How to catch a fox

How to catch a fox indeed!

Last week, looking for a solution, I went to the local rural produce store. This is where I buy my chook food and pig ears for my dog. I recognised the two attendants who looked up as I walked in.

“What can we do for you?” one of them said.
“I have a fox who has taken a liking to my chickens. Do you have any traps?”
They both smiled and gave a wry look.
“We do, but I don’t know that they’d be big enough and foxes are pretty clever.”
“I know,” I replied. It’s the only thing I do know about foxes, apart from the fact that they love chicken.
He reached over to the end of the counter and picked up a business card which he handed to me.
QLD Vermin Control and Wild Game Harvesting
Professional Shooter
“He might be able to help you. That’s all I can suggest unfortunately.”
I thanked him and took the card.

The next day I called the number.
“No worries,” said the professional shooter with a slight drawl. “I’ll come out and have a look.”
He came a couple of days later, late in the afternoon when foxes become active. He brought what he called “lure”: food that foxes like to eat. Sardines and dried liver treats. We walked down into the bush so he could check things out.
“You probably can’t see it, but there’s a track here that the fox has obviously been using,” and indeed once he pointed it out you could see a line through the dried leaves and small trees heading in the direction we’d seen the fox take.
There was a mound of dirt from where we’d planted a tree which had been partially dug out.
“He’s been diggin’ here. Probably a marsupial mouse or rat or somethin’ in there. I’ll put some lure here and see what happens.”
He poked some of the bait into the dirt and then laid two sticks down either side and angled towards each other so they formed a V. He told us that foxes and dogs won’t step over sticks laid like that, but will go around and be effectively funnelled towards the narrow end. If the lure was taken, he’d lay some the next night and the next, and then when the fox was feeling secure, he would lay a foot trap.

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He’d explained to me on the phone that these aren’t the ones with jagged metal jaws, but have rubber edges and are RSPCA approved. When he arrived he opened his car boot and showed them to be. They’ll clamp down hard, but won’t do any damage unless they’re left too long. He also showed me a box of small bullets.
“Once they’re caught,” he explained, “by law I have to shoot them because they’re a grade 2 pest.”
After he lay the lure, he spent a few minutes trying to call the fox out with what he called a fox whistle. It was like an accordion and made a sound like those annoying whistles kids buy at markets and shows, the ones that go right inside their mouths and make everyone start to hate them.
The fox took the lure the first night but not the second.
“That’s ok. We’ll just keep putting it out. Foxes are clever.”
The next time he lay the lures he added a vile-smelling substance made from dogs’ anal glands. Possibly the worst smell in the world, but irresistible to dogs and foxes alike. Maggie lifted up her head and kept sniffing the air, even though she was far from it, up the hill on the verandah. I closed the gates, but when she knew I wasn’t looking she found a way out. She reappeared reeking of that pungent stuff. Boy was she in trouble! I’m sorry to say I hit her and then chained her up: something I never do, but I was so angry and am so desperate to get this fox. Until we do, my chickens cannot be allowed to free-range.
My next door neighbour said he’d seen two foxes together one morning a couple of weeks ago.
“No worries,” said the shooter, “we’ll get both of ’em.”

The Wretched Mr. Fox

What am I going to do? I now have only two hens and Bryan the rooster left. That wretched fox having taken one hen, decided last Thursday that it was time to try his luck again. I had quickly become complacent about it. Why? He was hardly going to stop at one chook, but I can’t keep my chickens locked up all the time. They must be allowed to free-range some of the time, otherwise what’s the point? They’ll be unhealthy if stuck in their pen, with only dirt to peck around in. They need to eat grass and grubs and insects, and lie in the sun, flicking dust through their feathers to get rid of lice and keep themselves clean. Watching the chickens pecking about in the garden and on the lawn is strangely hypnotic and relaxing. If they’re down the hill locked in their pen I can’t see them or hear them.

