Los Ojos, 23 April 2018
I start this week’s post with a certain amount of trepidation. It’s easy and fun to share the good stuff, pictures of cute animals being clever and coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. But all that stuff is really only half the story. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t acknowledge that bad things happen too.
Last Thursday, sometime between midnight and six a.m., a fox broke a hole in the wire of one of our mobile coops – the one housing the six-week old birds – and killed at least a dozen, leaving some strewn around the coop and caching the others for later retrieval. The attack took place during a wind-storm and just before an early-morning snow, so any birds the fox didn’t kill just literally blew away.
We spent a grisly morning searching for survivors, but found only more corpses as one by one we discovered where the fox had cached the bodies. It was the worst morning I’ve spent in a while.
It’s something I’ve hated since I was a little kid, losing animals to predators. Everybody knows better than to get attached to farm animals – I certainly do. Death loss is just a fact of life; it’s something you understand, accept, plan for, live with. Still, though, nobody gets into this business because they don’t like the animals, and it’s hard not to develop an affection for something that you work so hard to keep alive (especially with animals, like baby lambs and chickens, that always seem to be just searching for a way to die). And predator loss feels like a failure – something that you were responsible to prevent (if I had just built with better wire, or gotten up to check on them at four a.m.!), and you can’t help but think of the last moments of these little creatures that you have put so much of yourself into caring for – hurt, bewildered, calling for help that never comes. In other words, no matter how reconciled you are to predation and other death loss, it still hurts. Every time.
The loss of a single pen of chickens is a very, very minor disaster (one benefit of running small batches, though they wind up being more work per chicken, is that it also limits your losses). In fact, if it’s the worst thing that happens over the next year, I’ll feel incredibly lucky. It’s also just something that happens – and then you pick up the pieces, learn from the experience, and carry on. All that said and understood, however, does not change how deeply awful it was to find my pretty little blue chicken, the best forager of the group and the boldest, most personable little pullet we had, buried in the leaf litter with a broken neck and toothmarks on her breast and thighs.
I don’t blame the fox; unlike some I know, I have never developed a deep personal resentment of predators. They live here too, and they’re just doing what they do to survive, same as we are. Part of our job is to set conditions so that it’s hard for them to get at our domestic animals, so that it’s just easier for them to carry on without bothering to kill livestock. We do our best to exclude, rather than eliminate, predators. In some ways, I think of it as similar to counterinsurgency: it’s not a problem you can kill your way out of. You have to use all the tools, of both hard and soft power. It is important to keep in mind, though, what a really smart man I knew once told me: “Yeah, messaging is incredibly important. The absolute most effective messaging, though, is killing the right people.” In other words, there is a place for direct, targeted violence.
We’ve learned from this experience and we’re moving on; our other coops are now better fortified and we’ve moved them to spots less vulnerable to marauding foxes. That’s the soft power component. But remember I mentioned targeted violence? The fox that killed my pretty little blue chicken… well, maybe she needs to be reminded that there’s no messaging quite as effective as killing the right people.