Old Man Winter

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a few friends visit, but none more wild and disruptive than Old Man Winter. Carried into town on gale force winds from the north, he arrived full of bluster, hail, snow, and disruption. It’s been terrific!

After being blown sideways on walks, the weather finally settled and left a beautiful covering of snow. Not so much to cut us off for any length of time, but enough to change the atmosphere. Snow dampens the ambient sounds, while at the same time lifting the various bird songs to a purer tone. Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing. Sometimes I imagine myself a skilled animal tracker as I follow where the fox has been in the night. From the size of his prints, he is a large chap and no doubt would take all our chickens if given half the chance. We also know the route of our visiting badger, who seems to circle the house, the vegetable beds and bird feeders, and then end up down near the horses. The good news is our electric fence is working a treat, as there are no tracks inside its zappy perimeter.

 

Snow just beyond Wistman's Woods.

Snow just beyond Wistman’s Woods.

 

If only these winter scenes were this simple: to enjoy the landscape and note animal tracks in the snow. But as the day unfolds, this snow invites crowds of people who approach it as if it is some sort of drug. They tried it once and can’t get enough of the fluffy stuff! Hundreds of people from surrounding lower-lying areas, which received rain rather than snow, arrive en-mass to go sledding, build snowmen, and enjoy it all. In their joyful frenzy, they leave behind litter, block our access gate with their cars, and this time, remove stones from the stonewall in order to climb over into the next field. It’s hard to imagine going to their houses and doing the same without invoking genuine rancour.

At such times, it is important to turn our attentions to our house and stop fretting about all of the playground behaviours outside. Given the renovation work we’ve accomplished, the house keeps us feeling snug and dry during these cold winter days. And we still have the downstairs to complete. But, we’ve had a few troubles of late: The Aga went from working okay to not working at all. We have a boiler, so this just means no heat in the kitchen, or the ability to cook or have hot water. In this situation, I enter a state of despair about no coffee in the morning. Ever quick to solve the problem, Roger appears with a camp stove. Hurrah!

Yet it took Roger three days of cleaning filters, bleeding fuel lines, lighting and relighting the Aga, before it finally stayed lit.  We know the problem and are replacing the troublesome bit of pipe in the coming days. Still, we are back in business with hot water and the ability to eat warm food. This just in time as we have friends arriving for the weekend.

As sledders, and snowman builders and photographers and hikers and birdwatchers pass by, we were hoping to rest on our laurels, before turning our attention to finishing the bathroom tiling. Never rest on your laurels is the message of the season because as soon as we did, almost to the second, the boiler decided to go on holiday. As it is only a year old, we hadn’t had any troubles and couldn’t help but think all the problems encountered while fiddling around sorting out the Aga were now manifesting themselves in like fashion with the boiler. A quick read of the owner’s manual and we locate the reset button. Depress it for a few seconds, release it, wait a nail biting second or two and, hey presto, the fan begins to whirl. The red light changes to green and the boiler is back.

 

In the meadow, you can build a snowman......

In the meadow, you can build a snowman……

 

“Roger, we really need to set a deadline and stick with it.” is my haunting refrain. The downstairs remains a close-but-no-cigar project as the devil is in the details, and there are more than a few details. The largest one is finishing the tiling in the bathroom, which has been delayed due to all of the above heating fiascos.

With the house now warm, what’s our excuse? That’s easy; it is nicer to go out, walk the hills and soak in the beauty, even in this seemingly dead of winter. The exposed grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red. The sky often seems mostly grey, but there are variations in the clouds and the colours poking from behind of blues and yellows and oranges, depending on the sun.  Lately, there has been a full moon and clear star-filled skies at night reflecting off of the snow. To walk along listening to the sounds of my boot on the frozen ground is one of my simple pleasures. And if I stop and look, I am often greeted with a flock of several dozen Fieldfares flying about the gorse bushes and reeds, or a bird of prey taking a break on a high branch, before pursuing its next meal. Most recently, we spied a pair of Goldcrest feasting on seeds in the pine trees near the barn.

