You Cute Little Heartbreaker

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.

Are you talking to me?

(Photo by Charlotte Levy. )

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.

I'm so pretty, oh so pretty...

One of our hens who died from the dog attack.  She was an original in many ways, including she was our first.                           (photo by Charlotte Levy)

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37 comments on “You Cute Little Heartbreaker

  1. kiwiskan says:

    I am so sad about your chickens. I used to keep hens and I know how attached you can get to them. I also get mad when people don’t control their dogs

  2. Anja says:

    What a lovely written piece and very moving. I am very sorry for the loss of your chickens 😦

  3. Rosie's Dad says:

    I’m not an animal fan but sitting here on my commute into London I have a strange emotional attachment to your hens.

  4. How dreadful! I seem to recall that this is the second such attack you poor chucks have had to endure from uncontrolled dogs jumping your walls!!!

    As you say nature and the natural way, though sad is at least easier to accept but wanton destruction for the sake of it is another.

  5. Paul Blaney says:

    Nice insight into how foxes are seen differently according to who’s looking: country folk or city, chicken-raisers or not. I was glad to note that your loss hadn’t affected your weakness for a pun (fowl play)!

  6. jllevitan says:

    So sorry to hear about your loss of some of the girls. Andrew will be especially sad to hear the news. Speaking of news – I totally agree about Fox News. And also speaking of foxes – I couldn’t resist

    Ylvis – The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) [Official music video HD …‎,d.aWc

  7. Jim Charlton says:

    I am sorry to hear about the chickens. Felt like I k new them.

    Jim Sent from my iPhone

  8. Chris says:

    Foxes are great and in their habitat do a lot of good unless of course you’re a rabbit. Unfortunately some have discovered that there are easier ways to get a meal. My next door neighbour lost his hens and then his ducks to Mr Renard. I have always made a point of putting mine home for the night. It’s all just a part of being in the countryside.

    • Couldn’t agree more. We put ours away in a double fenced area every night. We have suffered greater losses from out if control dogs than even natural causes like old age. Thanks for your comments.

  9. So sorry you had such and awful incident.

  10. Julia Osborne. says:

    I’ve only just checked my emails and was so sad to hear your horrible news. Death is never easy to accept and always awful whether an animal or a human is involved. The chickens did at least have the best life on your farm. I love dogs BUT sometimes the owners are hard to understand. Like people with their children, they never think their dog can do any harm whatsoever!

  11. Along A Path says:

    Such a sad report, Catherine, and you worded it so beautifully. I would have been furious and I’m sure that tone would colour my blog.
    I recently had an unknown dog wandering around our property and I launched a chase that had us both panting. I was so concerned about my hens since I have heard about the needless killing that dogs do. He saw the hens but, luckily for him, paid them no mind.
    She was a beauty – and so photogenic!

    • Thank you. I would say I toned down my anger — and hurt — because in the end it won’t bring those hens back. Still, our biggest threat to the hens has been out of control dogs, and not the obvious fox or badger.

  12. RobP says:

    Sorry to hear the news 😦 did you ever find the irresponsible dog owner?

  13. That’s a horrid shame. From the sound of it, that was not the first time the off-the-leash dog had done it… Anyway once done, likely to repeat. My sister’s gentle family pet labrador started to chase sheep in Sussex, then killed one… and was clearly going to carry on. It had to be re-homed in a less ovine place… RH

    • Yes, sadly, the dog’s instinct is likely to repeat. I only hope for the dog and the family the people start to put it on a lead when nearing a house which could easily have chickens. Thanks for your comments.

  14. Sorry to hear about the chickens. Until we have greater control over dog ownership in this country they (and their owners) will continue to be a nuisance!

    • Thanks for the comments. It is sad when the dogs are not under control, especially when walking past a house in the middle of the country-side where we are likely to have all manner of animals outside.

  15. Sooooo very sorry to hear about your chickens. Very sad. I’m torn between wanting my flock to free range and wanting them to stay safe from predators. They are locked up every night, and protected by poultry netting during the day, but I have lost hens to eagles and coyotes in broad daylight before and it is heartbreaking.
    Love the pics.

    • Thank you. I feel torn, too, about keeping the hens in all the time or letting them be out and about during the day. I feel okay about natural predation — a fox, or badger — even if it feels sad. The dog attack is a hard one to reconcile because it is so preventable.

  16. We have lost 4 hens recently to foxes. It is both heartbreaking and extremely frustrating. Right now we are keeping them fenced in more often, but they do have a large area.

    • Sorry to hear about your loss of hens to Mr. Fox. Since we’ve started keeping chickens, we’ve only lost one to a fox, two to a badger and the rest (along with injuries, so totalling 7) to dogs as people walk past our house and don’t have them on leads. Hard to protect against that, but we’ve just put up more stock proof fencing in hopes that it makes a bit of a difference. Today the hens happily tore up one of my vegetable beds which I was preparing for planting in a month — bye, bye worms!

      • We thought our first losses were our dogs but we have re thought that and believe it was foxes also. I hope your additional fences helps your dog and fox problem!

  17. Thank you. The fox is likely to come at night when the chickens are safely away. During the day, the new fencing will hopefully keep other dogs out of the yard — you’d think a stone wall and stock fencing would already do it, but alas, we’ve had to raise it a bit. Fingers crossed!

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