I’m often asked when is the best time of year to start keeping poultry
I think most people would naturally consider the answer to be early spring. This is the time of year when we always notice our shop getting busier, as we joke about the customers coming out of hibernation! Without a doubt it is the time of year when most beginners start their poultry keeping, although I’m quite happy to advise that more or less any time of year can be just as good, ‘different seasons for different reasons’. If I were to say to avoid any time of year, it might be December, because we are all too occupied by the Christmas celebrations……..although a chicken set up can make a great present for the one who has everything, and hard to buy for!. Or, maybe January, as more often than not it tends to be extremely cold, and most of us like to be tucked up indoors (hibernated!)…….although starting during cold weather gives a nice head start against (the largely winter dormant) dreaded ‘red mite’ (ref: HF Sept17 article), and most other creepy crawlies that are more active in warmer times. It can be a good ‘pest free’ time to get a set up established.
I think the best advice would be, start when it suits you, when you can give it the time it needs, when you have time for reading, research and maybe time to attend a course to learn how to ‘set it up right’ – when you can afford the enclosure and equipment the birds deserve to keep them healthy and safe – the best time of year is when you are ready!.
This month we are largely focusing on ‘safe’, winter is upon us and predators become a far greater risk.
So, ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Thankfully in our country we have nothing to fear, however, our small feathered and furry friends do, their ‘wolf’ is known to us as ‘Mr Fox’ – it has no natural enemies in the wild here. There is the badger, far more powerful than the fox, but they very much tend to avoid each other, certainly, one does not look for trouble from the other, maybe just the occasional stand off or tussle over territory.
This month we are concerned with protecting our feathered flock, though I think it’s worth a mention at this point that much of the protective measures we will be looking at very much apply to the keeping of many other of our pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs etc. So, please spare a thought for them, and maybe pass on some of this knowledge to neighbours and friends who have these pets who will maybe not see this article.
Here at Mantel Farm, having built many chicken and other animal enclosures, and often learning ‘the hard way’, years of experience has taught me what is needed to keep our little friends safe. We are about keeping predators out, building to last, low maintenance, and look good!
My first point is – never skimp on the wire! The pen should be built using a good quality strong gauge wire. (The gauge is the size of the individual strands that make up the mesh, whether standard hex (chicken) wire, or weldmesh (square look). Gauges are often referenced in imperial (old money!), i.e., 19g (1mm), 18g (1.2mm), the lower the gauge number, the thicker (more heavy duty) the wire is. I would recommend nothing less than 19g for mesh hole sizes 19mm – 38mm (though 18g preferred). For hole sizes below 19mm, smaller gauges are common place in the meshes available, though weaker wire, the smaller hole sizes make it much harder for foxes to get their teeth into it. As the mesh hole sizes rise above 25mm I would recommend that the minimum gauge used be 18g or more.
From my previous career in Civil & Structural Engineering (once one, always one!), I also consider things like ‘snow loading’! most don’t. Although not a major concern where we are based in the south east, some readers will be much more concerned with this matter. A foot (30cm) or so of snow on an average flimsy poultry run roof is enough to cause a collapse. I have also seen cases where the fixings to the run sides remained firm, so the weight of the snow on the roof actually pulled the sides in! If this were to happen, day or night, this could allow the birds to escape, or easy access for our old friend Mr Fox! Consider straining wires with guy ropes, or decent timber support structure relevant to the size and span of the roof, particularly for larger set ups.
When the weather gets wetter a common solution is to throw some sort of plastic sheet or tarpaulin over the run to offer protection and keep the birds and ground within dry (no one likes a quagmire!). Whether big or small, the run roof will need to have a reasonable slope (ideally 10 degrees or more) to adequately shed the water. Sheeting must be kept tight to prevent sagging – the more it sags, the more it fills, the heavier it gets, until eventual collapse – enter Mr Fox! Temporary ply boarding under the sheeting can be used to provide some support if the roof is nearer ‘flat’, it can also be propped at one edge to provide some fall.
Consider covering all or part of their run with permanent waterproof sheeting, we generally use Onduline corrugated ridged bitumen felt, or clear / opaque sheeting. Make sure it has enough support and sufficient fixings to stand up to the often relentless winter winds.
