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.”

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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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The Leaving of Esme

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It’s been a while since my last post and I don’t really know why, except to say that I guess life has intruded.
Since I last wrote, my oldest and dearest chicken Esme, had to be dispatched. She had been failing for some time. Meghan, the ever compassionate and diligent vet, tried but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Some antibiotics later, some worming solution, isolation in the guinea pig hutch for a few days; none of it worked. I watched when I threw the food scraps to the chooks as Esme pretended to eat, picking up bits but dropping them again. Such was the unusual nature of this avian creature, that even at her sickest, the other chickens never ostracised her.
Usually, at the first sign of illness, before any human could notice, the other chickens will start to pick on the affected chicken, chasing them away from water and food and even violently setting upon them as they did with Sylvia when she was ill. (Although given Sylvia’s bullying tactics I can’t help thinking that was karma).
But no one ever gave Esme any grief. No predator ever took her, even though she free-ranged whenever she wanted, where ever she wanted. What can it be about a chicken that would make other chickens intrinsically respect them?
Esme would escape the confines of the coop and come up to the house and start clucking if I was late taking the scraps down. One afternoon I was so late that she actually came to the back screen door and began banging on it. When I called “Essie!” to her in a sing-song voice, she would shake her head vigorously as though the sound tickled her brain. She was unlike any other chicken.
When Esme disappeared one night when she was very sick, I feared something had finally taken her in her weakened state, and I was sad. But at eleven o’clock the next morning I looked up from my desk to see her pecking about on the lawn as usual. I was astonished, but shouldn’t have been surprised. She had disappeared on many occasions overnight and always turned up. I entertained the vain hope that perhaps she’d made a miraculous recovery, but when I looked again she was sitting in the garden and flies were hovering around her. I knew then that her time had come.
You may think, like my husband, that a chicken should be dispatched with an axe. I could no more end Esme’s life with an axe than I could my dog, Maggie’s and so we set off on Essie’s last journey to the vet.
Meghan looked crestfallen that she had failed to diagnose the problem and could do nothing more to help. I promised her I wasn’t going to fall apart; she said she couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t. She took me through to the treatment area where she had everything ready to go. I placed Esme on the table. She was so weak now that she couldn’t even sit upright, so I lay her on her side. Meghan slipped a small plastic cone-shaped mask over her little head and let the anaesthetic gas put her to sleep. Esme’s eyes closed and she lay breathing evenly. Meghan then lifted a wing and sought a vein in which to inject the drug that would stop her breathing, unceremoniously called “Lethabarb”. The veins were tiny. Using an insulin syringe and needle, Meghan drew up the green liquid and injected it into the vein. It took a few doses because Esme’s circulation had all but shut down. And then I realised she was no longer breathing.
I left her for Meghan to perform an autopsy for her own and the veterinary students interest, to see what had caused her illness. They would then safely dispose of her. If we tried to bury her on the property she might be dug up by a goanna. Rather gruesome for us, but potentially fatal for the goanna, which would also get a dose of the Lethabarb.
And so Esme, who was in the first ever batch of chickens I bought, before I knew the ways of chickens, and who strangely commanded the respect of her fellow chickens to the end, at the age of 8 years, departed. When I got out of the car on arriving home, I swear I heard her once more. I like to think she was saying goodbye.

PS: She had a diseased liver. We still don’t know why.

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┬ásmugly 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.