines to country foxes so can be seen at any time of day throughout the year.
A fox got in and killed my chickens. How do I stop this happening again?
Foxes are great climbers and can scale a 6ft high fence to get into your run. They will also jump from ledges, trees or platforms to help them get in amongst your girls.
The answer to this is a solidly built run with either a mesh or solid roof. Our Poultry Protection Pens and Runs, for example, are made using inch by half-inch 18 gauge galvanised weldmesh for all sides and roof. This is a strong material that will not be gnawed through, unlike a weaker old-fashioned chicken wire. If, however, you do not wish to, or aren't able to, add a roof to your pen; higher smoother walls are the answer.
Electric Fencing is another solution as it is an excellent deterrent for foxes, particularly Electric Poultry Netting. Not everyone likes to deal with electric fencing or is not able to use it in the space they have, but it is normally our first choice when advising.
A sharp shock to the fox’s nose as they approach the pen will soon have them heading in the opposite direction. We have found this, with monitoring, has kept our birds safe and sound for many years. Please note though, Electric Fencing will only give the predator a shock if they touch the live wires whilst their paws are in contact with the ground.
I noticed digging along the side of my pen? How can I stop Mr Fox entering this way?
A good strongly built run is important to protect your flock. However, foxes are great diggers and can often scratch out a hole into your run, depending on the type of soil, in an hour. If you are not able to move your run regularly then putting down a mesh No-Dig Skirt for Chicken Runs, about 10 ins wide, around the perimeter of your run and house will stop this problem. Laying some paving slabs that he can’t move (he can move bricks) also works or adding a strand of electric fence to zap their noses. Foxes will always dig directly up against the fence and if they encounter a problem will move up and down the run to start again. As they cannot get through the No-Dig Skirt their efforts will quickly be thwarted. Whilst they have a reputation for craftiness, they will not move away from the fence to dig a longer tunnel (it would take too long) and so your chickens shall be safe from intrusion.
I’ve put human hair down and heard that human urine can deter foxes? Does this work?
This is a much-debated issue and usually anecdotal. Some think that foxes will stay away from these things, whereas others think that it will merely lead to the fox marking the territory as his own instead. It is however something that you may wish to try (Note: we have tried it ourselves and it didn’t work for us).
It is the case that, unfortunately, Badgers are chicken killers. Badgers are omnivores and can be savage creatures.
Presenting many of the same problems as foxes, although they do not clamber over fences, their digging ability is phenomenal.
With their huge claws, they can dig into a chicken run relatively quickly. An adult Badger can weigh up to 17kg so has power and weight on his side.
From personal experience, many years ago, a badger worked his way into our little ark, the result was a bloodbath and he destroyed the coop in his efforts to get out again.
Taking the same approach as you would to a fox problem is best electric fence for foxes and badgers being your primary choice, or a No-Dig Skirt for Poultry Pens will see badgers excluded from your pen.
Rats and Mice
Vermin can be just as much a nuisance to birds as they can to humans, causing trouble in both urban and countryside environments. We probably get more calls about rats than any other predator.
A telltale sign of a vermin problem could be a raided feed bin or sack, or they may even make their way into your run to eat directly from your feeder and drink from the drinker.
They need to be excluded not only because they will eat the feed that you have paid for but because they bring with them diseases - a chicken will eat a mouse if it were able to catch it but again this ought to be avoided from a disease point of view.
In winter, vermin can also make their way into poorly secured houses to find somewhere warm to bed down during the cold weather or to eat and drink. For obvious reasons, this is far from ideal. They can also chew through rotten wood or plastic if they desire.
Don’t forget, a hungry rat will attack and eat a chick or small chicken especially at night while they roost. On the adverse, mild weather can cause rodents to be more prolific and therefore a bigger problem. Freezing weather can make them seek out unfrozen water in their thirst.