At the end of the day, the snow tourists will eventually return to their cars and make their way home. Those of us who live here will breathe a collective sigh of relief. And when Roger and I sit by the fire, contemplating the tiling to do below, we will be easily tempted and then simply adjust the deadline to some future date.

I see a bad moon rising.

I see a bad moon rising.

More fabulous skies!

More fabulous skies!

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Under Siege

Casey Ryback (Steven Segal) is a former S.E.A.L. who becomes a cook, and is the only person who can stop a gang of terrorists when they seize control of a US Navy battleship in the 1992 movie Under Siege. And yet, where is he now when we need him? Did he help us prepare our Thanksgiving dinner? Nope. Will he rise to our defence against the predators in our midst? It seems not. As we once again find ourselves engaged in a battle to protect our chickens, Ryback may as well be locked in the freezer.

A few weeks ago we had some very determined badgers threatening our chickens. Typically, the badgers come around at night, dig up a few things – earthworms, insects and grubs — in the garden, and then wander off.  We discovered, one morning, some of the security stones around the wire fence perimeter of the chicken coop had been moved. These are not light little stones easily held aloft. Rather, they are Dartmoor granite rocks, weighing about 30-40 pounds. To lift these, it takes two hands and an ergonomic awareness to avoid back injury. Yet, they were tossed around the garden with abandon.   This is a most sinister and foul creature.

Having returned the stones and added extra reinforcement, we found the next morning an even larger stone from the base of a 15-foot high wall moved a few feet away and next to it, a sizeable pile of dirt. In the course of a single evening, the badgers had moved this 60-pound rock and dug a horizontal tunnel some seven feet in length. What took them perhaps an hour or two to unearth, took Roger an equal amount of time to repair.

Hard to believe, but this is the rock the badgers moved in order to begin their big dig.

Hard to believe, but this is the rock the badgers moved in order to begin their big dig.

A coop within a coop.  It's a fortress, really.

A coop within a coop. It’s a fortress, really.

Badgers have the ability to tunnel after ground-dwelling rodents, so perhaps they were simply after the rats or moles who regularly burrow beneath the grass? I console myself with this idea. But, I’m no fool and am fully aware badgers will eat small mammals and birds, including chickens. Our well fortified chicken coop sits on a cobbled stone base, within a stone and wire perimeter, and yet these badgers seemed to be attempting to tunnel underneath in order to pop up inside. Possible? If so, we need some help.

There is a long tradition of the military on Dartmoor dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. Today, there remains a large British Army training camp and the Ministry of Defense uses three areas of northern moorland for their manoeuvres and live-firing exercises. In fact, one is just over the hill from us. Pyrotechnics, digging, low-flying helicopters are all apart of the military practice on Dartmoor.   But, no where in the recently extended 40-year agreement to continue the use of land for their activities does it require the military to, “help protect Catherine & Roger’s chickens.”

Badgers. Spiders. Moles.  These represent some of the recent British Invasion to Crockern. Unbelievably, and despite the evidence, the badgers have not caused the latest sustained confrontations. It has been Mr. Fox!

In the summer, we had lots of rabbits attempting to feast on the garden’s bounty. Our successful use of bird netting kept the chickens and the rabbits out of the vegetable beds, with only minor nibbling on a few plants on the edges, which we were prepared to sacrifice. Lately, I’ve noticed a distinct absence of rabbits. No sightings. No nibbled plant leaves. No poop evidence. Nothing. It hadn’t dawned on me that it could be the rabbits have been engaged in their own bit of animal warfare, and are seriously down in ranks. But when Roger and I suffered two separate mid-day losses of chickens to a cheating fox, the penny dropped.

