Our garden is geared toward wild birds; the planting and the array of food is aimed at attracting the maximum number of species. Sunflower hearts scattered liberally and in feeders; fat blocks with insects embedded; tiny black, thistle-like nijer seeds for goldfinches; whole peanuts in wire baskets for Nuthatches and titmice. Each day, our avian visitors are noted in our logbook and compared to previous years. My wife, Helen, keeps up the notes with an enthusiasm that matches my own. Nineteen species in a day is the record so far.
As well as those seen in the garden, we also religiously record those flying over. Our adopted hens have proved remarkably reliable at recognising some. A sudden run for cover will usually indicate a Sparrowhawk overhead. A frozen alert posture with a descending, throaty ‘churr’ often indicates a distant Buzzard. The sound is uncannily difficult to place, which I guess is part of their anti-predator technique. Woodpigeons aren’t always welcome and are often seen off, reminding me of the local sparrows that chase seemingly bemused Collared Doves as if birds of prey.
For years, I’ve tried to gently discourage the local cat population from our garden. Not through any dislike of cats themselves, but out of simple concern for the birds that now congregate in our responsibility. We’ve tried harmless deterrents, both low and high-tech; from making whooshing sounds to expensive sonic devices that emit a noise imperceptible to the human ear but fabled to keep cats away; all with limited success. Then along came Hetty, Hazy and Hope. And ever since, the cats have given our garden a wide berth! I’d heard that poultry manure acts as a deterrent. But weary with failure, I’d been too sceptical to try it. But having the hens, and their little parcels deposited around, seems to have done just the trick!
Besides birds, we also record other garden wildlife; hedgehog, frogs, toads, various types of butterfly. Our list of non-avian visitors had one conspicuous absence; fox. Until about a week after the hens arrived. Our deterrent challenge is now not with our neighbourly cats, but with our new rusty-coloured visitors of the night. Now, our sonic deterrents are brown-coloured instead of green and apparently tuned to a fox’s ear. They were installed last winter at strategic entry points.
One of our original three adopted hens, Hazy, succumbed to peritonitis, despite a £176 vet’s bill. This left Hetty and Hope. I was concerned that two hens might not be enough to keep each other warm during the bitter winter nights. So, from the same farm came a particularly dark hen, which we named Henna, and a noticeably lightish-yellow one, we called Honey. It took a week for the pecking order to re-establish and for life in the coop to settle down.
One particularly cold late afternoon in January, all four were out busily working the garden as usual. They would quietly scratch with each foot in turn, before peering at what they’d exposed; poking and bolting down any tasty morsels so discovered. This scene has been repeated day in, day out since they arrived.
An otherwise uneventful afternoon was changed when Helen and I heard an unmistakeable alarm call. Not a collective panicked rush, but the sharp first calls that alert the flock to something awry. It was a sound I’d come to recognise during my childhood years when my Mother and I kept bantams, like miniature laying hens. From time to time, their small size would see them stalked by a local cat. The call would prelude an explosion of wings followed by me knocking on neighbours’ doors asking for our bantams back! Hearing that sound again had me rushing at the window. A winter-emboldened fox was creeping up on our flock. The window was flung open, a loud outburst ensued with much waving of arms, before I flew down the stairs, burst through the back door and out to the fractious scene. By now, our visitor was making off with Honey, our light coloured hen. My usual love of foxes was momentarily replaced with a frantic urgency. I ran at the now startled interloper who tried to jump the six foot fence at the bottom of our garden to no avail, ducked into the rhododendrons, circled the garden and made its way up and over our neighbour’s shed; all with me in hot pursuit!
With the rush over, I turned to looking for Honey, inevitably dead or fatally wounded. The surviving hens had taken refuge by the house. They were stood flicking and shaking their heads in the way hens do when stressed. I counted them; one was by the gate, number two by the table, a third by the backdoor… and the fourth? Apparently on top of the upturned wellington boots! How could that be? Surely one is laying dead or dying, probably under the bushes. I steadied myself, focused and counted again, this time trying to recognise each one individually; one, two, three and, to my huge relief…. four! There was Honey standing atop the boots as large as life and seemingly in not too many pieces! I scooped her up and checked for what must surely be appalling injuries. To my surprise, her only wound was to her leg, bleeding a bit but otherwise unharmed. Helen used her nurse’s training to good effect; patching up the wound with our First Aid kit. Leg lightly strapped, Honey was released seemingly unphased by her drama. She quickly joined the others, almost indignant at having been kept from the essential business of scratch and search. We thought she must surely come top of the pecking order, in recognition for having survived a fox attack with such apparent nonchalance!