Constantly check the condition of the hinges locks and catches to any opening parts of your poultry house and run. One of my particular niggles is when the simple twist toggles (turn buttons) are allowed to become loose and ‘spin like a windmill’s sail’, they should be kept tight, just loose enough to be able to turn with your fingers! A loose spinney thing is no protection to a cunning fox’s nose or paw! Regarding the rest, are they still good (not completed rusty, ceased up, most of the screws missing, barely working?!), if not, it’s time to put it right, you owe to your birds, their safety is in your hands (you’ll hear me repeating this time and time again!).
Check the condition of the house / coup itself, is it still serviceable, nails and screws still holding tight?, not worked loose or rusted away, allowing boarding to flap about, fall off or be torn off by a fox’s paw. Re tightening / adding a few more nails or screws can make a world of difference. In addition,
if the wood work is looking a little tired / weathered, a quick rub down with a stiff or wire brush and dust off, followed by a coat or two of decent (animal friendly) water repellent wood stain can rejuvenate and offer an enhanced protection against the elements. Keeping our pets safe, is not just about predator protection.
In an ideal world I would like to see all poultry runs having a fully wired in roof, however, I do understand this becomes difficult to achieve with the bigger set ups. Where runs are large, it is essential to have high enough fences to prevent foxes jumping over or running up, although, how high is ‘enough’? Generally 6ft (1.8m) is considered enough, though we have had experience of foxes managing even this. So, 8ft (2.4m) would be better, though this can be hard to achieve, can look ungainly and draw in complaints from neighbours. Better is to stick with 6ft and consider an angled out top section – min. 1ft (0.3m) at 45 degrees outwards – a fox can’t run upside down! Another alternative is to install a single or double strand electric wire protruding outwards at the top of the fence – a nasty ‘shock’ for the fox at the top as it tries to go over! Placing a single strand of electric wire to the base perimeter of the run, approx. 6” (150mm) off the ground and off the run face can also be a good deterrent against the fox digging under, however, as with all electric fence protection, regular maintenance is essential. If grass and weeds are allowed to touch the wire, along with twigs and leaves building up, the wire will short out and very quickly have little or no effect!
For small to medium garden setups a wired roof is much easier to achieve, the next area then to have a look at is the fox’s easiest (often overlooked) point of entry – the ground!
It is very tempting to just underwire the whole run, it would indeed protect against a fox being able to dig in, but doesn’t provide a very natural living surface for any animal. In fact, for poultry, it can present a health risk. All poultry has an instinct to scratch the ground, continually foraging for food – almost an affliction, it’s something they just do. Even with a wired floor they would still try, this would eventually lead to injury to the souls of their feet, and if blood is drawn, can lead to pecking by others, and as covered in last month’s article, this is not good news.
Far better is to provide an ‘anti-dig’ zone to the base perimeter of the run. Traditionally this has been achieved by digging a trench and placing wire mesh vertically below ground as an unseen anti-dig barrier to the fox digging under the edge. This does work, but is a lot of work! it also virtually fixes the position of your poultry set up making future movement difficult as it is a very permanent solution. Undoubtedly suitable in many circumstances, but not all. A far easier system, and more suited to small / medium sized runs and movable arks etc, is the use of what we refer to as an anti-dig wire skirt to the perimeter of the run. This generally consists of a strip of wire some 18” (450mm) wide laid flat against the perimeter of the run, overlapping in the corners. The inner edge can be secured to the run, or both edges secured down with standard wire tent pegs at around 18”-24” (450-600mm) centres. This can be installed as a permanent feature, or can be moved around with a movable run or ark on wheels. I would recommend using 1”(25mm) square holed weld mesh x 16g (1.6mm gauge), as it is nice and stiff, and once flattened out in place can be lifted as a sheet for moving and re-use. Although not available to buy at this width, it can be easily cut from a wider roll, we cut it for customers as required and to use on our own runs and those we install.
There are a good many proprietary anti-fox products on the market, however experience has proved to me that nothing will beat a good solid well built and regularly maintained house and run set up.
As a closing thought, please remember one critical thing……. No matter how good the pen is built, no matter how many anti-fox measures are put in place, human error can still mess it all up – make sure you shut the door!!!