The Hipster Hen Ranch sits on nine acres near the St. Croix River, a pristine, protected river that forms a long section of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The house, other buildings, gardens, and chicken runs take up maybe an acre, and the rest is pretty much mature oak forest. One nice thing about living in the oak woods is the abundance of wildlife. Last night when Bailey and I took our final trip outside before bed, I listened to two great horned owls having an extended conversation. We often hear or catch glimpses of owls, eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bears and gazillions of squirrels and rabbits. There have even been occasional reports of cougars and bobcats.
I truly appreciate being able to interact with all these wild critters, but there’s a downside. Most of my neighbors and I choose to live in the country for the country lifestyle. That usually includes growing big gardens and raising a few animals. And that’s where our interaction with the local wild critters can become tricky. Critters can be divided into three categories: The carnivores, like the hawks, foxes, and coyotes have a pronounced appreciation for chickens—but not in the same way that you, my blog readers, appreciate chickens. The herbivores, such as the deer and rabbits, have an insatiable fondness for my garden and apple trees. And then there are the omnivores, best represented by the raccoons, who would be happy to have a few tomatoes from the garden for an appetizer before settling down to a fine chicken entrée.
We all do our best to deal with this problem. In the not-so-distant days past, the solution was to shoot every critter in sight. When I was a kid, I learned that the birds I now call hawks were “chicken hawks”, that they existed to eat our chickens, and when you spotted one, you reached for your rifle. Fortunately, most folks are a bit more enlightened now. I realize that I have chosen to raise my vegetables and chickens in habitat that was occupied by wild animals long before I arrived. So I share the space—one acre for me and my domestic plants and animals, and the other eight acres for the wild animals. But I prefer not to share my chickens and tomatoes. To protect my gardens from plant munchers, I keep them close to the house, spray copious amounts of repellent, and of course I have a ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever. And to protect the Hipster Hens from chicken munchers, I don’t ever allow them to free range. When I’m home, they’re strolling around a half-acre chicken run, and when I’m gone, they’re in the hen pen with its wire roof, and perimeter of buried wire. And of course there’s the ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever.
My system to protect against predators does seem to make a difference. Last summer, a nearby neighbor lost an entire flock in one night to a weasel attack. A friend who free-ranges her chickens had almost her entire flock picked off one hen at a time over the course of the summer by an unknown predator. By the end of the summer she was down to two war-hardened and apparently very savvy old Barred Rock hens. On the other hand, I've never lost a single chicken to predators (I’m knocking hard on my wooden desktop as I write this). There has been one hawk attack that all the chickens escaped unscathed (more on that in a later post), and then there was the July 2015 raccoon incident.
Back in early June of last year, I saw a raccoon hanging around my backyard on several occasions. The coon was quite interested in the bird feeder and quickly figured out how to shimmy up the pole, around the squirrel baffle and to the very top. Then it was a simple matter of sitting on top and reaching down for one little raccoon handful of birdseed after the other—directly out of the tray. I wasn’t particularly happy about the birdseed, but was even more concerned about the chickens. While the chickens were pretty well protected in the hen pen, it would be an easy thing for a raccoon to scoot up a tree to get over the eight-foot-high chicken run fence. The chickens are only in the run during daytime hours when I’m home, but this raccoon was not a bit shy and had no problem snuffling around the backyard in the daylight.