Early one morning, a couple of months after three new egg-laying hens arrived at Bedlam Farm, a neighbor knocked on the door and alerted us to a great drama raging in our barnyard. A red fox had come down the hill and grabbed Fran, a Rhode Island Red chicken.
As he grabbed her by the throat, our donkey Simon heard the squawking, came roaring out of the barn and charged the fox, head down, ears back, snorting and braying. The astonished fox dropped the injured hen and took off, only to circle back—crafty thing—and grab another hen, Toots, on the other side of the barn.
This aroused our Rottweiler-Shepherd mix Frieda, who had been just been let out and who rushed the fence roaring and barking. The fox froze again, dropped Toots, rushed back up the hill. The chickens all scattered.
A lesser creature might have run all the way, but this fox paused, turned, and then went after Meg, our third hen. She took off across the road, fox in hot pursuit, grabbing mouthfuls of feathers but no chicken. As he closed in, the fox ran almost headlong into my shouting neighbor and her husky coming up the road. Seeing the husky, the fox finally decided that he’d had enough, turned, and vanished back up over the top of the hill.
I could only imagine what the fox told his or her impatient mate, waiting in the den with the hungry kits for breakfast.
Fran was badly injured—bite marks and holes in her neck and back. We gave her some Gatorade, put ointment on her wounds, and confined her in a crate to give her time to recover. If chickens are not as smart as most fenceposts, they are as durable. Fran began to recover. We felt smug. Secure.
Meg, smart for a chicken, took to riding on the donkeys’ backs for protection, and the donkeys seemed to take the fox episode seriously, forming themselves as a security detail, standing guard over the barnyard, watching the hill for any signs of the fox. For days, Meg rode on Simon’s back when she needed to get to the pasture, and Simon was accommodating. A curious thing to see. Donkeys are vigilant guard animals. We got three of them to keep coyotes and other predators away from the sheep, chickens, and cats.
The fox and the farmer is one of the oldest stories in the world, the subject of songs, books, fables, movies, and legend. The fox is an almost mythic predator, especially when there are babies in the den in the spring. Every farmer has at least one story about how these beautiful and highly intelligent creatures plotted a successful assault on the chicken coop.
They are amazing animals, usually a match for the farmers they torment. They are stealthy, strong, known for their dash-and-grab hunting techniques. They have been driving farmers nuts for most of human history. They go under doors, up into eaves, through tiny holes, open doors, and cracks in the walls. Some farmers swear they use tools, even magic spells, to open gates and dismantle fences.
The story of the fox and the farmer always has twists and turns. Usually the fox returns more than once and picks off some chickens, unfazed by guns, traps, doors, and walls. Sometimes he gets trapped or shot. Few farmers will tolerate predators coming into their barns to kill poultry or barn cats. Few foxes quit trying to get in.
This is an eternal story and I was finally living it. I’ve been on my farm since 2003 and fended off coyotes, rabid raccoons, skunks, and wild pigs. A hawk dove down right in front of me and took off with a hen I was photographing. But I had never had the pleasure of meeting Monsieur Reynaud. I know this next chapter would not be simple.
Although many people hate the idea of animals getting shot, farmers do not have the money to build predator-proof encampments, buy expensive solar alarm systems, or get $2,000 guard dogs—all anti-fox measures suggested to me by online advisers and the many friends of animals on the Internet. And chickens are not worth very much, so nobody has the time or motive to make them totally safe. “They are eggs for me,” said my neighbor. “Not my life.” Also, I don’t want to have chickens locked up in a coop their whole lives. I love to see them pecking around the farm. Chickens penned in those awful corporate coops have no life but are safe, at least from foxes.
The odds are stacked against hens and roosters. There are many animals that love to eat chickens: foxes, minks, raccoons, stray dogs, hawks, weasels, coyotes, some owls, billions of people. Chickens are, as a rule, dumber than all of them. They don’t know how to fight and often don’t even run. So it doesn’t usually turn out well for them, especially when the predator is the notoriously clever fox.
Many animal-rights advocates live in cities and suburbs where there are few animals and the idea of no-kill shelters has taken root. Farmers know there is no such thing as a no-kill life for animals in the natural world. Animals kill one another often and quite ruthlessly. This was brought into sharp focus for me, when I started writing about the fox drama on my blog (www.bedlamfarm.com) and was immediately swamped with messages of concern for the fox and his family and many expensive and impractical ideas about protecting my three hens. (My favorite was from a farmer in Idaho who said she played Tom Waits songs on a CD player all night because predators—foxes especially—feared his gravelly voice. “I’m not into his music and it scares me,” she wrote, “but it worked until the mink came along. They don’t seem to care about music.”)
