Hens at risk from feral cats

Last winter, my small flock of hens was killed by a feral tom cat, says Dick Warner

Hens at risk from feral cats

After a suitable period of mourning, I decided to replace them. However, the first thing to be done was to inspect and improve my predator defences to ensure that the new birds didn’t suffer the same fate as the previous ones.

The cat had made several visits to the hen run before he finally finished off my flock and, on the last occasion, I actually caught him in the act. I’d never heard of a cat killing hens before and, up to that moment, I had been blaming a mink or a stoat.

However, on that occasion I not only identified the culprit but also discovered how he had got in and out of the run. He used a tree growing outside the run but with branches that hung down over the head-high chicken wire.

So the first job was to dig out the chainsaw and remove the branches. This produced a satisfying stack of small logs. After that I carried out a meticulous inspection of the wire, stitching up any holes or weak spots.

I use peat moss as litter in the hen house and straw in the nest boxes. I put in new stuff, the old litter is great for the vegetable garden, and refilled the galvanised dustbins that I use as vermin-proof feed stores.

One bin was filled with commercial layers’ pellets and to fill the other I paid a visit to a large tillage farm in the area and bought a bag of sweepings. Sweepings are spilt grain, along with a certain amount of dust and straw. They are a very cheap and nutritious food for poultry.

With everything in place I made a travelling crate out of a very large cardboard box, jumped in the car and drove to a poultry fair in the next county in search of point-of-lay pullets. There was plenty of choice. I had intended buying commercial hybrid layers but I was eventually seduced by five lovely maran pullets.

The seller was from Co Tyrone. I wonder if he will still be able to drive across the border with live poultry when the UK leaves the EU. He assured me the birds were grass-reared and 16 weeks old.

Point-of-lay is not a precise term. Old- fashioned breeds of large fowl do not start laying at 16 weeks, particularly if the weather is cool and dull. The poultry fair was on May 14. The first egg has just appeared. It’s tiny but very beautiful — a rich brown with chocolate specks. The pullet had made a neat nest by re-arranging the straw and adding a few small feathers.

I left the egg in the nest to encourage the other four — but that was a few days ago and it’s still there, in solitary splendour.

The cost of the pullets and the feed amounted to about €100, so it’s the most expensive egg in Ireland.

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