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.”)