Jonathan: Chicken for breakfast anyone? No? Me neither, but there’s a character who lives on the east side of Uist who’s been round recently looking for just that … and having found it, has come back for more. The first time, though, there was no chicken on the menu. It was the first morning of our week of sunny dry weather, and I’d left the hen house door open to let the light and air in as I cleaned round and got ready for feeding time. Then suddenly there was a commotion and chickens came tumbling in through the open door, piling up on top of each-other, a tangle of wings and legs and squawking. Those pesky cockerels squabbling again, I thought, surely there are enough girls for each of them without fighting over them. The hens were continuing to stream in – and cockerels too. Something was odd. I stuck my head out through the doorway to see who the trouble-makers were, but not a single chicken was to be seen – they were all now indoors. What I did see shocked me – if not as much as it had the chickens. A golden eagle – its huge ragged-edged wings beating down, and massive legs trailing – rose from the ground and banked away with the wind and across the sea to the rocky fortresses of the east coast of Uist. Its talons were free of any payload : thankfully it had failed to catch a chicken. But a near miss is also a near-catch: it would be back. The chickens thought so too. I portioned out the feed in almost complete silence: there was the rattle of the grain in the metal troughs, and then rythmical pecking by the hens, but not one of them had anything to say. Either chickens are capable of thought, or they were just maintaining ‘radio silence’ (forgetting that their pecking of feed does rather give them away!)
A few days ago I arrived at the croft for feeding time, and it was again a fine, sunny morning, and I would normally expect chickens to be crowding up by the field gate waiting for me. Not one to be seen. As I walked, in trepidation, down to the hen house, I discovered why not. Just ten metres from the hen house there was a drift of feathers and down – but no corpse, not even any blood. I studied the feathers: a Welsumer hen. She would have put up a struggle with the raptor, but would have been carried away – possibly still half alive – to the raptor’s nest. Welsumers are a good sized hen, so it would have to have been a large buzzard or an eagle that took her. The chickens spent the rest of the day indoors, too traumatized to venture out even for water from the drinkers by the door, so later in the day when I returned to check on them, I put the drinkers indoors.
Chickens are certainly intelligent enough to learn how to live off the land they occupy, and to recognize and react to danger. But they’ve still got to feed, and they are free-range chickens. So the next day, and again yesterday, I arrived in the morning to find the chickens out and about as if nothing much had happened … but they weren’t straying far from the hen house.
This morning – fine again after an all-day storm yesterday, there was not a single chicken by the field gate, or even hanging out by the door to the hen house. I found them all indoors, panicking at the slightest shadow or sound. Outside, behind the hen house, I found a huge drift of feathers and down – and the remains of a large cockerel, its body partly eaten away. Perhaps it was too big to carry away, or perhaps I’d disturbed the eagle – I don’t know, as I hadn’t seen it. I completed my routine duties – feeding the chickens, wedders and the geese, and went back to the store to fetch an empty feed bag to collect the remains of the cockerel. When I got back to the kill site, I’d found the corpse had been moved about ten metres … but no eagle to be seen. I’d brought the camera from the car – so I took a photo. The wedders were curious too.
The eagle will be back again. In fact it could well be back every morning at day-break, when the light sensor opens the sliding hatch to let the hens out. What do we do?
Visitors to the islands that have chickens back at home often say we’re lucky there are no foxes here. True: but we have what they don’t: eagles, buzzards, ravens, gulls, crows, otters, mink, pole-cats … These predators have just as much right to life as do we, and we make allowance for some losses to predators. Even from a strictly financial perspective, if there were not big predators, what would there be here to attract holiday-makers – on whom we (and not just us – Uist generally) are increasingly dependent? But each chicken, at six months old, and before it has even laid an egg or fertlized one, has already cost us perhaps £5 in feed, the cost of housing, and a great deal more in our time and effort: we simply cannot afford to lose many – we’d simply have to give up. So what are we to do?
Break the cycle, Denise says. Disappoint the eagle’s expectations. Redirect its habits. What does that mean? We’re going to shut the chickens in for – well, perhaps a fortnight, or more. We lock them in for up to a week when we introduce pullets at six to eight weeks old – whlst they and the rest of the flock get used to each other. The house is large (it is in fact an old byre), warm, dry, and comfortable – though it would be better for having more windows. It’ll mean more spent on feed for a while … but is there any better option?