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On Free Range Chickens and Predation

chicken memories

Rosetta Rose, a hen of unknown breed, died Saturday January 26, in the mouth of a fox. She was ten months old and laying a brown egg a day. Rosetta spent her days pecking at weeds, dust-bathing, and digging for worms. She is survived by chicken companion Austra and her people, Lillian, Rachel, and Alex Tayse Baillieul. A private memorial service will be held January 27, 2013. Rest in Peace, Rosetta.

The Risk of Free Range

Our chickens enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom. It's the way we believe chickens should exist - foraging for their own food, enjoying sunlight and fresh air, and fertilizing our group as they move around. The chickens seem to want this too: they pace the edge of their run chirping to hop out and exercise their beaks. Because free-ranging seems to suit both parties, we allow them out of the coop for a few hours every day.

As with all freedoms, the payoff is negotiating some risk. In this case, chickens wandering around the yard are unprotected from predator attacks by anything other than their own slim sense of self-preservation. Our hens have always tended to stay close to buildings and under the cover of bushes. Snow tracks indicate that at the time of her capture, Rosetta was hanging out under our pickup-truck, a reasonably safe area. or so we thought. Rosetta paid the ultimate price for the freedom of free-ranging.

 fox footprint in snow

Protecting from Predators

Predation is, and will be, a continuing challenge on this property. Thanks to snow trails, we knew a fox was lurking at the back of the property. Hawks squawk at us from tree tops. Though we haven't seen any evidence of them, we expect raccoon and possum live nearby. All are known to hunt and kill chickens.

Our long-term plan to place a deeply embedded, tall fence around an orchard containing a walk-in coop just became a short-term plan. We have the coop and will be calling fence companies on Monday. Any suggestions for reasonable rates in Columbus Ohio? Leave your ideas in the comments.

We will plant fruit trees within the area that will eventually grow enough to provide cover from swooping hawks. Fencing the orchard will also hopefully prevent deer from munching on tender fruit tree limbs. Until the trees grow, we will run rope across the top to deter flying predators.

Beyond protecting our livestock, we are also thinking about the food we wish to grow. Deer traverse our yard daily, bedding down under trees at night. Rabbits, squirrels and raccoons will likely want to help themselves to our heirloom, organic salad bar too. We're considering a variety of physical and psychological barriers to prevent wild animals from eating our produce.

Lil is angry and wants to kill all foxes. Alex and I take a broader view, recognizing that hunting fox is not legal all the time, nor do we want to kill a majestic animal just for trying to catch a meal. We will do what we can to prevent predation but we know that there will be losses occasionally.

Ours is just another song in the perpetual tango for mutual survival that mankind and wild creatures have always danced.