The weather has turned colder and the days shorter, the grasses, bushes, and trees, are ready for winter having changed colour and dropped their leaves, generally providing less camouflage and making spotting the local wildlife easier. Scarcity of food and cover means seeing a fox on the hillside during daylight hours is increasingly more likely. I find myself pausing longer in the top windows, staring out upon the grasses as if I’m in a wildlife hide, waiting to spot him, my now archenemy.

Daily, we are reminded of the predator and prey relationship with soaring buzzards in the sky, or a ravaged carcass in the deep grass near a path.  Like any skilled predator, the fox has marked Crockern as easy pickings and will return. Coming once during the day whilst we were out on a walk was bold. Returning another day, when we were out in the garden, was considerably bolder.   It will be back. With no sign of outside help, we are left to our own efforts to protect and defend. With the money we’ve saved in a jar from egg sales, we’ve purchased electric fencing.

I don’t like it. It’s ugly. It is in the way. I can’t easily climb over it. But, the chickens get to roam around outside during the day. It gives us peace of mind during these winter months when the food supply is less abundant and the chance increased of a fox attack on our free ranging hens. The chickens are oblivious to the threats around them. All they know is being cooped up all day is not half as much fun as scratching around in the dirt and preying on worms.

The flock of seven, checking out their new fencing.

The flock of seven, checking out their new fencing.

 

The new electric fencing.

The new electric fencing.

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.   charlottelevyphotography.co.uk )

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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Calling Miss Marple

When I stumbled upon the aftermath of murder, I felt certain we would be able to quickly identify the culprit.  I’ve learned the basics for conducting a crime scene investigation from watching countless episodes of CSI and know, along with the detective’s shrewd intelligence, crime scene investigations are usually conducted in the dark using special hand held lights which emit a blue or red glow and the dress code is designed to enable a quick transition to a swanky bar following work.  Simply being aware of these criteria, however, does not mean we will be able to solve our very own Crockern Farm “Who Done It?”

Recently one morning, Sam and I returned from our walk, set out the wild bird feeders and about to feed the chickens, when something gave us pause.  Usually we are greeted with a chorus of demanding squawks and chirps from the chicken coop, which roughly translate as:  “What took you so long?”  “Do you think we want to stay in here all day?”  “Oh sure, you’ve got an opposable thumb and can open the latches, but we’ve got amazing hearing and eye sight, so top that!”  “ You want eggs?  I’ll give you eggs!”  But on this morning, we neither heard a chirp, nor did we see busy hens beating a path to the door.  Instead, Sam and I stumbled upon the remains of a brutal and savage nighttime attack.  The violence evidenced by feathers, blood and body parts strewn about had me convinced it was a Henocide and we had lost all of our chickens.  But a quick assessment of the scene revealed two hens high on a perch, another standing with her back to the incident, as if she just couldn’t process the events, and the fourth in a nesting box laying an egg.

Miss Marple

Miss Marple

Hoping to avoid missing an investigative trick as we grapple to determine the perpetrator and solve the cruel murders of our two hens, I’ve searched the Internet, chicken books and watched Margaret Rutherford playing the amateur detective Miss Marple as she single-handedly solves yet another murder in the village of St. Mary Mead.  Sadly, Roger and I are launching a slightly hampered murder inquiry.  We are seriously short-staffed lacking police officers, CSI units, district attorneys, medical examiners, specialists, detectives and Miss Marple, herself!  It’s up to the home team — me, Roger, Sam and the four surviving hens — to solve this crime mystery.

The steps to which we must adhere are straightforward:  First, Secure the Scene.  This is easier said than done, because the “scene” includes possible witnesses, victims and, of course, suspects and keeping “unauthorized personnel” from moving through the area contaminating evidence.  I failed on this front:  Sam was sniffing everything, the chickens were making a break for the free range world outside of their nighttime home, and I was, well, a little sickened by the brutality before me.  I set down the chicken food and fled the scene.  I brought in Roger as backup.

