Having kept poultry for more then thirty years I am well used to fox trouble but in the pest few seasons the problems have got worse with attacks becoming far more frequent as the local fox population grows in both numbers and confidence. A local do-gooder, who must have taken the advice of Bill Oddie and his kind had encouraged foxes to breed in the back garden of his bungalow. A pile of fallen conifers made an ideal breeding den and regular feeds of table scraps and cat food has meant successive litters have been reared for the past five or six years. Convinced that his well fed foxes would not bother the water fowl and poultry which were kept just one four acre field away, the man objected to all attempts to get rid of the vermin from his property. The result, some of the most daring and determined fox attacks which I have ever seen over the past winters.
Two years ago I snared a dog fox which had slaughtered more than twenty free ranging game pullets in just two visits. This year the foxes developed a taste for geese, reducing one flock from twenty down to just eight remaining birds. I share a smaller flock, or should it be a gaggle, with my pal Ben and every year we breed and rear a few goslings for the Christmas table. We do it the traditional way, letting one or two birds go broody and hatch their own chicks about late March or early April. The whole flock protect the goslings as they graze the spring and summer grasses and herbs. The main dangers early on are rats and avian predators such as crows, magpies and, more recently, buzzards. Fortunately, goslings grow quickly and within weeks are far too big and strong for all but foxes to take and even then it takes a very determined animal to face the entire flock at this time of year for the mature birds will even attack humans who attempt to approach the goslings.
Traditionally the geese free range until Michaelmas Day (September 29th) but in recent years the good grass and mild weather has allowed the birds to stay out well into October. Obviously we have to pen or shed them up at dusk to lessen the chance of fox attacks as the nights draw in and this used to solve the problem. However, in the past couple of years the local fox population seems to have learned the routine and day time attacks have become a major and regular occurrence.
This year both chickens and geese started to go missing by mid autumn and daytime fox sightings were more and more frequent. Snares and cage traps usually do the trick and by checking twice a day it proved beyond any doubt that foxes were taking birds during daylight hours. As Christmas approached our concern for our stock reached its peak. It takes eight or nine months of care and nurturing to produce top quality table geese and discounting the financial side it is quite a blow to lose birds after so much time and effort has been put into them.
Two weeks before Christmas a horse rider spotted a fox leaving my land and heading for the bungalow back garden and a quick check found tracks all around the goose shed. This sighting happened at 10.30a.m. proving just how confident and determined this animal had become. Ben laid three snares at likely looking spots and sure enough a vixen was picked up just two days later.
A few days after that I was doing my normal feed round and went to water the old chestnut mare just up the lane. Some kids were feeding carrots to her and asked me “have you got a fox?” Taken aback I said “why do you ask?” and, pointing to an old feed shed in the mare’s paddock the kids replied “it’s gone under that shed mister.” I waited until they moved on and phoned Ben, “Bring your .410 and pick up little Lilley on your way.” Minutes later he turned up with the shot gun and my miniature Russell bitch. “So that’s how it’s been hitting the chickens after we’ve fed and let them out.” From this point the fox could easily watch me leave and see the game pullets wandering the yard. No wonder he had never been caught in the act in broad daylight!
As soon as I dropped the little bitch into a gap behind the shed I knew that we were in business. She squeezed herself under the narrow opening to the rear of the shed, two yaps and a bang, and the job was done. The fox had come out exactly where the kids had seen it enter, a sizeable run beneath the doorway. Ben had dropped it with a single head shot and the terrier had emerged seconds later to rag the carcase of a good sized and very well fed dog fox. As we already had the scales up for the geese I weighed the fox in at sixteen and a half pounds. In perfect nick, as he should be for he had been dining well. Incidentally, the little terrier bitch is only just half that weight but the fox wasn’t waiting about to argue.
Given the chance most predators will usually try to avoid a confrontation and on a couple of occasions in the past I have seen foxes bolt from ferrets in a dug out rabbit warren. Anyway, we now assumed that the problem was solved for at least the time being but the following weekend another vixen was snared in the very yard where double figures of geese had been savaged to death with their remains left for the owner to clear up.
Three foxes caught on or close to poultry yards within a couple of hundred yards of each other, each one guilty of daytime raids and between them responsible for the violent deaths of more than twenty birds in a matter of just a few weeks. I knew that town or city foxes have lost much of their fear of humans after being fed in gardens and on fast food remains in take-away car parks but we live in a village on the edge of a big shooting estate.
When the Earl Fitzwilliam estate employed eight or ten full time keepers you rarely saw a fox apart from when the hunt came along. These days we are plagued with them. Some thanks must go to Oddie, Packham and the silly Michaela Strachan for all their wildlife expertise and advice for harbouring vermin in back gardens but today’s part-time, syndicate keepers are not doing the job their full time predecessors did. Much as I hated some of them – and believe me, the feeling was mutual – they did look after their pheasant stocks and kept the four legged predators at bay.
I reckon the moral of the story is ‘never underestimate the cunning of the fox.’ So much for the TV wildlife ‘experts’ who tell us “lock up your poultry at night and the fox is no problem.” In truth the over population of foxes in town or country will continue to cause problems for once a food source is discovered the fox will exploit it until it’s exhausted. The only way to stop stock-worrying foxes is to put and end to them or stop keeping poultry. If there is a way to reach your birds, be it by digging under, jumping over or chewing through, the fox will learn it and return time and again until either he is stopped or every bird is gone. I think there definitely needs to be a cull of urban foxes and a discouragement of harbouring them but perhaps, God forbid, it will need an outbreak of Rabies before our spineless rulers even contemplate it.
A final tale before I sign off. A man turned up at my door and asked if I would like to buy a really good collie lurcher. “He was bred and reared by Brian Plummer and is absolutely unique.” I replied that it must be a bloody old dog if Plummer bred it for he’s been gone years. “No problem,” he said, “Plummer Lurchers can live for thirty years or so but this one is extra special; it can talk.” We walked out to his van and there in the back lay a knackered out old lurcher. “Speak for this man” he instructed the dog and it looked up at me and said “what subject would you like me to talk about? Politics, the economy, global warming?” Dumbfounded, I asked why he would sell a dog like that for it must be worth a fortune, and the man replied “as I told you, he was reared and trained by Plummer and clever as he is, I just cannot tolerate all the lies and complete bollocks he constantly comes out with!”