I had left to drive my youngest son to soccer training and asked my middle son to lock the chooks up before it got dark. As we were driving I got a text message and asked my youngest son to read it:
A fox got one of the chickens
“Which one?” I asked. “Quick text him back.”
“He says he doesn’t know.”
“Well call him and put it on speaker.”
He said he’d gone down to lock them up, but that they weren’t in the coop yet, so he came back up to the house to have a shower. As he was getting out of the shower he heard a comotion. The chickens were squawking and Maggie was barking. He got dressed and ran down to see the fox carrying off a flapping hen with Maggie close on his heels. The other chooks had scattered and he was trying to find them.
He hung up and I drove my youngest to soccer. On the way back, my phone rang again. It was my other son again, breathless, obviously on the move still trying to sort out what was happening. Having taken one chook, the fox returned, but the other chickens had disappeared. He said the fox stood there and just stared at him for a good 30 seconds before Maggie spotted it again and it took off. He then saw it again carrying the original chicken with Maggie chasing it. It headed up onto the road where it dropped the now headless chicken and disappeared. Dan was trying to find the other chickens and when he looked at the road again the headless chicken was gone. He would keep looking for the other chickens. He hung up.
When I got home the first thing I saw was the rooster and Sylvia, my oldest beautiful silver Wyandotte, now 8 and a half years old, blind in one eye, a survivor of that the attack that had blinded her and also a lung infection which I had diligently treated, feeling slightly foolish for giving so much medical attention to a chicken. Her feathers were askew; both looked shaken.
So those two were still alive.
I went inside and turned on the verandah light then walked outside again. There under the light, squashing one of my pot plants on the small glass table was my gold Wyandotte, Gladys Emmanuel. She was terrified and when I picked her up she tried to peck me. I tucked her gently under my arm and spoke softly to her, saying how it must have been terrifying, but it was ok now. She began to coo back at me, like a little child, as though saying, “Yes, it was very scary.”
So it was Doris who was taken, my gold Wyandotte, with blue/grey edges on her feathers. A couple of years ago she was almost killed trying to protect her chick from a hawk and I found her standing in a corner with her chick, dripping large dark drops of blood, with no strength left to fight me when I picked her up. Meghan the vet stitched her up and the staff had fallen in love with her and her chick which stayed with her, and used to jump up onto her back. Doris was patched up, but the chick was killed two days later by a tiny carpet snake, the only thing that could get into the guinea pig hutch I had put them in. We got the snake out but it was too late. Doris tried to keep feeding her dead chick, dropping bits of food next to it and cooing to it, until I finally removed it and put it out in the bush.

We eventually carried the remaining chooks back down to the pen and they’ve been locked in ever since. I can’t let them out now until this fox is dealt with, but how to catch a fox?

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Predators

My flock is dwindling.
Two weeks ago I heard a commotion from the chickens who were free-ranging down near the water tank behind the house. Maggie and I ran down to investigate. The chickens were all huddled together under the bougainvillea on the concrete tank looking terrified. I counted them; one was missing. I had a bit of a look for her, but knew I wouldn’t find anything. She has vanished without so much as leaving a feather. I believe it was the work of a hawk.
A few weeks ago I was watching the chooks pecking about on the small patch of grass in the garden when they suddenly scattered and took cover under the bushes. Surprised, I stepped off the verandah and looked up. There, slowly circling high above, was a hawk. The chooks wore the same terrified look they now had clustered under the bougainvillea. They refused to come out into the open until it was well and truly getting dark.
So Stephanie, my black Wyandotte, with the black legs that reminded me of the stockinged nuns from my early school years, was gone.

