Country Matters: A close shave for Gandhi

The ancient Greeks had a phrase for it: the words meeden agan - nothing in excess - were inscribed on the wall of the temple at Delphi as a precept for life in general, and they remain a pretty good one to this day. But how do you interpret them when your free-range chickens are being written off by predators?

Our chickens are - or rather, have been - truly free-range: at night they are securely shut in, but during the day they march about the farmyard and up the fields, supplementing their basic fare of corn and kitchen scraps with worms, grubs, grass and other delicacies, all of which impart incomparable flavour and colour to their eggs.

The principal enemies of the enterprise are foxes, which live in the wood on the escarpment above our fields. On these fine summer evenings they come out to take the air and sit there gazing down, like diners in a restaurant keenly surveying the menu. Never mind that the hedgerows are hopping with juicy young rabbits; it is the chickens they are fancying.

So long as their natural caution makes them hold off until dusk, all is well; by then we have the chickens safely closeted. It is the daylight raid that causes havoc - and over the past few months we have suffered repeated diurnal attacks. One by one our flock has been whittled down.

Six weeks ago we were down to three birds - Gandhi the Brahmah cockerel, his spouse Mrs Gandhi, and one other hen, Whitey. Next Whitey vanished, leaving not a feather. For a while we hoped she might have gone broody and be incubating a clutch of eggs - but no such luck. We never saw her again.

Then one morning, as we were having breakfast, there came a fearful screech. We rushed outside, and there in the yard was a big dog fox, making off with Gandhi in his jaws. My wife let out such a yell that the raider dropped his burden and bolted. The cockerel was miraculously unharmed; his plumage is so terrific that all the fox got was a mouthful of feathers. Nevertheless, Gandhi was in shock, and had to retire to his sleeping-quarters for a couple of hours to recover.

Soon after that Mrs Gandhi did go broody, sitting on a single egg of her own. So we hastily procured some more eggs and slipped them under her in a secluded coop. She sat on them steadfastly, only coming off to snatch a bite of food and a drink for a few minutes every morning. But then, to our consternation, we found that her clutch was steadily diminishing from its original 12. The thief could only be a rat - but how was it getting at the eggs? It had no chance at night, when the solid front of the coop was in place, and we realised belatedly that it must be coming during the day, burrowing through the straw and filching eggs from underneath the sitting hen.

Rats are repulsive creatures. Not only do they carry disease and destroy whole buildings with their burrowing. They are also cannibals; often, if I kill one in a spring trap during the night, I find it half-eaten by friends or (worse) relations in the morning. I have even known them gnaw away the leg of a broody hen.

At least Mrs Gandhi was not chewed up. But in the end she lost all her eggs, and on day 21, when they should have been hatching, my wife made a dash to the Domestic Fowl Trust, an excellent establishment near Evesham, which breeds unusual species. There she bought half a dozen chicks, ranging in age from one day to a week, and we waited until it was dark to infiltrate them under the still-sitting hen.

Would she accept them for her own? In the morning we watched anxiously. She was slow to move out of her secure base, but when she did, she began clucking at the babies to call them after her - and it was fascinating to see how they responded. All had been hatched in incubators, and now it was the day-olds whose instincts were sharpest. They were by far the quickest to learn; the senior chicks seemed to have been institutionalised by a week spent in unnatural surroundings, and were slower to react. Gandhi, meanwhile, strutted about crowing, doubtless thinking he was the father, and considering himself one hell of a fellow.

Anyway, we now have the basis of a new flock. It is quite possible that all the chicks will turn out to be male, and end up as coq au vin; but with any luck several of them will prove to be hens - and then it will be a question of protecting them from foxes. This is where the question of moderation comes in.

If I took a hard line, I could probably shoot a fox a week throughout the year; our first-floor windows offer a rifleman first-class firing points, with a safe stop-butt in the form of the hill opposite. The one that nearly got Gandhi is no more - but I do not want to be in permanently aggressive mode: foxes are such handsome creatures that I prefer to work on a system of live and let live.

The same goes for Copernicus, our resident cock pheasant (so called because he has resplendent copper knickers).

Like Gandhi, he is a fine bird, but if he insists on taking dust-baths in my newly planted rows of vegetables, and bringing his wives to share the experience, his days may be numbered. If I thought it would do any good, I would inscribe "Nothing in Excess" on the garden gate - but somehow I think the message might elude him.

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