Chickens need space to move around and forage in order to provide the healthiest eggs and meat, but as we’ve learned there is a trade-off in giving these plump, docile birds unrestricted freedom: predators. For the chickens we raise for meat we have always been more careful and use fencing (for heritage breeds) and chicken tractors (for cornish x) to keep predators out. Our meat birds do not have a traditional, solid wood “coop” and thus their living space needs to be secure through the dark summer nights when those sharp toothed sly beasts lurk with large appetites. We’ve learned a few tricks along the way and since we’re about to put up a lot more fencing to keep the free range hens safe I think this is a great opportunity to review the tricks and best practices for chicken security measures.
Gimmicks, Myths, and Theories for protecting chickens
There are a lot of theories and products out there that people swear by for protecting their flock. Here is a quick list of examples:
- device with two red lights to resemble predator eyes keeps other predators away
- leaving a radio in the coop to produce noise that scares predators away
- letting dog leave scent near coop
- motion sensor light
- mounting a fake owl/hawk
- motion sensing sprinkler system (yes it exists and is hilarious)
- trapping/hurting/killing predators
The problem with these methods is that anyone who swears they are successful is basing it on their singular experience, on their land with their setup. “It worked for me, therefore it must work for everyone in the universe.” But maybe the predators stayed away for another reason, or predators just aren’t that common in the area. Lack of proof that it specifically prevented the predators is common.
For more reliable solutions that don’t require throwing money away on overpriced products, you need to start with the basics. Like a good house needs a solid foundation, good chicken security needs solid fencing.
Fencing Tips and Best practices to keep chickens safe
PLan for Space before doing anything else
When planning your fence, it is very important to ensure you have good space for your chickens. This space varies by opinion, breed, and your intentions. For chickens raise for meat, they will generally require less space. For heritage breeds, you need more space to allow them to peck around and to prevent them from becoming stressed and aggressive towards each other. I suggest you do your own research on this topic and decide what works best for your land and goals. This writeup is on BackyardChickens.com is interesting and makes some great points. This planning step is crucial, as you don’t want to put in all that effort, time, and money into fencing that will end up being inadequate!
There are many options out there for fencing for chickens. For ground level fencing, you need to make sure the holes are small enough to keep even the smallest predators out (e.g., minks and other weasels). And, believe it or not, if you have raccoon in the area you may want to make sure the holes are small enough to keep their small paws out. Raccoon have been known to reach in and grab chickens, holding them and killing them from the outside.
For optimal security, you want to use hardware cloth with holes 1/2″ or smaller. This is what we use on our chicken tractors for the cornish x breed, and we have not lost any birds to predators yet. This fencing material costs more than chicken wire and other fencing options, but it is worth the investment.
For our other chickens that spend nights in a more secure coop, we use standard poultry netting (aka chicken wire) with 1″ holes for the run. Beware that there is also poultry netting available with 2″ holes, which to me would seem like a big enough hole for a mink to slip through, and thus we don’t use it.
A coyote can scale a 7 foot fence if it really wants to. Does that mean you need to install an 8+ foot fence for your run so coyotes don’t attack your chickens during the day? Or maybe enhance the fence with electric wire, angled tops, barbed wire, etc.?? No, I think it’s best to keep it simple. If this is just a chicken run for daytime use, and the chickens go into a more secure coop for the night, I think a 5-6′ tall fence is fine. As long as your run is out in the “open” (e.g., not in the woods or close to the edge of the woods), predators will tend to keep their distance during the day. However, if you are concerned about jumpers even during the day, or if there are hawks and owls in the area, you may be at risk no matter how high your fence.
Avoid Aerial Attacks
We hear owls and hawks all the time. Hawks have perched on our run, watching the chickens below. But no hawks have ever taken a chicken out of our run because it is completely covered with more fencing. This also prevents a 4 legged predator from leaping in, so we feel confident our chickens are fully secure in their run no matter who comes by. Another cheaper way to avoid aerial predators is to use netting and lay it across the top. This will not be 100% effective against leaping coyotes and the like, but it should deter birds of prey well enough.
Prevent Predators from Digging
All fencing should have a “skirt” that extends out in a flap from the bottom of the fence by about 1 foot or so. This is to prevent predators from digging their way in. Burying or at least concealing this flap is ideal, as predators will only try to dig where the bottom of the fence meets the ground and thus fail to dig with any success. Typically you’d be able to dig a one foot wide strip into the ground, lay the fence, and then bury this flap with what you dug up. This is a bit of work but is straightforward, reliable, and will last as long as the fence.
For ground that is too difficult to dig into (too many rocks, roots, etc.), you can secure the flap in place using strategically placed lengths of thin wood and weighing the wood down with rocks or blocks. To conceal the flap, cover with leaf litter or dirt from elsewhere.
Consider adding ROOSTS
I believe it is a good idea to incorporate roosts for heritage breeds both in the run and in the coop. Roosting poles or sticks will not only make these breeds more comfortable and reduce their stress, it will also encourage them to stay away from the edges of any fencing. If a chicken is laying down against fencing made of chicken wire or something with larger holes, they could be grabbed by a raccoon and injured or killed.