Then on Monday afternoon, about an hour after I’d let Bryan and the girls out I heard an even greater commotion coming from down near the chook pen. I quickly ran down, Maggie running ahead as usual. There was nothing to see, but Maggie was off and through the bush after something. After a quick check I was sure another of the girls had gone missing so I followed her. She came running back but I told her to get after whatever it was. She again ran off through the bush with me running after. I followed her across our property, dodging my way through the lantana bushes and through the barbed-wire fence onto the neighbour’s property. Maggie turned a sharp left to run around the dam, but to the right I heard flapping. I called to her and she turned and ran in the direction of the flapping. I followed her towards a large clump of lantana. She suddenly sped up and I looked up to see a fox hurrying away. It briefly looked back at me before running off, Maggie close behind. It had no chicken, so I concentrated on the clump of lantana and soon spotted gold feathers. Sure enough there was one of my beautiful gold Wyandottes lying on her side, head stretched back at an awkward angle. As I picked her up I was surprised at how much heavier she was dead than alive and as I did so I heard the fox cry out in fear or warning.

The fox having got away, Maggie soon reappeared trotting beside me as I carried my chicken by the feet. This seemed wrong somehow, so I lifted and cradled her body, supporting her floppy head, her eyes closed. She was still warm and I marvelled that something I had seen alive and pecking about in the scraps only an hour before could now be so lifeless.

Our ground is hard clay, so I didn’t bother burying her, but just laid her down in an old tyre that was lying in the bush the other side of the gully next to the house. I stroked her golden feathers and left her for the bush to take her. The next day she was gone. Maggie sniffed where I’d laid her then followed a trail through the fence where she stopped and sniffed again. I followed and found a pile of gold feathers and some grain. As I stood looking at them, a tiny red-headed finch flitted down and picked up one of the feathers. It flew up onto a branch and seemed to be weighing up the feather, deciding if it was suitable for nesting material. It must have been, because the finch then flew off, carrying the feather in its tiny beak.
Maybe the fox came back to claim his prize or something else took care of her. It doesn’t matter much. She’s gone, but at least she’s being of use to someone else.

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No oranges this year

I am in a lather of sweat, the cicadas in the gum trees are building to an industrial level of noise and many plants that have been valiantly hanging on to life are finally succumbing, their leaves draining of colour, turning crisp and shrivelled. It’s hot. An orange tree that has been growing itself by the main road, providing oranges to whomever can get there with a ladder first is, for the first time, showing signs of stress. It hasn’t rained here properly since a weekend of three violent storms dumped heavy rain in early December. Our tank is barely a quarter full and our dam is but a muddy puddle.

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Last weekend we holed up inside in the airconditioning–something we only use in extreme heat–while the temperature outside climbed into the high 30s. I had to let the chooks out of their pen so they could find cooler places. They quickly made their way up the hill, wings held out from their bodies, beaks open and panting, and made for the cool of the dirt under the house. I filled a dish of water and set it down for them. They just stood and stared at me. I had never seen them so stressed.

The television showed footage of bushfires in Tasmania and New South Wales. Another fire wiped out a resort near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where the temperature hasn’t fallen under 40 yet this year. Last week a heavy pall of smoke from fires on nearby Bribie Island drifted over us, obscuring the mountains; we could barely see out the front gate from the house.

Afternoon smoke haze

Normally at this time of year our tank is overflowing; we watch the overflow tank overflow and wish we could catch all that excess water. I hang wet clothes under the house and when I check them the next day they’re still damp and starting to smell. I refuse to buy a clothes dryer because they use so much power and the clothes dry eventually. And I don’t want to contribute any more to this overtaxed planet, suffocating under an excess of carbon dioxide and starting to sweat under it’s ever thickening blanket of gases.

When I was in high school, back in the 80s, our science teacher, Mr. Hawkin, used to talk passionately and urgently about “the greenhouse effect”. He told us that the buildup of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels would cause the planet to heat up, that we would see extreme weather events, that it would become increasingly hard to grow our food as periods of drought increased in length and frequency. Occasionally, in the media, you would see the greenhouse effect referred to, but it was treated like something mad, radical scientists were scaremongering about and anyway, it was way off in the future like flying cars. Hawkin used to make me feel shit-scared, but then the bell would go and I’d forget about it.

