It all started with an awful sound – a terrified screeching. I tore outside to see a large buzzard flying skyward from the garden. There in the grass lay poor Alice, my oldest hen, a crumpled heap of feathers not moving at all. I rushed over to see if she was still alive and found her wounded but still conscious. The buzzard had torn a wide laceration in her neck and her snow-white chest was covered in blood.
I scooped her up and ran to the house to assess the wound, dreading the idea that Alice wasn’t going to make it. This time, fortune smiled on us: Alice was in shock but holding her own. A closer look at the damage revealed that although the wound was large, nothing crucial seemed to have been torn. Time for the first aid box! I rummaged around to find a suture needle and as I gently held Alice, my partner used the sterile needle to sew up the wound.
Alice lived in a box in front of the stove for the next ten days. Each day I checked the wound and applied antiseptic ointment, and by the tenth day Alice was strutting around the kitchen as if nothing had happened, bright eyed and glossy feathered – a happy healthy bird!
Learning to keep my chickens safe from predators has been tricky in a forest full of foxes, birds of prey and various members of the weasel family, all ready to take one of my lovely chickens for their dinner. There are few things more enjoyable than having some pretty hens scratching about in the garden outside the house. Watching the daily soap opera provided by these characterful creatures is endlessly entertaining, and they make a fantastic pest control team, eliminating insects and slugs with gusto.
To be a free range chicken in central Portugal means being one tough bird… like Alice. When 12 tiny fluffy chicks hatched from her nest this spring I was particularly proud of our feathered survivor.
Jemima’s tips for protecting chickens:
- Some predators dig under fencing, so bury chicken wire to a depth of 30 cm around the base of your chicken pen.
- Some predators easily scale a fence, so close the top of your pen too. As a general rule, if you can squeeze your hand through a gap then your chickens are not safe.
- Keep free-range chickens in an area with good tree cover or erect shade-nets to break the line of sight for birds of prey, making it much less likely they will attack.
- For added safety, give chickens high perches to sleep on. If a fox does manage to get into your pen it will jump to knock birds down, so the further the chickens roost from the ground the safer they will be.
- Housing chickens close to larger livestock or, better yet, where your dogs sleep, will also discourage predators.