26 November 2014

Rat control, cheap and simple

Everyone hates rats. When you keep chickens, they seem to turn up more often, so you need to know how to control rats safely and cheaply. This post will tell you how.

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the most gorgeous lifestyle block owned by a clever and resourceful couple. They are doing forest restoration and pest control in an adjacent patch of beautiful kahikatea forest.

I noticed that they were using the cleverest and cheapest little bait station for rats that I've ever seen. They told me they'd invented them and that they work really, really well.

Firstly, you need a tunnel, because rats love going through tunnels and to keep non-target creatures away from the bait. Here they have just used icecream containers with rat-sized holes cut in two opposite sides. Note that the holes (doorways) are cut slightly above ground level to keep out puddles when it rains.

Note they've pinned down the icecream container with bent wire.

Home-made wooden tunnels, and plastic piping work well as tunnels too. Place tunnels next to fencelines, buildings or something else if possible - rats are more likely to choose these than tunnels on open ground.

Slightly to the side of the tunnel is poison bait on a nail. The nail is simply driven up through the middle of the bottom of the icecream container. Then, to keep the bait dry above any puddles that do get in, they have used a small bit of narrow plastic tubing over the nail (I think a small hunk of rubber would work well too). The bait goes over top of that.

Bait often comes with a hole in it for this purpose, so the rats have to keep coming back to nibble it. With loose baits the rats take the whole bait away and hoard it. Once I bought bait without a hole in it and tried to force it onto a nail, and it just crumbled away - it was such a waste of money.

What kind of bait?
A common type is made by Pestoff. Rats love it (presumably because of the smell and flavour) and it contains the poison brodifacoum, an anti-coagulant. One ravenous nibble of it is deadly to rats. However if cats or dogs eat poisoned rats, they can get secondary poisoning. They won't die the first time - they'd have to eat a lot of them - and the vet can administer something to counteract it.

Alternatively you can use Ditrac or Contrac bait, which doesn't have the secondary poisoning effect.

The bait is available from places like RD1, Farmlands and Bunnings. Prices can be lower online, however. I've been pleased with the service from this online bait and trap shop.

What about traps?
Traps are good too. They pose no toxicity problem and you get the satisfaction of a rat corpse. The most successful type seems to be the Victor trap, baited with peanut butter. Traps, too, should be in tunnels.

Why everyone should kill rats
Aside from spreading disease and scaring chickens (have you heard the alarm call that chooks make when they see rats?), rats are bad news for nesting birds. One of this country's top bird scientists once told me that 75% of all nesting attempts of NZ forest birds end in predation, mostly by rats. They are sneaky, silent killers that are quietly decimating our wildlife.

The way I see it, we brought the rodents here, so it's our responsibility to sort this problem out!

19 November 2014

HenPower helping the elderly - a heartwarming story

HenPower is an amazing project in the UK. The  project helps the elderly combat loneliness via keeping chickens in their rest homes or pensioner villages. 

HenPower project
A photo from the Telegraph article on HenPower.
There's an article about it here, with quotes like "‘My life has been a lot fuller since we’ve had these hens,’ he says. ‘I think I’d be lost without them.’ The chicken-keeping tasks lead to social interactions, a point of interest, and a sense of purpose and fulfilment. In turn, there are reduced amounts of antipsychotic drugs in rest homes and all sorts of other good outcomes.

It's getting quite big, too - last year they were awarded £164,000 of lottery money to extend the project. Go Hens!

There's also a lovely seven minute video on the project called Hen Men here. In it, one man hasn't seen his family since 1980 and didn't talk to his neighbours until the project began. Now the local chaps get together over their chooks. (If only I could interpret the other 70% of what the men say - the accents are strong! Which is quite fun in itself - my son was gobsmacked.)

It would be fantastic if something like this could get going in New Zealand. Wouldn't it be a lovely thing for the old people to show visiting grandchildren? I can even imagine local kindergartens going on field trips to see the chickens and collect the morning's eggs, and the residents being delighted by seeing the children. Some of the children would probably start wanting their own hens at home...  what a wonderful ripple effect it could have. HenPower indeed.

13 November 2014

A compost heap in the run to delight my chickens

Chickens are absolutely a foraging species, and when they are heads are down, tails up, they are happy! In the wild they spend most of their time pecking and scratching as they forage. Today penned-up backyard chickens are exactly the same - even if the feeder's full, they want to forage. And forage they should.

Two or three weeks ago I finally got around to making mine their own compost heap in the chicken run. Hopefully one day it will start to compost properly and provide worms for my birds to find. However, from the first day of my making this heap, they've spent a lot of time in it.

Why they love their compost heap
- They eat some of the green stuff when it's fresh
- They like turning it over in the hope of finding something
- After the first night, any heap of vegetation has the effect of attracting tiny little creatures underneath it that the chickens love to gobble down. For this to happen, it's just a matter of creating a critical mass of vegetable matter.

What I put in it
It's mainly full of weeds. Ah, there are so many of them at this time of year. Leaves, weeds and whatever else you gather will work. I also throw unwanted leafy bits of vegetables in there - carrot, radish and parsnip tops, for example, and lettuce that has bolted.

I try not to add very long grass or vine-like stuff. If they swallow very long blades of grass it can block their digestive systems, and vines just make a tangled mess that it is hard for them to turn over. A gone-to-seed broccoli plant goes in there, but I pull it out a day or two later when all that's left is long, stiff stalks because they've eaten all the leaves.