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Contrary to what I have been led to believe from televised crime dramas, after securing the scene, you don’t immediately start to recover evidence, but must first Define the Extent of the Crime Scene by Conducting a “Walk-Through.”  Every good investigator knows to not touch anything, but this murder was disturbing, and we aren’t preparing a case for criminal court, so Roger and I contaminated the evidence chain and cleared up the massacre.

Hoping to gain an insight into how and why this crime was committed and, more importantly, the point of entry and exit for the perpetrator we turned our attention to the walk-through and pondered:  Who or what would do such a thing?  Why didn’t it kill all the chickens?  Will it return?  How can we tighten security and keep our remaining four chickens safe?

We have a safe newly erected hen house sited within another fenced area, which had served for years as their coop.  Before Roger built the new and improved hen house, two of the older chickens always opted to roost up high, within the fenced-in area.  Two others (the victims) liked sleeping in nesting boxes, again within the fenced area but outside of the hen house.   Weekly security checks of the perimeter to see if there are any gaps in the two-foot thick stonewalls and three layers of chicken wire revealed a seemingly impenetrable boundary.  It was now breached and we needed some fast answers to solve this crime.  With no obvious points of entry or exit, our next step was to Interview Surviving Witnesses.  Unfortunately, our witnesses are chickens and no amount of questioning will help us gain the required overview of that night.   So, we shooed them away, focusing again on how the killer gained access.

As we studied each corner and seam to the chicken’s home, our conversation turned to:  Rule out Possible Suspects.  In any crime, there is a probability the victim knows the culprit and so we had to also consider ourselves.  Unfortunately, we had motive.  One sunny afternoon about a week before the murders, I looked out to see how our vegetable beds were progressing only to spy all six of the chickens turning our lovely winter garden into their private dust baths!  Chickens and vegetables do not go together, unless in a Gumbo.   But Roger and I have alibis!  We were asleep and Sam could testify to that, and besides, we loved those chickens.  Despite our brief and fleeting reasons, we removed ourselves as possible “perps”.

Topping our list of probable suspects is the fox.  Typically, a fox in the hen house – where the prey cannot escape – indulges in what’s known as “surplus killing”, killing far more than it could consume.  Even if not hungry, a fox will kill everything it can and cache it for later use.  This is sensible because not every day is a successful hunting day.  It’s a little like buying extra food and throwing it into the freezer in case we don’t make it to the shops.    Foxes are nimble, so it could have worked its way over the wire along the roofline, but four chickens remained unharmed.  The carcasses of the two killed were not entirely devoured, nor taken back to a den.  This is not typical fox behaviour, so does this make the fox innocent?

Consider the badger.  We’ve spotted it nearby at night and know it is attracted to bird food, layers pellets, and chickens.  We no longer leave the bird feeders out at night, so maybe the badger had turned its attention to our hens!  A quick survey of experts tells us that a badger usually kills by going through the breast, which is consistent with what we found at the crime scene.  Unlike a fox, a badger will stay put and eat what it kills, or just leave behind its kill.  But how did it enter and exit the coop without leaving a gaping hole?

In order to keep the chickens safe with the culprit still on the loose, we have put them into witness protection.  Each night all four hens are placed into the chicken coop, the access ramp removed and the door locked.   This involves catching the two who would prefer to roost up high outside of the hen house.  Any possible holes, even the smallest, have been blocked with stones and additional chicken wire.  And all food is removed.  They are in lock down.  Good thing too as we’ve seen evidence of predator return:  chewed wood, upturned water bowls, and my strategically placed props of wood moved from their original positions.

Loss is never easy.  Roger and I didn’t name these chickens, because we couldn’t tell them apart.  The two who died so horrifically were from the four we rescued in November.  When we brought them home, they had no feathers and looked ready to be cooked except they were walking around.  After a few weeks, their feathers returned and they enjoyed the free-range chicken life.  They scratched and hunted for bugs and worms, they curiously assisted all our outside projects, and they produced gorgeous eggs.  Four months later, two of them copped it.