If your favourite feline is up to the task he/she can usually keep mouse and rat problems in check and their numbers low but, our advice is to eliminate them completely with properly placed bait boxes.
How can I prepare my area to keep it less appealing to rodents?
Firstly, the site of your henhouse can make a big difference but, if you are restricted with where it can be placed then other methods need to be employed.
Is it placed along a hedgerow or a natural path from one part of your garden to the other? Secondly, is the area around the henhouse clear? Places like compost heaps; piles of logs and rubbish are natural nesting places for rodents and should be removed from around your hen house, or baited.
A raised, solidly built hen house like the Granary Hen House or Maggies Long Legged Hen House will also deter rodents and stop them from getting in amongst your birds at night. Finally, feed is an important issue. Making sure that all galvanised feed bins are secure will stop vermin from being attracted to an easy meal and you should make sure any spilt food is cleared up.
Making sure the feeder is off the ground is also important, feed that gets stuck in places, e.g. between paving slabs, is inaccessible to chickens but easily reached by rodents. Don’t throw too much food on the ground for scratch feeds because if the birds do not eat it all, it will attract more vermin.
What sort of trap should I use to catch rats and mice?
Traps (as opposed to bait boxes) are an up close and personnel way of dealing with a rodent issue which isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea. There are two sorts of traps. Impact traps kill immediately upon being sprung. Live traps catch the rodent but it leaves you with the issue of what to do then? There are strict guidelines on the despatching and disposal of rodents, check with your local authority. When disposing of the rodent, it should be wrapped in a bag and properly secured. You must wear gloves to avoid such things as Weils disease.
Our advice though is to use lockable rat bait boxes again, there are local council rules about how to use these, please check. These are plastic boxes where the bait is placed in a chamber inside so that the rodent goes into the box, eats the bait and go back to its hole. Whenever baits are used they MUST be in lockable boxes, never use it loose or scattered.
We have available small packs of Sapphire Grain or Ruby Blocks suitable for bait boxes. The pack size is restricted by law. Great care needs to be taken with baits and we advise either block bait or loose bait rather than bait bags because the bags can get carried out of the box by the rodent and left around for other animals.
The boxes should be placed along the rat runs and you should ensure no other animals can gain access to the bait. Once back in their holes the ingestion of bait will kill the rats there, which eliminates the issue of disposal. Do not allow your birds to get at a dead rodent in case it has been poisoned.
What are the regulations about using poisons?
The amount of rat bait an individual can purchase is restricted by law and only professionals can buy packs of 1kg or more and there are regulations about use and disposal. Please check with your local council or merchant.
How does rat poison work?
Most poisons are anti-coagulant poisons which is neither a quick nor painless death for rodents, causing them to bleed to death or dehydrate. By law, the poison should be put into some form of sealed, and most importantly, lockable box to stop other animals from getting into it. Mice will also eat rat poison; it however works far quicker in them and can lead to them dying exposed in your garden as opposed to in their nests, which can mean they might be eaten by something else in turn so if found they need burying or disposing of by burning.
Mink, Stoats and Weasels
Little thought of as predators of poultry, these creatures can however be ruthless, often killing a bird and taking it straight away.
A high metabolism means that these are aggressive little animals and are almost constantly hunting.
Weasels and Stoats can present many problems as they are able to go through small gaps and are good climbers as well. They are lightning quick predators.
Stoats and Weasels look similar with their brown and white cylindrical sinuous bodies, but Stoats are larger than Weasels and usually have a bushy black tip to their tail.
Weasels are normally between 15-20cm long, not much wider than a mouse, whilst the larger Stoat is 30-40cm long. Either will steal chicks given the chance and are difficult to keep out of a run or coop. Strong wire mesh over all gaps is the best advice.
Mink have made their way into the British ecosystem relatively recently after being released by activists from fur farms. They are not native British creatures. As their numbers in the wild grew they became an issue for chicken keepers, especially in the south of England. They will often nest in places like tree stumps, and old burrows or take over rat nests after killing the inhabitants.