Mr. Hawkin is probably retired now. He’d be in his 60s. I imagine he kept telling his students about this mythical “greenhouse effect”. I wonder if anyone ever acted on anything he said. I think, certainly in recent years, I have always striven to conserve electricity and not waste things, but then my mother was of the depression and war years, so it was probably her careful ways that instilled this. But I wonder if anyone has actually taken action based on what he told us, studying science at university, buying a hybrid car, not using plastic bags at the checkout, striving for self-sufficiency. Not enough people listened to him or any of the other scientists who tried and are still trying to warn us. I think the time for warnings is well and truly over. Now we have to work out how we’re going to survive. There may be no oranges from that tree by the road this year, and that will just be the beginning.

Dog and Chicken go to the Vet.

On Monday morning, as my dog, Maggie, jumped up to put her front paws on the side of the bed to greet me as she does every morning, she let out a sharp, high-pitched yelp. She then slunk away and wouldn’t come when I called her back. I got up and sat on the floor with her to check her out, but couldn’t find anything: no ticks, no obvious injury. She was very quiet and didn’t even hassle me for her breakfast. I decided not to feed her in case it was serious. She tried to put her front paws up on my knees but recoiled, and when she went downstairs, did so very slowly and carefully.

As soon as the vet opened I called them, explained the problem and they told me to come in at 10. In the mean time, Maggie retreated to her bed and sat there shivering in obvious pain. I started to get really worried. What if she had some internal damage and was bleeding? What if some poisonous thing had bitten her and the venom was taking effect? Should I take her up to the vet early instead of waiting? But I didn’t want to look like one of those neurotic pet owners.

So in order to feel like I was doing something I gave her some rescue remedy. Now I have never experienced any miraculous effects from rescue remedy but always keep it in my bag. If you can give a few drops to yourself or someone else in times of extremis you at least feel useful. So I managed to get a few drops onto the outside of Maggie’s lips and she licked them off. She sat there looking as mournful as ever, but I decided there was nothing more I could do, so I left her to rest on her bed and got on with my chores.

I walked out to the kitchen and picked up the scrap bucket for the chickens and was about to head out the door when Maggie appeared. Taking the scraps to the chooks is the highlight of her day and she wasn’t going to miss it. Lo and behold, she rushed ahead of me as usual, took off down the stairs with no trouble and was soon up on her hind legs against the side of the pen barking at the doves that always get trapped in there. Could it be that rescue remedy actually works?

Now I had an appointment at the vet, but what seemed to be a perfectly healthy dog! I equivocated, but decided to tale her anyway, just in case.

But just in case she was fine, I decided to maximise my visit. While down at the chooks, I got hold of Esme, the misbehaving chook, and had a good look at her. She had chicken shit caked all around her nether regions and I wondered whether there might be some infection as a result and this was causing her strange behaviour. So I tucked her under my arm, brought her up to the house, cleared the dirty newspaper from the carry cage and put some fresh stuff in and locked her in there. She was not impressed. Not only was she now closely confined, I had taken her straight after I threw the scraps into the pen and she was missing out. She kept shifting around and giving me menacing looks.

So at 10, I walked into the vet with one apparently healthy dog and one outraged chicken. Dogs being superior to chickens in the minds of humans,   Maggie was examined first. After prodding and poking and twisting her this way and that, the vet could find no obvious defect and decided it must have been a muscle spasm that had resolved itself. I didn’t mention the rescue remedy. She told me to keep Maggie confined and quiet, just to be on the safe side. I nodded obediently.

Next, Esme was extracted from her cage and placed on the table. The vet felt her all over, lifted her wings and listened to her chicken heart and lungs. Esme’s response to this was to make pull herself up to full height and crow as loudly as possible. But if she felt indignant at that, the best was yet to come. The vet pulled her gloves on and committed the ultimate humiliation. Even Brian, the rooster, had never violated Esme to such an extent. She gave another outraged crow. The vet declared her nether regions healthy but took away a little sample to examine more closely.

