Keeping chickens healthy and safe from preditors
Unfortunately, we have first-hand experience in the devious ways of the fox. So quiet, always coming when we are fast asleep, we were certain we didtn't get foxes in our garden - until disaster hit.
I will never forget that day. I was just up, pouring myself a hot drink when I looked out of the window and saw feathers on the lawn. I looked straight at the run door and instant dread sunk to my stomache - it was ever so slightly open.
I scrambled around trying to find something to put on my feet as I walked out side saying 'no, no, no, please no'. Not a chicken in sight at first, just some feathers. And then I saw the body of my favourite chicken, no head - just the body. We had raised these chickens since they were 1 day old and I had let myself get attached. I was devistated and felt incredibly guilty for letting them down.
It took a few months before I was ready to get some more chickens and this time we opted to rescue ex-commercial hens. Before we brought them home, we took a good look at what went wrong, what could go wrong and how we could protect our new flock of hens.
The first thing we did was put up camera's. I was certain it was a fox, but wanted to double check and get an idea of what time it was visiting us. Turns out between 2pm and 3pm, roughly every few nights, staying for about 10 minutes. The camera's continue to be useful in monitoring patterns in the foxes behaviour and allow me to check our ladies have indeed gone to bed. We got ours from Amazon, paying about £80 for it, which isn't so cheap, but it does the job well and it means we can have one inside the coup without any wires. We later went on to buy a 3-pack on a Black Friday deal which worked out a lot cheaper. If your coup is not too far from your house, you should be able to use a wired camera and this will be a lot lighter on your wallet.
Automatic Closing Coupe Door
The second thing we did was to look for a second hand omlet with one of those fancy 'auto-close' doors. We still have some young children and there is always the chance that they will open the run door and not properly close it - or that I'm not around to put them away after a day free ranging in the garden. This door can be set to open and close at specific times to provide that extra bit of security. They are not limitted to Omlet coups either - I've seen them attached to wooden ones. We managed to get a good deal on a second hand one but if you prefer to buy new, they sell them on Amazon here.
Reinforced Chicken Run Door/Locks
The third was to re-inforce the run door. I'm still not entirely sure if the run door as left open, or if the fox prized it open. What I do know though is that foxes are very clever and that run door really wasn't that secure. In the spirit of homesteading, I made use of some springs with hooks at either end that came off an old trampoline we had dismantled a few months earlier. I now hook one hook on the chicken wire on the door, and the other hook onto the front of the chicken run. The spring keeps everything pulled nice and tight.
Chicken Run Protection
The final thing we did was use a mix of metal chicken run skirting and old dog pen pannels around the base of the run. This makes it much harder for the fox to dig underneath the run and hopefully deters any attempt to chew through the wire. Most of the chicken run is still chicken wire, particularly higher up but the foxes have not bothered to try to chew it (according to the cameras).
Did It Work?
Early 2023, we picked up our 6 rescues. One only made it a few hours before we realised she was so sick she was struggling to breath. The children refused to give up on her and we ended up with a costly trip to the emergency vet, who rather quickly, did the necessary and put her out of her misery. This is not uncommon for rescues and I learned the hard way. I will still get from rescue centers in the future but I will try to do it when the kids are not around so that I, (actually Mr Homestead) can deal with any sick hens first and avoid expensive vet bills...
Since then, touch wood, our chickens have kept safe from mrs fox. I see her visiting them a few times a week, she has even climbed up on top of the run and has a good sniff around, but so far so good. We have even forgotten to close the run door once or twice, and thats where our automatically closing door on the coup has saved us from disaster.
Now I can't categorically say we have nailed it because nature has a way of catching you out, but at least for now, it's doing the job and hopefully the cameras will give us warning if we need to take futher steps.
General Chicken Health
Of course, preditors are not the only thing to bother our feathery friends. Like most animals, they can get their fair share of parasites. We haven't seen any worms in their faeces but we do get red mites. Some of the most common parasites, diseases and virus' to trouble adult chickens are:
- Avian Influenza
Managing the Environment
Keeping the coup clean and dry and having fresh clean water is really important to reduce most of these as well as others). The way that we do this is as follows:
- Our main run is under cover
- Every morning when I collect eggs, I scoop out chicken poop from the nesting boxes and fluff up the saw-dust, adding more when required. I keep a bin next to the coup which has both sawdust, my poop scoop and chicken feed in it for convenience.
- I don't worry about the rest of the coup on a daily basis because the omlet coops have thick plastic bars that the chickens roost on. Their poop falls between the bars and is captured in trays they can't reach.
- I give their run a quick rake over in the mornings but as we free range them most of the day, there isn't really that much to do. I don't worry too much about the poop in the garden as it is very spread out - although I do hose down poop on the patio!
- Every couple of weeks I hose down the whole coop. Our omlet coupe is made of a really hardy plastic so it's really easy to clean. I used to wonder why these things cost so much - now I know! You can pick them up much cheaper second hand and they tend to be in good condition because they are so well made.
To keep our girls safe from Avian Influenza, we keep them under cover during outbreaks. They are not happy about this, but unfortuntely it has to be done.
Products you can buy to help reduce problems
Unfortuntely, keeping the coup dry isn't a full-proof way of keeping nasties at bay. We fairly frequently see the odd red mite, and for this we use a red mite powder (I'll dig out the name at some point). I rub this under their feathers and I put some in with their bedding. I also put a fresh spring of peppermint in their beddings as the mites don't like the smell.
I also use a worm treatment every 6 months, however I was recently informed by a vet of a product/service for testing for worms first to avoid medicating when not necessary. I'll also dig out the details of that - I have the kit but I haven't tried it yet.
Another product I have given them is Harkers Coxide Treatment. I treated my flock for this when we first got them just in case, especially as one of the flock died within a couple of hours of bringing her home, and most of the rest had very pale wattles.
I provide my hens with healthy treats every day to keep their vitamins, mineral and fibre levels up - all produced from our garden. Now these they do like! If you want to read more about what I feed them, take a look here.
Worms, worms worms...
An natural alternative to reduce worms in chickens is to add garlic and apple cider in their water. This is something I am going to start trying however... my chickens have never had garlic before so putting in their water may put them off drinking. Look at a variety of other homestading sites, people are suggesting 4 cloves per gallon of water ( so about 5 for a 5 litre bucket). I'm planning to start with just 1 clove per gallon, and slowly increase over the next few weeks. Apparently you need to crush the garlic and put it in some sortof tights/stocking to stop particles clogging up the drinking teets. Once I have got them on the full dose, I will send of a sample of their poop to the worming test kit people and pop a link here to tell you how I got on.