Living with foxes
The Red Fox
No web site about chicken keeping would be complete without some words on foxes, because, whether you love them or hate them, Monsieur Renard will always be a close neighbour. Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are highly successful members of the dog family and are known as Canids. Other members of the same family are, wolves,coyotes, and arctic foxes. Due to its adaptability and ability to eat whatever foods are locally available, it has colonised a wide variety of habitats including urban areas, and is distributed across the world.
Like most carnivors, the habits of the fox are often in conflict with people, but for many small poultry keepers, the fox’s visit has meant disaster for their much loved hens.
Living with foxes
A sobering fact for chicken keepers – a recent survey confirmed that commercial free-range egg producers could lose up to 1000 birds to foxes in a laying cycle, that is – birds between 16 and 72 weeks of age. The average loss of hens across the UK is about 2%, but as most garden chicken keepers will tell you, there are numerous occasions when a fox will either take an entire flock of back yard hens, or pick out the very best birds of the flock in what looks like a blood-thirsty orgy of killing.
In reality, this is not the case because, despite the popular misconception that foxes kill for pleasure, they often have difficulty in finding enough food and if the opportunity arises they will take additional food to store. Spare hens will be buried in the same way that a dog buries a bone, and don’t be surprised when your neighbour with the well tilled garden, comes across a carefully buried hen in amongst the potatoes!
Don’t be complacent
Some people are lucky, and go for several years without a fox attack, whereas others may lose a new flock within weeks of arrival. He will not only watch the hens, but he will have you in his sight too, and will soon get to know your routine, when the car leaves, how long the dog is out for, and so on. He is a great opportunist, and very patient too. He may watch you shutting the hens up at night, for months on end, before the evening when you are delayed for half an hour, by a phone call, or a visitor, only to find that he’s seized the opportunity to cause carnage in the hen house. April and May are the most dangerous months, when hungry vixens are on the prowl, but no time is really safe.
By far, the most effective predator protection, is provided by electric netting, which is available in 25 m or 50 m lengths, and multiple rolls can be joined together to make a very large area of up to several acres. Units are available for main, battery, solar and wind power. Its easy and quick to erect, and if the point below are followed, is 100% fox proof.
- keep the hen house in the centre of the fenced area, not close to the perimeter. This will lower the degree of temptation for the fox, by keeping it as far as possible from the house.
- the fence must be pulled tight using the tent pegs at each corner
- the power must be left on at night, as this is often when the fox will test the fence for a power failure.
- no grass or foliage should touch the fence, as this will cause a ‘short’.
- the fence should be kept away from overhanging trees, hedges, or fences.
Of course, electric fencing is impractical in very small gardens, or with small children, so other tactics have to be used.
- Mobile, walk-in runs, work well for when the keeper is away.
- If wire poultry mesh is used, it must be heavy gauge, and the base must be buried, or and 8 inch strip (skirt) fixed to the base at right angles, lying flat on the ground, on the outside of the run. This can be fixed with cable ties, and is effective because the fox stands on it when trying to burrow under the fence. He will be reluctant to step back and burrow under the skirt, because this will look like a trap. If the fence is less than 6 feet high, it will need a top over the run.
- The problem with fixed runs is that they soon turn into a bare patch of soil, if the area is too small. If space permits, an area of 10 m. sq. per hen will avoid this, and better still, use two adjacent runs, which can be alternated each month. Alternatively, a small run works well with 4 inches of hardwood bark on the ground, which can be changed frequently to keep it fresh. A small run should have a roof, or cover, to keep the ground dry, but the roof must be solid, as clear sheets will turn the run into a hothouse on a sunny day. Furthermore, if hens have to spend time in a small run, they are more relaxed, and less likely to feather peck, in subdued light. Hens are jungle birds, and hate bright sunlight.