Thursday, July 7, 2011

Get Your Own Sandwich

We have lots of chickens. We let them roam. We’ve lost a few over the years (mostly to new or visiting dogs) but we’ve never had an ongoing predator problem. Last week I picked up 12 new laying hens and kept them safe in their coop for a couple of days until they knew where they lived and where to lay their eggs. The trouble came when the ‘old’ birds (about 7 of them) wanted at their nest boxes to lay their eggs. They were adamant and tore off the chicken wire to get in their coop. I thought they wouldn’t worry too much as they usually lay in the cows manger and very few eggs would show up where they were supposed to. But I suppose chickens are like we are and they want what they can’t have.

So I let them all back out to wander the farm. Their range is amazingly large. We find them around the house, down in the fields, across the road and in with the pigs. Their eggs are dark orange and taste rich and full as the hen's diets includes bugs and green forage. These eggs make it difficult to ever go back to eggs laid by chickens eating solely grains. At night my laying hens roost in their coop or in the rafters of the barn.

Lately I have been worrying about my 40 month-old meat birds roaming outside in their new mobile pen. It is nice to keep them in an enclosure inside where one has more control but as they get larger the day to put them outside finally comes. And with all of the dust they can kick up and the poop they manage to produce, this day is a happy day. I believe the meat is better and the birds healthier if they have the fresh air, sun and forage available to them. The pen has chicken wire and wood around it to keep predators out. It has over 100 square feet of roaming area and will soon be moved daily when they are a bit bigger. Apparently this size of pen can hold a lot more birds but this farmer prefers to learn new things in small batches. These birds will live to be 12-14 weeks old. If last year’s bunch are any indication, they will be the best tasting chickens I know.

Yesterday I saw a circle of feathers near the barn that showed that a bird had been in a struggle. Then there was a path of feathers across the road and up into the woods. Not a good sign. I counted my birds. There were fewer than I expected but then again it was very possible that some were off sand bathing somewhere. Today I had a good look at my growing Auracana’s that would soon be laying green eggs. It was the last time I would see them all.

This evening I saw the fox – early in the evening. She darted out of the barn leaving another circle of fresh red feathers in her wake. Since my count this afternoon I have lost three more birds. Two of my Auracanas are gone. This breaks my heart for they made me so happy each day as I watched them grow.

Most of the birds we lost in the past couple of days are the new laying hens. I can’t believe how many birds this fox is willing to take in such a short period of time. The birds that were taken seemed to be too young to roost and too unfamiliar with the territory to protect themselves. The fox keeps returning with the same sly gait. While writing this I have looked out the window a hundred times and run out twice. I have let my dog out to protect the barn.

All of my hens are now locked away in their coop. They are fighting with each other as they aren’t used to being cooped up together. We will now have to learn to enjoy eggs with pale yellow yolks for a while. I can’t let the birds out at all because the fox seems willing to hunt in the full light of day. She may be a mother with a den nearby getting food for her young. I should empathize with her. But not on my dime and with my dinner. Get your own sandwich, fox.

My meat birds seem safe for now. I don’t know how to make them less vulnerable. I see now why a dog is such a good idea. Our dog hasn’t been taught properly to stick around the farm so she’s kind of useless as a guard dog.

I suppose we’ve been lucky so far that predators have not invaded our barns in this way. But now things have to change. We’ve been found.

Once again I find myself wondering, what happens next?

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