“A fox went out on a starry night”, there is some poignancy to the old lyric. We observe most fox activity in our lambing fields when the dark sky is a glitter and the night’s air is unruffled.
On nights such as these the old fray between sleep deprived shepherd and artful Reynard circles back in to life once more.
As farmers with a substantial amount of sheep it’s almost a compulsory notion that we should despise all of fox kind; yet at Village Farm this couldn’t be further from the truth.
We’re actually rather fond of our russet attired neighbours. Foxes, like every other species on this land, play a vital role in the upkeep of the farm’s ecological web. The only time this harmony is brought into question is in lambing season.
Foxes are opportunists and a paddock of ewes standing beside their newly born lambs must be to a fox much like waiters at a buffet standing beside plated hors d’oeuvres.
Perhaps a hors d’oeuvre is a little harsh a description for a lamb, but what is more harsh is to blame the fox for viewing these woolly young souls as a meal ticket. It’s by no means the fox’s fault that newborn lambs are such easy prey, nor is it a fair fight for the defending ewe to try and protect her young from such an artful fellow.
It’s us who have caused this imbalance; through centuries of breeding for domestication we’ve bred from species that displayed neoteny.
Neoteny is a zoological term, it simple means animals that retain juvenile features. It is the one true behavioural feature of animal domestication, it enables us to get close and interact with these species, without them wanting to kill us as soon as look at us. Ever watched a wild sheep defend itself? It’s utterly brutal.
Yet by taking away a proportion of a mother ewe’s ability to safeguard her young, we create a rod for our own backs in other ways. If she can’t protect her young on her own then to ensure the survival of her lambs we have to intervene and do that work for her.
Through my experience of farming it seems the more you step away from the order of the natural world the more work you create for yourself. Yet that work is exactly where we’ve been for the last month, spending countless hours safeguarding the flock from a fox. It’s given me plenty of time to contemplate.
From the amount of disturbances the flock received, our interloper was clearly a vixen needing to feed her cubs. But was she and I really that different? Both of us need to feed our families, for both the flock is the means of doing so. This similarity between us is the entire reason why the conflict arose.
However, by stepping back and examining the vixen’s behaviour a bit closer and considering which lambs she actually predated on. It’s a bold statement but I could say she actually helped us.
Due to our vigilance she didn’t take many, but the lambs she did take were either weak or from ewes that didn’t have a strong mothering instinct. From experience we know in both cases those lambs will never come to much, they’ll never put on good weight and never be that strong. In fact lambs such as those are ones that tend not to thrive and are certainly not animals you want to breed from.
You could argue the vixen was taking a future hard decision away from us. By picking on the weak genes her overall actions increased the health of the flock and even though I viewed our month of shared dark nights together as a battle perhaps I should view them as co-dependence.
Here are our four ways to humanely deter a fox at lambing time..
Foxes are very wary of human voices. So we use a small portable, waterproof radio with rechargeable batteries that blasts out either BBC Radio 5 live or BBC Radio 4. The key is to use any channel that has a lot of discussion and not much music. The radio is just mounted on an electric fence post that moves each day with the flock.
All predators are wary of flashing lights at night. There’s a wonderful 7 minute TEDTalk from Kenyan schoolboy Richard Turere explaining how he used flashing lights to scare away lions from his grandmothers cattle. We thought, well if Richard can deter lions, surely this could deter foxes!
We use several solar powered warning lights around our flock. We ordered them here. They are completely waterproof; they charge through the day and then have a built in light senor that sets them off flashing at night. Once again they are just fixed to portable fence posts so we can move them about.
We also use a bright LED camp light we had kicking around the house, but you can order one from here. As per everything else it is fixed to a post so we can move it. The battery in this light is great, it has lasted the entire lambing season without needing to be changed.
The one sense foxes use more than any other is smell.
A cost-free and easy discouragement we use is to hang our worn shirts and jumpers on posts around the flock. Any clothing with a good strong, pungent smell of human seems to do the job. The trick we’ve found is to keep replacing and moving the clothing about.
The other deterring use of smell is actually on the lambs themselves. An old fashioned trick was to use Renardine oil, also know as Dippel’s oil. Its use has been banned for several years (read more).
Instead folks now use Stockholm tar as a replacement. The way to administer the tar is to place a tiny daub of it on the back of the lamb’s neck and some also daub a tiny amount onto the base of the lambs tail. Personally we’ve never tried it and I’ve heard mixed reports about its effectiveness. It seems to deter most fox attacks but not all.
The other point to be aware of with tar is a mother ewe is heavily reliant on smell to recognise her own lambs. By changing the smell of the lamb you can risk the ewe mismothering or rejecting her lamb. Hence, they recommend you only use a tiny amount of tar.
At alternative to Stockholm tar comes from Ireland, simply known as Fox Repellent Oil. It’s made from essential oil. Once again, we’ve not tried it personally, but a lovely Irish farmer friend of mine swears by it. You administer it onto the lamb in exactly the same way as Stockholm tar. I think I’m convinced enough by this oil to give it a try next year, but with the caution of only using a small amount so not to put the ewe off her offspring.
Lastly the best tactic by far is just to be there. Practically that can’t always be possible however, as we discovered, if you make regular visits to the flock mixed with the smell of your clothes hanging out there, the flashing lights and the sound of the radio it all goes a long way in keeping a keen fox away.