PHOTO: Shutterstock
January 4, 2019

Varmint war stories—we all have them. For me, it was the time our 15 Barred Plymouth Rock pullets had just begun to lay. I went out to gather eggs one morning and found six headless corpses with little else consumed. Or the time I stepped out the door and flushed a hawk from the outdoor run after it had snacked on a laying hen. Then there was the time a fox or coyote—still not sure which—ran off with my sister’s cat. While most of us won’t have to deal with larger predators—cougars, wolves, bears—predation down on the farm is an ongoing issue. Here are protection strategies you can use against five common farm predators.


1. Domestic Dogs

farm predators dog dogs
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When we think of varmints, we don’t usually think about dogs. But anyone who has watched helplessly as their neighbor’s dogs chased their cattle, horses, sheep, goats, chickens and anything else that will run knows that dogs can be a real problem.

Certain breeds, especially, have highly developed predator instincts. Of course, part of the problem with predatory dogs is that usually someone else owns them. People find it incredibly difficult to believe that their beloved pet is terrorizing their neighbor’s stock.

Domestic dogs and feral dogs often range in packs and do extensive damage once they begin to attack livestock. “Dog packs often harass livestock and persist in chasing injured animals for as long as several hours,” according to “Addressing the Consequences of Predator Damage to Livestock and Poultry,” written by extension specialists at the Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Fences damaged by livestock attempting to escape, exhaustion, injuries, weight loss, loss of young and abortion are common consequences of such attacks.”

Woven wire fences can help exclude dogs, though gates often give them access to fields. Confine poultry or provide safe retreats. Same goes for small pets.

In Virginia, animal owners can legally shoot dogs that kill their stock; this is true in many other states as well. But doing so also kills any chance of a good relationship with the neighbors who own the dogs.

Clues Left by These Predators

  • carcass mauled but not consumed
  • indiscriminate mutilation, especially
  • of hind quarters, flanks, ears, head
  • broken or damaged fencing from
  • chasing incidents
  • exhaustion, stress, aborted young

2. Coyotes

farm predators coyote coyotes
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Predator No. 2 is the ubiquitous coyote. Coyotes, with their haunting chorus in the night and quick, furtive lifestyle, are important in the food chain to help control rodents and other small game.

Coyotes are opportunists, as hunters and scavengers, according to Russell Link, urban wildlife biologist. He writes in “Living with Wildlife in the Pacific” that coyotes eat wild species but are known to eat pet food, garbage, garden crops, livestock, poultry and pets (mostly cats).

Coyotes dig and jump, so a fence needs to be at least 4 feet tall with net wiring openings small enough (3 to 6 inches) to exclude them. Confine small animals or make sure they can retreat into a safe area.

Shooting coyotes is legal in most areas.

Clues Left by These Predators

  • throat wound, teeth marks behind jaw/below ear
  • death from suffocation/shock
  • damage to flanks and hindquarters
  • viscera of larger prey accessed at flank or just
  • behind ribs
  • some feeding on hindquarters
  • small animals entirely or almost entirely consumed
  • rope-like scats (feces) on ground

3. Foxes

The red fox (pictured at the top of this post) is most common, with the gray fox running second. Whatever their color, you can count on stealth, agility and targeted predation of rabbit-size and smaller animals. Around the farm, poultry is often a fox’s meal of choice. These intelligent adaptive predators can climb surprisingly well, are efficient diggers and can fit into holes as small as 4 inches in diameter.

Foxes often return to established denning areas. In “Foxes,” Robert Phillips, a wildlife research biologist at the Denver Wildlife Research Center, and Robert Schmidt, an assistant professor at Utah State University, note that foxes frequently den close to human habitation.

“Dens may be located close to farm buildings, under haystacks or patches of cover, or even inside hog lots or small pastures used for lambing,” they write. Removing or reducing possible den sites can help control fox populations.

To keep foxes out of the henhouse, use net wire with 3-inch or smaller openings; bury the bottom edge of the wire 1 to 2 feet deep, adding an apron of net wire extending outward from the bottom edge of this buried portion.

Install a wire roof on any outside run or coop. Phillips and Schmidt suggest a 3-wire electric fence with wires spaced 6, 12 and 18 inches above the ground.

It’s legal in most states to shoot foxes that prey on livestock. Check with your county extension agent.

Clues Left by These Predators

  • small animals entirely or almost entirely consumed
  • poultry missing
  • when remains found, breast and legs usually eaten
  • and other parts scattered about
  • eggs left by nests, shells broken and licked clean
  • teeth marks on throat, neck and back of young stock (lambs,
  • kids and so on)
  • buried, partially eaten carcasses

4. Raccoons

raccoons chickens predators
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Raccoons wear that bandit mask for a reason: They eat anything they can get their skillful little paws on: poultry, eggs, garbage, corn and more. Because they’re so cute, some people make the mistake of leaving food out for them. This makes them aggressive, as they become accustomed to humans, and it can cause a population boom.

Remove friendly habitat where raccoons might den, don’t leave cat or dog food accessible, and make sure the lid is on the garbage can. Similar to fox-proofing, secure chicken coops and runs by burying the wire fencing and putting a “lid” on open runs. Often an outside dog will help keep raccoons out of the corn patch, though they’re less effective when it comes to keeping them from invading the henhouse.

It’s legal in most states to kill predatory raccoons.

Clues Left by These Predators

  • breast and crop torn/chewed,
  • heads often eaten
  • entrails sometimes eaten
  • eggs often removed from
  • nest and eaten within 28 feet
  • several birds killed in a single night
  • corn patches, shucking ears
  • decimated and stalks broken down

5. Raptors

farm predators hawk
Shutterstock

Hawks (one of which is pictured above) and owls of various species are swift, silent and efficient predators. In “Hawks and Owls,” extension wildlife specialists Scott Hygnstrom at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and Scott Craven at the University of Wisconsin state that most raptor depredation problems occur with free-ranging farmyard poultry and game farm fowl.

“Chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and pigeons are vulnerable because they are very conspicuous, unwary and usually concentrated in areas that lack escape cover,” they write, also noting that confined fowl that are chased by raptors will often pile up in a corner, resulting in the suffocation of some birds. Reproduction might also be impaired in some fowl if harassment persists.

Because all raptors are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Hygnstrom and Craven advocate the ecological and environmental benefits that come from a healthy balance of raptors in the food chain, urging farmers to consider that the benefits might outweigh the economic damage. Should raptor removal be needed, request the permits to do so and recruit the help of your local fish and game department.

Clues Left by These Predators

  • one casualty per day/night
  • plucked/pile of unbroken poultry feathers
  • clean feather shaft, which indicates a new kill
  • small bit of flesh/skin clinging to feather base, which indicates
  • the dead animal was consumed but not killed by raptor
  • puncture wounds on breast and back
  • defecation at kill site
  • Hawks leave a streak of whitewash radiating out from the kill site.
  • Owls leave small heaps of chalky whitewash on ground.

If you have a farm, predators will come. They don’t know they’re predators. They’re just living their lives. But with the proper precautions, you can minimize damage to poultry, stock and pets without disrupting the balance of nature.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.

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