People simply could not understand why I could not make sure that no hen was ever taken by a fox or other predator. I replied to one chicken-rescuer (many people sent me links to chicken rescue groups online—there are many) that there is no paradise for chickens in this world.
I also got a lot of email from farms and farmers and almost every single one of them said the same thing: It happens, Fran would recover in a couple of months, and good luck with the fox. Kill him if you can. “He’s just trying to feed his kids like you are,” emailed a farmer from North Dakota who knew foxes quite well. “In the summer, he’ll go somewhere else. He is smarter than you, so be prepared.”
I was not.
A few days after the first attack, I saw the fox brazenly crawling through the pasture heading for the chicken coop in broad daylight. I ran into the house. I could pick up the camera. Or I could pick up the gun. A crossroads for sure. I could get a rare photo of a fox or I could protect my chickens and barn cats.
I grabbed the gun, crept into the pasture, and fired a few shots. The red fox stopped, stared at me with ill-disguised contempt, and coolly walked back up the hill.
Two days later, we awoke to find two of our hens gone. We found a trail of feathers leading from the back side of the barn, under a pasture fence, into a ditch and up the hill. The fox had returned, waited until the donkeys were up in the pasture and we and the dogs were sleeping in the house. When Meg and Toots came out of their hole in the barn and made their way toward the feeder, their favorite bug-pecking place, the fox was waiting by a deep ditch perfect for his escape. Perhaps he was with his wife. The plan was brilliant, worthy of Robert E. Lee or Clausewitz.
The feather trail vanished about 20 yards from the barn.
It was war now: Me and two neighbors against the fox. I don’t get too attached to my chickens, but we give them a good life. They had a secure roost at night, good corn meal, and hand-picked garbage (leftover tortellini was appreciated). They could peck around the farm all day.
They are industrious, pompous and great to photograph. My neighbors and I all talked tough about how we were going to shoot the fox. We weren’t going to let him get our cats and our chickens, it was our responsibility to protect the farm, save the animals in our care. You know—wussy guys in the country with rifles.
Each of us took a shot or two at the fox over the next few days, but none of us succeeded in hitting him. But I noticed that the new Donkey Secret Service detail was holding its own. All night, the donkeys were standing down by the barn. It would take an especially foolish fox to take them on, and foxes are not foolish.
As old stories do, this one took a surprising turn. My neighbor called me one Sunday morning. He was upset, near tears it seemed. He couldn’t shoot the fox, he said, he had to just lock his cats up for awhile.
Why not? I asked, surprised. He loved to hunt. “You ought to come up here in the woods and see the babies,” he said. “I found their den.”
The next morning Maria and I got up at dawn and walked up into the woods above my pasture where my neighbor said the foxes had built their den. We almost walked right into three baby foxes, playing, jumping, chasing each other around, right in front of a big hole in the ground with lots of familiar chicken feathers inside. Lord, I thought, there are five foxes living, eating, and playing 200 yards from our chickens. This could not be good.
There was no longer any question of anybody shooting the fox. This was the line for all of us: We weren’t going to let any fox kits starve in the woods. The fox was, after all, just doing his job. He was a family man.
I brought my camera and a foot-long 300 mm lens. If I can’t shoot them one way, I thought, I’ll shoot them another way. A friend called me to say she hoped our chicken budget was large.
I’ve thought a lot about the fox and the farmer, in the two weeks since we saw the babies. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between loving animals and protecting them. Most mornings, I see the adult foxes emerge from their den and cut across the top of my pasture and into the woods. Often, the babies will come out and chase each other around, grab a mouse or bird and dive back into their den. They do not worry about me anymore. The minute I decided not to harm them, they seemed to know it. Two or three times I’ve gone up looking for the babies, but instead found remnants of rabbits, birds, mice, and turkeys. At the moment, the foxes don’t need us, or our remaining chickens.
History suggests that this isn’t the end of the story. The fox knows where we are, and if he does need us, he will come. I am, in fact, prepared to sacrifice some chickens to this family, if it comes to that, rather than try and kill the foxes, which would be easy enough to do. How ironic that two weeks ago I was loading up my rifle to shoot them, and now I can’t imagine doing that. I hope my chickens don’t pay, but somehow, the fox has become more important to me than the chickens.
This trickster has outfoxed this farmer. We imagined he had built his den far out into the woods, where we could hunt it but never see it or imagine it. Instead, he chose a brilliant spot for his den, made it part of my farm. He did the last thing I would have thought of. He built his den right under my nose, which turned out to be the safest place of all.