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Fox in the hen house

Many city folk hold foxes in high regard, but poultry are one of the few types of livestock that help them appreciate the problems of predation, says Alasdair Mitchell


Under the cover of darkness, it is easier to close distances even on cautious foxes to under 300 yards

If you try to tell an urban dweller that foxes can cause problems for wildlife, they may not really believe you. They have been so imbued with the ‘balance of nature’ view, as put forward on their TV screens, that they think it applies to our own, heavily modified countryside. They think the countryside is natural and looks after itself. Certainly, they have no sympathy for a gamekeeper bemoaning the loss of his pheasants — those birds are going to be shot anyway, aren’t they? Yes, lambs are definitely cuter than pheasants, yet ultimately the same applies. Besides, these days eating meat is a recreational indulgence. The poor fox is only doing what nature intended.

A dose of reality

But a few friendly chucks kept at the bottom of a garden so the children can collect the eggs? Ah, now that’s something people can relate to. It’s the closest most people in urban areas get to livestock husbandry. As such, it sometimes brings a dose of reality. I recall that the former Labour MP Kate Hoey, who represented an inner-city constituency but came from farming stock, used to tell of how, as a child, she once found the chickens behaving oddly when she went to let them out of their coop. It emerged that a fox had got into the lower part of the shed and, unable to reach the birds through the wire, had resorted to biting their legs off. She had no illusions about foxy-woxy. Mind you, children can be more robust about scenes of vulpine carnage than one might assume. When our own boys were small, I remember solemnly announcing that there had been a tragedy; a fox had managed to get into our chicken run and had slaughtered every hen. It couldn’t carry any of them back out over the fence, so it had simply left them there. There was a moment’s silence, and then an eager voice piped up: “Oh, can I go see?”

I used to enjoy watching our free-range hens scratching around in the garden, even though my wife was dismayed at the way they targeted the flowers. I used to let them out every morning and then go in for breakfast. Once, just as I was settling in to a plate of scrambled eggs, my wife raised a frying pan over her head and stared at me. Naturally, I ducked. It turned out that she was actually looking over my shoulder, through the kitchen window and into the yard. There, a large fox was standing with one of our favourite hens, Tango, in its mouth. Our labrador was fast asleep in the porch, less than 6ft away. The fox casually turned, jumped over the garden wall and went on its way.

Dinner gong

After that, we bought one of those automatic coop door openers that operates according to the amount of daylight. The local foxes — and also a badger, I believe — soon got the measure of this device. I think they would wait patiently for the door to open. We might as well have rung a dinner gong.