Mink are larger than Stoats or Weasels and are very dark grey-black in colour. They are often mistaken for otters, but they are half the size and are ruthless killers. They can readily chew through wire and even through live electric fencing. Their eradication from an area is a problem that needs to be dealt with by specialists.
How do I stop Mink, and Stoats from getting at my hens?
Notoriously difficult to stop, it is young birds that are particularly vulnerable to these little hunters. Even electric fencing is not effective here. Beyond having a good solid house and run, there are a few extras that you can add to discourage them.
Whilst good climbers, smooth surfaces will help to stop them and covering ventilation holes with weldmesh also helps. They will also quickly exploit any rat or mole holes around your hens as a way of getting in, filling these in will block off this option for them. Making sure your mesh is no larger than half an inch by one inch also helps.
Is there a live trap for stopping them?
Fenn traps are recommended for catching stoats, mink or weasels. Check for any local council regulations. Care must always be taken when setting them up as they can be dangerous. Once a mink has been caught it is illegal to release it back into the wild. The best answer is to phone your local authority.
Magpies, Rooks and Crows
Not often thought of in the same breath as predators of chickens, anyone who has ever had a crow or magpie problem will know the trouble they can cause.
They will eat a huge amount of chicken food and, as with all wild birds, can carry disease. These winged opportunists can get into your chooks feed for an easy meal; they can steal eggs and also take baby chicks (one of the many reasons why chicks should always be kept in a covered run).
Even though they are cautious of humans they can still be a persistent pest. If you do not wish to shoot them - a farmer's solution but illegal in many areas - to get rid of the problem there are humane alternatives. Anecdotally, a pink balloon in your run sometimes works as it is associated with a face and causes them to keep their distance or a scarecrow, moved regularly, does help.
Setting up polypropylene tape can also work, it hums in the wind and causes the birds to stay away, they can however quickly become used to the noise, sometimes in a matter of days. Hanging old CD’s can also deter them, as can 'Owl Eyes' placards; these can affect your chickens for a time too and result in a halt to laying.
Another alternative is the Larsen trap. Check with your local council as in some areas these are banned. They work by having a live crow in one side, which you entice in with offal or eggs. A crow will not tolerate another crow in the same territory and so while trying to engage each other the second bird also becomes trapped. The captured birds can then be released somewhere else.
Birds of Prey
Buzzards are particularly keen on chicks. They are normally only found in open field areas where they can visually target their prey from a great height and then swoop in to take the birds.
Buzzards have dark brown upper parts with paler underparts and a wingspan of up to 1.2m. Although they will take chicks it is unlikely they will tackle an adult bird.
Red Kites, incredibly majestic though they are, have grown in number over recent years and will certainly (personal experience) take chicks and small hens.
They are easily identified by their distinctive forked tail. They are reddish-brown with a grey head and have a wingspan of approx. 1.5m but a slightly longer body than a Buzzard.
An Enclosed Run is the best and the only form of protection against this problem.
Although we all love Cats (well most of us do - see right our own delightful little kitty), some cats can take a liking to small chicks as they would be seen no differently than small garden birds to a cat.
Domesticated Cats are opportunists though and don't necessarily hunt for food, and I have yet to see one open a tin of kit-e-kat, they just do this hunt-and-catch by primal instinct.
There are though, a large number of semi-feral Cats in most parts of the country and these are more likely to take a chick if they can get at it. Again, a covered run is always best for chicks.
Luckily, the larger cats - Lions, Panthers and Tigers - are not normally a problem in this country, unless you live around Bodmin Moor of course!!
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A Guide to Poultry Predators ©Flyte so Fancy 2015. Updated 2022. Authors: Anne & Phillip Weymouth (Directors, Flyte so Fancy Ltd). Reproduction of part or all of this text is only possible with the express permission of Flyte so Fancy Ltd.