While we waited, Maggie paced around a few times, told me she was bored and wanted to go now and sat down and curled up on the floor in resignation. Meanwhile, Esme was enjoying the unusual experience of being stroked by a human. As I ran my hand along her silky, black feathers she first sat down and then her eyelids began to flutter and her head slowly droop. She was asleep! As I continued to stroke her I pondered on the absurdity of my life that I had been brought to a point where I was standing in a room with a sulking dog and a somnolent chicken who hadn’t been feeling quite herself.

The vet eventually returned to say she’d found nothing unusual in the sample but it might be best to worm Esme and all the other chickens. I felt nervous. How big were the other chickens, she asked. Bigger than Esme, I replied. And we have a rooster who’s quite big. Hmmm. Could we weigh him? I put my head in my hands and groaned. No, don’t worry, it’s ok, she replied. I said, no I didn’t mind doing it, but could just visualise capturing the rooster under cover of darkness, while he was sleepy, and trying to make him stand on a set of bathroom scales and keep him still long enough. We’d already had Brian to the vet after he ate a giant rubber band, most of which was tangled around his legs. He was found stumbling around the carport making a loud, strangled noise. The vet had knocked him out, then tried to pull the rubber band out, but it was firmly fixed somewhere deep inside. She pulled it out as far as possible, snipped it off and we took him home. He’s never crowed properly since. Yeah, maybe we could weigh him…

So I left the vet with two apparently healthy animals, slightly poorer and with two bottles of liquid that I’m supposed to administer to the flock. I was also instructed to cut away the shit encrusted feathers from Esme’s bum and wash it lest she become flyblown and they eat away her flesh. God I love that chook.

Come on Esme. It won't hurt a bit.

Blind Faith

On the weekend we bought ore of these new-fangled things:

But since our grass looks like this:

…we won’t need to use it for a while.

Bushfires threaten today. It’s going to be very hot and the wind is predicted to get up. The place is tinder dry and we only need one dickhead to chuck a cigarette butt out their car window, or one of the local, bored kids to take it into their head to deliberately light a fire and we’ll have to get busy and decide whether to go or stay. I’d rather pretend it’ll never happen here and concentrate on growing more things.

So far this:

…has become this…

…and this…

…has become this…

…and other things are just growing themselves…

The chickens continue to supply us with eggs, all except Esme. Esme is now  beyond the age of laying, being a grand 7 years of age and grows more and more recalcitrant. She has always free-ranged whether locked up or not; she always finds a way out and wanders around the property dust-bathing herself on the driveway and hunkering down under the bushes in the garden in the heat of the day. But, like a rebellious teenager, she has started staying out all night! She did this once when my husband was away adventuring in the Himalayas. She must have felt particularly determined to challenge the boundaries with one parent away. On finding her missing from the line up on the roost that night, I despaired that she had finally been taken by an evil goanna. But she turned up in the coop next morning as thought nothing had happened. Phew!

But last night my husband went to lock them up and came up reporting that Esme was once again missing. After dinner I took my torch and Maggie and I went searching for her in the dark bush. There was no sign of her except for a few dark feathers at the entrance to the coop. Again, I thought her luck must have finally run out. She had been behaving strangely all day, hanging around and making weird noises at me. Maybe she was trying to tell me something?

But I went down this morning and there she was standing outside the coop preening herself! She looked at us as though, “What?” and kept on preening her feathers like a conceited teenager. She then walked to the gate as though insolently demanding I open it for her–which I did–and hurried in and into the shed for some breakfast. When I went down later with the scraps she was nowhere to be found again. I called her but she didn’t come. I went for a walk around the property but can’t find her anywhere. The weather is warming up and the reptiles will be on the move, but I just have to assume that Esme will continue to elude them. And if a bushfire comes, no doubt she’ll find somewhere safe.

