It's something out of a horror movie.
You come home from a fun, barn dance/Halloween party with your young family to find your livestock slaughtered in their pen, blood spattered everywhere, corpses ripped to shreds. A gory end to a family's pets - and food supply.
This happened to my son's teacher recently, and it got me to thinking about the buildings people use for chicken coops, thinking 'they'll do' against poultry predators. That wasn't necessarily the case here, but I've seen some pretty rickety set-ups that are just massacres waiting to happen.
With the cost (in time mostly) involved in raising chickens for eggs or meat, you really don't want to lose even one bird. So how do you keep your chickens safe from predators?
It's a common thought to want to 'repurpose' an existing building for use as a chicken coop. I mean, why not use that neat old shed? Seems like a logical thought. I thought it myself - we've got a perfect one here. Problem is, an old building will likely be full of holes or weak spots where a poultry predator could dig or chew through, gaining access and obliterating your stock.
So what to do?
Either build a brand new, secure building for the chicken house OR secure the existing old building. Here are some things to consider:
- Wood Floors - Ideally, the floor should be thick wood, with hardware cloth sheathing underneath, and absolutely solid so no predator can chew through.
- Dirt Floors - If you prefer a dirt floor (many do), dig a trench around the entire perimeter and run the chicken wire walls down into the ground around 12 inches, then splay it out away from the coop another 6-12 inches. The idea here is that if anything tries to dig beneath the building, the creature will hit the wire and eventually give up.
- Holes and Weak Spots: Cut pieces of number 4 hardware cloth (the galvanized steel kind with 1/4 inch squares) to size to securely cover any holes or spots that might provide access to small predators like weasels (who can fit through a hole the diameter of a dime!) and secure them with sturdy construction staples. Even better, run and staple narrow lengths of it along the floor where it meets the walls (on the exterior to stop predator chewing before it starts). Bottom line, everywhere where a weasel or rat could chew through needs to be protected.
- Open-Air Coops - Depending on where you live and the sort of predators lurking about, you may be able to get away with an open-air coop (if you don't have weasels or rats, for example). If so, burying the wire walls a minimum of 12" into the ground and running it out away from the coop is still required, because if you don't have weasels, you'll likely have foxes, coyotes or in the suburbs, the neighbour's dog. All will consider your hens a tasty evening snack...
- Roosts - Have enough high roosts installed up high so that your birds could escape for a little bit if they had to - at least maybe long enough for you to get wind of what's going on and get out there to deal with it.
- Monitoring - You'll want to keep and eye on your chicken set-up regularly for signs of attempted intrusion. Any spots that are compromised need to be re-secured right away with more hardware cloth.
The outdoor run should be nearly as secure as the house, but without the need to keep out small predators, as they aren't usually active during the day. Some things to consider:
- The Roof - Think of all the chicken runs you've seen, live or in pictures, with just flimsy netting thrown over the top to keep the hawks out (or even worse, absolutely nothing). Great for hawks, but no deterrent to a raccoon. Instead, you'll want secure metal mesh or fencing of some sort. We found rolls of unused galvanized fencing at a recycling depot that worked perfectly for the coop run walls and roof. No raccoon is going to chew through that!
- The Walls - as noted in the House section above, it's best to bury the wire mesh for the walls down into the ground and out away from the wall (it's basically just a 90 degree bend). This will help deter any digging critters from accessing your birds' run.
- Door Latches - Rather than just a hook and loop latch that a bear or raccoon could flip open with ease, install a secure gate latch of some kind to any access doors, and secure that with a caribiner (you can pick those up at most hardware or outdoor stores... or you might have some laying about the house). Same goes for the latches on the chicken house door.
Not every chicken raiser will require electric fencing to protect their birds, but when you're surrounded by the types of predators we have: black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, fishers, raccoons and who knows what else, it's a good idea. We were lucky and managed to 'borrow' a set-up from a friend of the family. It's full on livestock fencing meant for cattle, but we're not worried about keeping the chickens in, but the toothy critters out. Of course, this means we have to remember to unplug the box before we let the girls out during the day or we'd have roast chicken, but the peace of mind it gives us is worth the extra hassle.
I actually heard a couple of yelps in the middle of the night shortly after the fence was installed - meaning a raccoon or coyote got a little zap and the fence is doing it's job.
The idea is to create negative reinforcement to the local predators that these chickens aren't worth bothering with. After all, we essentially plopped down a yummy dinner right in front of them - it's up to us to keep both the chickens and the wildlife safe.
We installed ours around the whole coop-and-run, save for the back of the house where we keep the food and bedding secured behind a latched, solid door.
Since the electric fence went up, we haven't seen the bear back, or the coyotes - though I know they likely still lurk around the perimeter of the property, smacking their lips.
Free range chickens are the epitome of 'homesteading' and rural life - but free ranging doesn't come without risks.
Obviously, birds that are out and about away from their secure house and run are a walking smorgasbord for any coyote, bear or neighbour's dog that might be wandering by. Secure pasture fencing might provide a smidge of protection (or at least might slow the predator down a bit), but ultimately, free ranging birds are only as secure as your attention to their safety. Ours have been wandering further and further from the house lately, into the forest and up the road to the upper property. I'm home all day, so am always here to listen for any signs of distress, but in all reality, the chances of them getting snatched grows the further they wander. Not much you can do there but attempt to keep them closer by enclosing them in some sort of fencing (which we do not have here yet - it's wide open wilderness all around us), or get some sort of livestock dog for protection (which we're considering fora variety of reasons). Makes the eggs a bit more expensive, though...
I was always told that chickens are super easy to raise and essentially look after themselves. Maybe it's because we're still new at this, but I haven't really found that to be the case. As much as I enjoy them and wouldn't trade them (now that we've had a taste of fresh, organic range eggs and have been entertained by their antics), to have the healthiest birds possible in the safest environs possible requires some effort - and that doesn't come without an investment of time and energy. I've sort of become attached to the little critters, and would be really upset if we lost even one (not to mention how my son would feel if we lost Lucky Wattles). I ordered 15 chicks because I just assumed we'd lose a few. So far, either due to our precautions or plain dumb luck, our 15 girls are still a gang and getting sassier every day, but I won't be letting my guard down any time soon. Those eggs are too yummy! And the chickens are too cute...
Your stories: If you have a story or suggestion about securing chickens that you'd like to share, please do so in the comments! We're all here to learn, and your experience just might save a chicken.
Raccoon photo credit Shutterstock