I was predicting in a recent column that the arrival of spring would be bad news for my poultry, and so it has turned out: two ducks, a fat, waddling Silver Appleyard called Doris and a graceful, elegant little call duck called Marina (the loyal partner of a still-surviving drake called Boris), have disappeared, almost certainly victims of a marauding fox in search of food for its new cubs. For a while I thought that the missing ducks might be sitting on eggs somewhere, but the belated discovery of a pile of feathers put an end to this hope. Now I am waiting gloomily for the fox to strike again, probably this time against my chickens, which can’t even hope to escape to the safety of the garden pond.
What, then, can I do to protect them? Keeping them in their coops all the time would work, I suppose, but I wouldn’t dream of it. I would rather they risked death than be stopped from wandering freely around the garden during daylight hours. An electric fence around the garden might also do the trick, but it’s an unappealing and expensive idea. So should I take the advice of a reader, Judith Cawthorne of Bury St Edmunds, who has just written to me promising ‘the easiest of help’? ‘Foxes will not cross human urine,’ she says. ‘All that is needed is a supply of orange juice and local eight-year-old boys, who will be thrilled to “water” the perimeter of your hen run on a regular basis.’
Thank you, Mrs Cawthorne; but I wouldn’t exactly call that solution ‘easy’. I live over a mile from a village, so where would I find all these eight-year-old boys? And how many of them would I have to kidnap, and how much orange juice would I need to feed them, if they were to keep the circumference of a nine-acre garden permanently moist? I suspect that the task would be as hopeless as the one facing the ‘seven maids with seven mops’ in Lewis Carroll’s poem. I asked around for other suggestions, but most were equally peculiar. They included placing mirrors round a hencoop to make an intruding fox think that it was trespassing on another’s territory, or to leave a radio blaring away to suggest the presence of human beings.
But all the ideas seemed to be conditional for their success on my keeping the chickens permanently cooped up. The oddest of all was that I should buy some alpacas from a local breeder on the grounds that these woolly little llama-like animals with Beatles-style fringes are always given a wide berth by foxes. I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s got something to do with the alpaca’s unpleasant habit of spitting. To quote Wikipedia, ‘Alpacas commonly bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green, grassy mix) and project it on to their chosen targets. Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, but an alpaca will occasionally spit at a human.’ At foxes, too, perhaps.
The thing about all such suggestions is that they are made with great seriousness and guarantees of success. They resemble those deluded peasant superstitions that pass down through the generations until they become hallowed as folk wisdom. I was telling a cousin of mine the other day about how my sister’s little Italian mongrel terrier had killed two of my chickens, and she said with great confidence that there was a sure way of preventing this ever happening again. All I had to do was to hang a dead chicken round the dog’s neck for 24 hours, and it would come to its senses. The dog in this case is hardly as big as a chicken, but to do this to any dog would be not just ghoulish but also ridiculous.
People get the strangest ideas. I was hearing the other day from her son Charles how the late Veronica Maclean, whose husband was the celebrated soldier and writer Sir Fitzroy Maclean, had become convinced that the only way to keep deer out of her garden in Argyll was to surround it with lion dung. So she telephoned Edinburgh zoo and charged Charles and his brother with the task of collecting a large sackful of this malodorous stuff. It was duly distributed round the perimeter of her garden, but with absolutely no deterrent effect. No Scottish deer has ever seen a lion.