What about rats?
We always leave out rat poison in tunnels, and our cat's a reasonable hunter, but I still worry about attracting rats. Therefore I'm not adding kitchen scraps (apart from things like lettuce) unless I know they'll be gobbled straight away.

Maintaining critical mass: it needs a border
As all chicken keepers know, piles/heaps don't last long under strong scratchy chicken feet - they get dispersed very fast! Therefore they need a border that the chickens can climb over, but that keeps the contents contained.

Half our heap is surrounded by fences, and the half they get in and out of has small tree stumps and old bricks as a border about 30 cm high. That way they can kick at the vegetation as much as they want and it still stays pile-shaped. The vegetation needs to be held in a heap in order for the insects to accumulate and nature to do its decomposition magic.

I can't see this needing much work over time, except:
- sometimes turning it over with a pitchfork or similar, so that the little creatures right underneath are exposed and to add air to the heap.
- if the contents start to spill over the border, I'll make it bigger. I could move the border out or build the border higher with something like rocks. (I probably won't build it higher or my sneakiest chicken would realise that it brings her closer to the top of the fence and she can jump over to eat our vegetables.)
- I might need to add straw or dead leaves as 'brown matter' if it gets a bit slimy and stinky.

Have you experimented with compost heaps in this way?

4 November 2014

Typical chicken health problems in a nutshell

Last week Angie from Battery Hen Rescue and Rehoming wrote the following post on her Facebook page. It has a summary of some common health problems that might be helpful. It's also interesting to note that not all commercial free-range birds live in the conditions you'd hope for when you buy their eggs.

"Apples and OrangesThat's how I feel after my experience last week rescuing 120 hens from a free-range farm. [Note, Angie usually takes battery (caged) farmed birds.] They are certainly happier, more confident, well-rounded birds. They are dust-bathing the HECK out of my front yard! They have lived in flocks of 1000 and the majority are of great body weight and feathered condition. 

However, I felt slightly like I'd been thrown under the bus when I first unloaded these hens. I was unprepared for how long it would take to treat individual hens for the range of ailments they carried, due to the nature of their living environment, and how long some would need to recover before rehoming. 

1. Lice

All hens had lice. Some had severe infestations of lice around the vent area. Lice are small straw-coloured critters that lay and hatch around the vent, spreading to other areas of the body. They feed on the skin and feather shafts causing heavy irritation to the bird. In my experience the key to preventing and keeping lice under control is this: CHECK, CHECK, CHECK. Weekly checks of the skin around the hen's vent area (where the lice like to lay eggs), parting the fluffy bum feathers to see. Also, ensure hens are able to dustbathe. TREATMENT: a gentle shake of either Pestene, or Diatom (can be ordered online, or purchased from your local vet/animal feed store). Lice are species specific and they can not live off the bird. Once a hen has lice, the weekly check is even more important, to keep on top of eggs as they hatch. 

2. Scaly leg mite

Not all of the hens at this farm had SLM. And those that did, didn't have it 'that' bad. However, it is highly contagious to other birds and left untreated can cause discomfort, pain, lameless and damage to the legs. Scaly leg mites are microscopic insects that live underneath the scales on a chicken’s lower legs and feet. They dig tiny tunnels underneath the skin, eat the tissue and deposit crud in their wake. The result is thick, scabby, crusty-looking feet and legs. TREATMENT: 1) soak the feet and legs in warm water, 2) dry with a towel, gently exfoliating any dead, loose scales, 3) dip feet and legs in oil, (linseed, mineral, olive, vegetable) which suffocates the mites, 4) wipe off linseed oil and slather affected area with petroleum jelly. The petroleum jelly (vasoline) should be reapplied several times each week until the affected areas return to normal. It may take several months for mild to moderate cases to resolve. In severe cases of scaly leg mite, oral or injectable forms of Ivermectin may be prescribed by a veterinarian.

Scaly leg mite.
[Note from Keeping Chickens NZ: Sometimes this condition
 can get so bad that the whole leg is thickened and misshapen.]

3. Worms

Most of the hens had roundworms. I know, because I had the pleasure (not!) of seeing their poop post-worming treatment. This poultry farm worms their hens every 3-4 months, however due to large numbers of hens pecking and pooping in the same paddock, worm eggs being expelled and re-ingested is inevitable.

4. Bumblefoot

Bumblefoot can be caused by a cut, scrape or injury to the foot pad, commonly occurring from a splintered roost, repetitive landings from heights or poor litter management. The compromised skin allows an entry point for bacteria, which can then lead to a pus-filled abscess. The affected foot should be cleaned thoroughly. Mild cases can take a "wait and see" approach, but they tend to get worse. Some cases can be treated with the removal of the scab and the application of a wound-care cream 2-3 times a day until healed. More advanced cases may need to be surgically treated and some cases may require a course of antibiotics."

Thank you to Angie for allowing this post to be shared here. All the photos are hers, too. It's worth liking her Facebook page to keep up to date with her latest rescues, especially if you're in the Auckland area (she's in Waiuku) and are interested in taking rescue birds. She charges a very low price, just to cover her costs. Some of her birds are from commercial operations, and others are just unwanted but often lovely.