I recently fell into the free-range chicken farmer’s nightmare: missing hens. A few scatterings of feathers where hens had been nabbed, but obviously a lot more hens are missing than that.
Couldn’t happen at a worse time — during the upswing of the farmer’s market season. Demand for free-range eggs is increasing and I have a sharply reduced supply of hens, and therefore eggs.
I’m rounding up the usual suspects: tightening up the electric fence, finishing up the field mowing so there’s less cover for predators, setting snares on the obvious predator trails into the woods, asking around if anyone has some spare hens or started pullets to sell, ordering more chicks, and giving pep talks to the hens to lay six eggs each every day until the crisis is resolved. Except for the snares, all of this amounts to closing the barn door after then horses have escaped.
I figure it has to be bobcats again. The fact that there’s no chicken blood or body parts on the field seems to mean that the hens were nabbed and then carried off bodily (not eaten on the spot or dragged). This requires that the predator jump the electric fence while carrying a chicken. It takes a pretty big predator to do this (even with fences as low as mine) — bobcats, coyotes, or possibly cougars, or maybe even humans. But the M.O. is just the same as my last bobcat outbreak.
In the past, snares have worked wonderfully against bobcats. If you set ’em right, you get the miscreants and nothing else. The thing is, most bobcats aren’t chicken thieves, but the ones that are will kill every one of your chickens unless stopped. So it’s best to declare war only one the bad boys. The fly in the ointment is that the bobcats are so stealthy that you can be in big trouble before you realize that you have a problem at all. You can’t catch a predator with a snare you haven’t set.
What I’m supposed to do, in order to prevent disaster when Mother Nature deals from the bottom of the deck, is to start a new batch of pullets every couple of months, so there’s a steady stream of replacement hens. There’s a fairly brisk demand for pullets in my area, so I can start way more than I need and still come out ahead.