This is a post I would never want to write. It has been hard enough over the last couple of days but we are coming to terms with what it means to be farmers.
The chickens have given us so much joy over the past months. We love to see them scratching around in the grass looking for worms and sitting high up in the trees at night to sleep. The baby roosters (three of them) were trying very hard to cock-a-doodle-do. Sometimes they got it right and others times we just had to laugh at them.
We have heard stories of hawks by farmers in the area, that they were pesty creatures and prey mercilessly on small farm creatures. We had even heard of dogs being carried off. The farmer’s disliking of hawks was very curious to me. I always thought hawks were majestic birds that soared through the sky. Anyhow, our coop was made with strong wire and we locked our chickens in at night for safe keeping.
Last week Farmor raced into our house and whispered (loudly) a string of Norwegian in a frantic voice. Moose raced out and so I followed. From the storage room window we could see it – a hawk on the ground right outside our porch.
Brown and white feathers were everywhere. The hawk was feeding on one of our hens. A zillion questions raced through our minds – Which chicken was it? How could it attack and we not know it? When did it happen? How? Why? What do we do now? If anything, we had to make an impression on the bird to not come back. Moose crept on the veranda to throw a heavy slate at the hawk. The hawk was still reluctant to leave but Moose stood up and it finally flew away.
The chicken hunt began. They had all scattered at the attack. Some where hiding amongst the nettles and the mother hen had been hiding under a box on the veranda. She had ran to us for help and shelter. She let Moose just pick her up and carry her to the coop. It was a relief that we had only lost one chicken. The rest were all skittish and followed us around. If we went inside the house, they went into hiding again. We felt very guilty that we couldn’t save our chicken but set out de-hawking our farm.
We set up a scarecrow in the small yard outside the coop. In the attic we found an old stuffed goshawk. A friend gave it to Farfar in the fifties. It was very dusty but was sure to come in handy for the next few days. We put it on the roof of the house to help ward off the real goshawk. It was only a temporary solution as we didn’t want the birds in the area to get too used to a non-attacking goshawk otherwise they might not care to move when the real one comes along.
We reinforced the chicken coop and put cage tops on our rabbit cages. The ducks are generally safe as they mainly sit on the water. Goshawks don’t prey over water. We need to safeguard everyone as this is a problem that will not go away anytime soon. Goshawks are very territorial. They claim an area of up to 3000 hectares and during breeding season there are two to contend with. The hawk had proven to us that it was a day predator with no fear of civilization. How on earth can we defend our chickens without hurting the hawk? Our chickens are free-ranging and we don’t want to pen them up all day long. Nets, guns, traps, dogs, reflectors, pitch signals and cages are just some of the ways to prevent hawk attacks but many of these affect other birds. Since we have a number of other flying friends – ducks, geese, sea-gulls etc – we don’t want to scare them away. But how do you get rid of a goshawk without killing it?
We called up the local wildlife consultant and he said there was no way to keep a hawk at bay except getting a permit to shoot it. We don’t want to shoot the hawk (plus it would be near impossible to get approval to shoot it), we want to relocate it. However, goshawks always return to their previous hunting ground. If they don’t then there is sure to be another one making their hunting ground over our farm. It is never ending.
The goshawk isn’t endangered but all raptors in a lot of countries are protected by law. That means it is illegal to kill one. There was a case in Norway 10 years ago about a farmer killing a goshawk who was let off on ‘self defense’. He was protecting his ‘livestock’ with a rifle. However, last year the ‘self defense’ line was taken out of the wildlife law and ‘self defence’ for livestock is no longer valid for shooting a hawk. But we certainly want to preserve the goshawk as much as our own animals. At the moment we are breeding rare rabbits (namely, Trønder) on the farm to help save them from extinction. What do you do when one protected animal is preying on an endangered species?
We thought that if we raised enough chickens then the goshawk could take one every now and then which was ok. We don’t mind having the hawk around as it would help us by warding off other raptors. However, even though we are one little farm, there are many farms in the goshawk’s territory. We can work with the hawk but other farmers are not so willing. The wildlife consultant was going to research for us to see if there is more we can do for the situation. As yet he hasn’t called back. We went to work with heavy hearts. We realized that the chickens weren’t just livestock but dear pets. They don’t have names but we have grown mighty fond of them. Loosing one was heart-breaking.
That night we madly scoured the internet to try and find out more about the preying habits of the hawk. There was not much information (most articles plagiarized off each other). However, it was read that the hawk prey at night, (well, dawn or dusk), that it plucks off one chicken at a time and needs a wide space to swoop. This information wasn’t very helpful.
The next day we kept the chickens inside the coop (a fenced off area amongst trees with a wire roof). They were etching to get out but we just didn’t want to risk it. Moose went to work. At 10am I got a call from him. It was lucky I heard the phone coz I had been working up-stairs. ‘The goshawk has got into the coop!’ Farmor had heard the kerfuffle and rang Moose and he called me. I ran out to the coop. There were feathers everywhere. I ran around and could see three dead chickens. The others were gone. No hawk.
There were no chickens in the coop – well, no live ones. There was one carcass fully eaten, the others were just ‘frenzy’ killings. Useless. I thought to look in the nesting box and there was our faithful hen huddled in the corner. She was nesting on an egg. I needed to make her cluck to call back the other chicks. All I had to do was pat her and she clucked. Hopefully the other chicks were still alive – if chickens have a big fright they can run away and die. Up in the nettles I heard some rustling. It was a chick-rooster. After five days none of the other chicks have come back.
The hen and baby rooster will not go into the coop now, not even to eat. They prefer the outer area amongst the nettles. The coop is left with a stretched hole in the roof. A cold reminder that we should have secured the seam tighter, armed it with barbed wire and electrified it! Hawks are cunning creatures and this one got away to prove it. It would be easier to take if the hawk just killed what it could eat but, like a fox, it just kills everything for the hec of it.
We have learnt many things about the goshawk that will help us protect our chickens. The hawk attacks during the day. It can attack on open ground or amongst trees. Trees gives it an advantage as it sits high and drops down onto its prey. The hawk wasn’t deterred by our props. In fact, Farmor saw the goshawk on the roof trying to chat up the stuffed one. And sadly, the goshawk is like a fox – it will kill everything in its reach until everything is dead even if it is not for eating. Since, we’ve learnt that goshawks prey for ‘fun’ not just food we do not care for it anymore. How do we take measures against a protected animal like that?
The hawk hasn’t come back yet. We can only assume that some other farmer had enough of the hawk. We have two chickens running free under foliage and a watchful eye. Now comes the planning and prevention for next Summer. As we want to greatly expand our egg operation we need to ensure our birds have the best chance possible while still keeping our free-range commitment. For us the ‘free-ranch’ tag isn’t just to promote eggs but for the health and happiness on our chickens. Our chickens loved roaming around the farm wherever and whenever they wanted. Caged chickens quickly deplete their ground to dirt and pooh. We have many preservation ideas for our chickens – chicken tractors (you would think that the chickens would be wide open for the picking in a field but it is actually a disadvantage for the hawk as the chickens would see it approaching from afar and have time to hide), a full-grown rooster to alert more effectively, a guardian dog, a low, long doggy-door on the chicken tractor and an electric fence perimeter. Any other suggestions would be much appreciated!
For now our two remaining chickens are nervous but ok. They only come out when we are around and go into hiding for the rest of the time. It is really sad to see how traumatised these chickens have become. I hope their little brains have the capacity to forget and I hope we will always remember to never let our guard down.