Driving home one recent evening, Roger met me at the gate and said, “We have a problem.” Gulp. No one ever wants to hear these words from their partner. It can only mean misery and heartache, the kind born of death, disease, or financial ruin. Once my racing mind filled with all matter of imagined catastrophes began to subside, I heard Roger calmly telling me he spotted a fox in the garden earlier, just five feet away from the chickens. Yikes!
We know there are foxes all over Dartmoor. We know they come sniffing about Crockern at night. We’ve seen one slinking through the reeds on the other side of the river and spotted others crossing the road, or laying dead along side it, in countless locations. We just hope they don’t come sneaking around during the day to snatch one or two of our chickens, or worse still, kill the lot. Thankfully, on this occasion, Roger spotted the fox in time and he and Sam ran around the garden, making barking noises until the chickens were safely returned to their coop for the remainder of the day. Deprived of their free-ranging fun, but safe.
Foxes sustain themselves on a variety of foods, including rabbits, voles, mice, insects such as beetles, worms and snails, ground nesting birds, little lambs, and of course, domestic fowl (a.k.a. chickens!). The vast majority of chickens in Britain are raised in battery conditions and foxes are the least of their problems. Free-range hens, such as ours, are usually safe from foxes if they are securely housed and not left out at night. We remain vigilant in our efforts to keep our hens safe.
Some people love foxes, with their furry tails, pointy ears, adaptability and intelligence. Others view them exclusively as pests. I have mixed feelings about foxes. They are indeed beautiful creatures, but they are a potential threat to our chickens. Over the years, I have enjoyed the countless stories where foxes are presented as sly, clever, and cunning. But, I don’t like Fox news in the United States, finding it misleading and troublesome. Foxes are among the most adaptable of all carnivores, living in nearly every type of habitat on earth, which I find admirable. And, if a fox chooses to feed on the rabbits that attempt to feed on our vegetables, then I subscribe to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The problem is, foxes have excellent memories for the location of their food caches. A return visit if it knows we have chickens could spell curtains for our hens.
I find it enthralling and magical when out walking on the moors to catch a glimpse of a lone fox loping across the heather, slinking stealthily among the reeds, or darting out of sight into a hidden den. It is more unusual, and thus the thrill of this wildlife spotting all the greater, to come across one of these creatures out in the open, perhaps sunning itself along a riverbank. Sometimes, at dusk or dawn, we might catch a flash of movement in and among the reddish brown reeds. We might not see the fox, but we know it must be there given the evidence: The sheep continue to graze, pausing only to assess a potential threat while several birds quickly take flight from a gorse bush. Moments like these are always filled with sudden bursts of pleasure.
This past week, I returned home at the end of the day, and Roger once again met me at the gate this time saying, “I have some sad news.” Once again my mind tripped into overdrive about death, disease, and financial ruin. This time, I was right about death. Earlier in the day, three of our chickens had fallen victims of fowl play.
Roger quickly disabused me of my notion that a hungry fox – the one spotted the previous week – had returned and killed our chickens. Instead, an off-lead dog had jumped our walls, given chase and killed three of our hens. Unlike the fox that kills for its food, this dog’s instinct to catch and kill a moving object caused the carnage. Not for food. Not for survival. Simply because it could.
Our chickens scratch and peck and do their funny chicken things just like moveable flowers in the garden. I lose all track of time when watching them digging for worms, or scratching at a new bit of compost I’ve just put onto a garden bed. I may get a little cross with the hens when they find a way into the vegetable bed and tear apart the Kale, but it warms my heart when they meet me at the door in anticipation of treats. It puts a smile on my face when they see me across the yard and beat a path to say hello. Or when they help put the bird feeders up, making certain the ground below is clear of any spillage. I like when they decide to stand on my boot, or peck at my fleece when I’m trying to do any work outside.
It’s difficult to describe the feelings when losing chickens from a dog attack. We recently had one chicken that fell ill and two days later, was dead. It happens. And chickens are vulnerable to attacks from foxes and badgers when not securely housed. Chickens also can lead short lives, sometimes dying of unknown natural causes. But for that evening, it was hard to be existential about life and death. Instead, we just felt sad.
When the weather is a little better, we’ll get a few more chickens to join our remaining five. For now, losing three in such a grisly attack has left a silence in our garden and an egg size hole in our hearts.