Leaps of Faith

It’s school holidays and I’m home alone! One son is on a ski trip, the other two are with their grandparents at the beach. This is the perfect chance to do some of those things that I’ve been putting off. So far I’ve cleaned out the chook shed, which had droppings and the grain the chooks choose not to eat, piling up and starting to stink. I put fresh sugarcane mulch in the nesting box and also lifted Sylvia, who is broody, off her nest to add more mulch under her six eggs. They’ll hatch in about a week. Sylvia is the worst mother in the world, but the one who goes broody the most often. She’s hatched more chicks than any of the others, even letting another chook sit on a nest for two weeks, only to squeeze herself onto the same nest for the last week, either ousting the other chook, or co-parenting the hatchlings. But she tires of parenthood quickly, leaving them to run after her when she takes off free-ranging. She even left one batch altogether when the rooster came enticing her back into the flock. None of her chicks has ever survived. One was taken at night by a snake and she spent all of the next morning wandering around calling for it, while the snake sat smugly on the rafters under the house digesting her baby. It’s the only time I’ve seen her show any motherly feeling. But she soon forgot, and after a couple of days, the snake did an enormous, stinking shit down the wall and disappeared.

We’ve hatched many chicks over the years but only one hen has survived to adulthood and a few roosters who were given away to be eaten–one of them by a fox. Most are taken by snakes, goannas or hawks. This time I’ve separated Sylvia from the others and mean to do my best to keep the predators out. Hopefully they won’t all be roosters and hopefully she’ll parent responsibly for a change. I’m prepared to give her another chance.Image

I find it very satisfying doing this work. We have our own fresh eggs–much fresher than anything bought in a shop. I’m not sure it works out cheaper, given that we still have to buy grain for them over the winter months when we get no eggs. But it drastically reduces the amount of rubbish that goes in our bin. All of our food scraps, bar any meat, goes to the chooks and is turned into eggs and manure for the garden.They also work at keeping pests down. Last time we had lawn grubs in our tiny patch of lawn I let the chooks loose on it and we’ve never had lawn grubs since. No pesticides needed.

I also potted two chilli plants I bought at the markets last week. I now have rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, sage, chives, oregano, mint, bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves, two tomato plants, lavender, garlic, two pumpkin plants and some tiny kale seedlings. I also have a passionfruit plant waiting to be planted somewhere it can climb. The lemon tree finally gave us several lemons this year after seven years of care and we had one orange off the orange tree. The grapefruit tree had a sulk this year and we got no fruit, likewise the lychee. But I have plans to apply biodynamic tree paste which is supposed to work miracles–kind of like a mud pack for fruit trees.

A week ago I didn’t have to pick anyone up one afternoon and didn’t have to cook dinner, so I took the chance to apply the biodynamic 500 preparation to the garden. This requires a certain leap of faith and would make any scientifically-minded person think I was completely stupid for bothering. They might be right.

Biodynamic 500 is made by burying cow horns packed with manure and leaving them for several months before digging them up again. All this is done with manure from specific cows, at a specific time of year and at a particular point in the lunar cycle. It’s all pretty ‘eye-of-newt’, but people who use this stuff regularly swear by it’s magical properties. And one does not just stick it on the vege patch and dig. One must put it, a mere handful, into a metal (not plastic) bucket, fill with water and begin to stir vigorously one way, creating a vortex, and then the other, creating chaos and then another vortex. One must stir in this way for exactly one hour, late in the afternoon, outside, and then sprinkle it about.

So that’s what I did, while listening to a podcast on my computer to while away the time. The blurb on the packet says not to expect miracles straight away, but that it requires regular seasonal applications before one notices any benefit. I feel like I’m doing something good. I may just get RSI, or I may see a miracle.