In late April I told you about our new hens. Well, here we are a month or so down the line and I’m happy to report the new girls have integrated well into the existing flock of two. Introducing new birds can be a bit of a bumpy ride for all concerned while they sort out the hierarchy but asserting and maintaining a pecking order is a fact of life in Chickensville.
Old girl Nugget, who had for sometime been at the bottom of the pecking order, was – much to her delight – suddenly elevated up the ranks to second in command. Whilst the very placid new girl Hazel – a Light Sussex – languished in the doldrums keeping a low profile, snatching something to eat as and when she got a chance.
Don’t worry though, I was keeping an eye on her and made sure she didn’t go hungry, on several occasions going into the hen run with some corn which she ate from my hand (also a good opportunity for us to do some important girl on girl bonding).
However, the dust seems to have settled now and Hazel appears to be much happier and more accepted in the group. How can you tell when a chicken is happy? Well, her tail feathers spend more time raised than dipped. A dipped tail over a prolonged period of time can indicate that a bird is depressed or unwell.
We’re all a bit stressed at the moment though, because we have a rat problem. It’s not unusual to get rats where you keep chickens – bedding, shelter, food (including fresh eggs…) and water all on tap, why wouldn’t they? But this year is definitely the worst we’ve ever experienced here at the Villas.
I noticed a rat in the hen run last autumn. A great big brown one. I would catch sight of it racing past out of the corner of my eye sometimes and I observed straw and significant quantities of corn was being taken into the hen house and placed under an IBC tank which we use to store rainwater that the hens share their home with, but can’t access other than to roost on top.
One day I got down on my hands and knees with a torch and had a look. I could see the remains of some egg shells littered amongst the straw so I fetched a rake and angrily dragged it all out. No rats to be seen …but clear evidence that we had a problem.
We bought a humane cage-style rat trap in the winter, baited it with a piece of bacon as recommended on the box and placed it along the rat run. It sat there for weeks but all we caught (and released again of course) was a small hedgehog. I was happy to know we have a hedgehog that visits our garden but disappointed ratty was still at large.
Somewhat reluctantly we then purchased some less humane bright blue poison-laced grains (by Rentokil) which we placed under the IBC tank in little red dishes – well out of the reach of the hens – and checked regularly to see if it was eaten. It wasn’t.
Subsequently we put more of the grains down the tunnel in the run that we had witnessed the rat using, placing a paving slab over the entrance to keep the chickens out …and got on with celebrating Christmas and the New Year.
In fact it wasn’t until about March that the rat problem raised its ugly head again. Full of the joys of spring and fat on our chicken fodder they were breeding and I started to notice not only mummy rat who we’d seen previously but also some younger ones, slim, fast …and all surprisingly bold.
I started to feel a bit desperate. Things were getting out of control and we were facing a rat population explosion.
We looked for a solution on YouTube and made a trap out of the bottom half of a swing top bin and an old plastic bottle with a hole drilled in the bottom, daubed with peanut butter, loosely threaded (so that it spins at the slightest touch) onto a rod and placed across the top in notches to stop it rolling off.
The base unit was half filled with water and the contraption put by the hens’ feeding station with a ramp to facilitate access by our rodent friends. Ingenious.
Desired result? The drowning of said rodents.
Did it work? No.
They clearly weren’t interested. The watery death-tank remains empty to this day and the peanut butter is beginning to crack and curl up at the edges.
Browsing on the internet again I read that the only way to eradicate rats is to remove the reason they are there in the first place: food and water. So I started looking on the internet for rat-proof feeders. However I don’t think such a thing exists. Rats are very intelligent – much more so than chickens – and if a feeder was rat proof it would probably be chicken proof too.
I then approached the problem from a different angle and decided to be meticulous when administering their feed, only offering their combined daily recommended amount and making sure as far as possible that the food is eaten promptly and not left available for any unwelcome visitors.
Then last weekend I had a brainwave and built a Heath Robinson-esque feeding station which is raised off the ground by hanging the feeders and drinkers on string tied at intervals along a sturdy pole laid across the top of the hen house and the perimeter fence, which are roughly the same height. I have to keep an eye on it when it rains because there is no weather protection and when layers pellets get wet they go mushy and clump-up, but the original feeding trough which is sheltered from the rain is out of action at least for the time being because it was making the rats’ life much too cushy.
And I am happy to report that the hens are thoroughly enjoying their suspended dinners – not only is it good physical exercise as they have to stretch their necks a bit to reach, but it is also gentle exercise for their brains because sometimes the feeders spin a little!
Bringing you Up to Date
The hen food is generally being eaten in one sitting and I really don’t think rats could reach it anyway, at least I’ve not witnessed them doing so. And the area where the original food trough is has been completely partitioned off with a tall piece of plywood and a bright blue tea bag sized sachet of rat pasta poison (also by Rentokil) was placed in the old trough last night.
As I write this post it is 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I am sitting at my laptop in my dressing gown but as soon as I get dressed I shall go and feed the chickens and check on the bait to see if it’s been taken… so the saga continues!
The GOOD news is that yesterday afternoon when I was chasing a hen out from behind the shed to put up the afore mentioned partition, I found right at the far end where nobody ever goes, in the middle of a coiled up hosepipe, SEVEN big beautiful hen’s eggs – a secret nest that even the rats clearly hadn’t found. What a thrill!
Of course I had to check they were edible so I filled a bowl with water and did the do-they-float-or-do-they-sink test …and they all lay on the bottom like good ‘uns, as fresh as you like! Result! Meanwhile I promise to keep you posted about rattus rattus et al…