The Cottage Smallholder

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Essential autumn preparations for your chickens (part one)

These French hens lay eggs all year roundWhen I went into our chicken run this morning I spotted that we had intruders. There were three neat front doors behind the chicken house. These doors are about 1 ?” wide and mean one thing. Rats.

This is an invasion that cannot be ignored. Rats clearly enjoy a great social life and breed very rapidly. They are intelligent and if they find a good supply of chicken feed and fresh water they will not leave willingly. There was an old guy in our village who would point a shotgun into a hole and fire. I use poison. A lot. Starting when I see the first signs and then a top up every month.

Our chicken house stands on bricks laid on top of a wire mesh. These neatly exclude nocturnal visits from marauding rats and mice to steal food for their growing families. I check that the mesh is still secure in the autumn and decided today that I’m going to pour a quick setting fence post cement over the mesh floor as an extra precaution.

Our fear with rats is the dreaded Wiles disease. This is carried by rats and transmitted to humans through contact with their urine. Rats pee little and often. If they are visiting your chicken run there will be traces of their urine everywhere that they have been. There have been a few cases of Wiles disease locally, most of them fatal. We have our dogs vaccinated against Wiles disease each year but there is no vaccine available yet for humans. So when I am dealing with the chickens or the pond I wear gloves and wash my hands well afterwards.

In milder weather it’s easy to find any underground tunnels that rats have made in the run, as the ground collapses a little if you tread on a tunnel. All tunnels will run to the hen house. I work back from the house in each direction sinking a heel into the ground every six inches or so. When I find one of these runs, I carefully cut out a hole into which I pour enough poison to kill a coachload of rats that hopefully will make a comfort stop on their journey across our territory. It’s important to cover the hole that you’ve made with a heavy tile or brick so that the chickens cannot access the poison.

I treat the rat front doors in the same way with a decent dash of poison and cover them securely. Repeat the poison applications every couple of days for a week or so and then at monthly intervals until the spring. Check your covering tiles and bricks regularly just in case they have shifted. For a few days rats may dig out new front doors. If so, treat them in the same way. After a couple of weeks no more doors will appear. Don’t relax at this point. Try to remember the monthly doses as this should keep the rats at bay. If the ground is frozen it’s hard to find the tunnels and you are much less likely to get on top of a rat problem.

In the summer, we leave the chicken house door open, so the chickens can come and go as they please but after the clocks change we shut them up at dusk and let them out in the morning. This drives the rats nuts. They appear to thrive on challenge and will try everything that they can to get to the feeder inside the house. At this time of year I check all the wood on the hen house as rats can gnaw through rotting wood easily.

Tricks and tips:

  • If you shut your chickens in at night, put a water fountain beside the feeder in the house as the hens will be up at daybreak.
  • Feed scraps in a bowl so that it can easily be removed at the end of the day.
  • Feed corn earlier in the day so that it is gone before dusk.
  • Change any water fountains in the run daily as rats might visit for a drink and contaminate the water.

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