Whodunnit – life and death on the farm

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About a month ago we had a bit of a rough time at Heritage Farm. Two ducks, a sheep and a goose died in quick succession. While we are farmers and these incidents do happen, death is not easy and our recent experiences give us a whole lot more sympathy for other farmers who must go through this process regularly.

Death of our farm animals has been difficult and it was made more so when we weren’t sure of the reason why the death occurred. For this blog post we’ll focus on the duck deaths.

Duck deaths

We lost two large ducklings one evening. We found them out in the field with relatively minor injuries on their bodies. The first duckling was found with a more serious wound on her back about 15 metres from the shed. The shed had some blood stains inside, which provided an additional factor to consider. The second duckling was found about 30 metres away from the shed on the opposite side of the paddock. She also appeared to have two puncture wounds on her underside. Both ducks were fine earlier in the day and there’s no doubt both Rach and I were very confused as to what could have done this to our poor ducks!

Foxes

Foxes are the number one cause of duck deaths. It’s for this reason we have the fox-proof fence surrounding our animals. Foxes are in plague numbers on the Mornington Peninsula ┬ábut we would be in a real pickle if our ducks were starting to get picked off one by one… So we both spent hours outside late at night searching the property for any potential indicators of foxes. Fortunately we couldn’t find any – no holes or problems with the fence, and no other animal injuries. In case it was a fox, we decided to move all of the ducklings into the area where our laying ducks were, and locked them away at night. Obviously this was uncomfortable for our laying ducks, but if it meant saving our ducklings, then so be it!

Considering the evidence, we were nervous and hopeful that the culprit was not a fox. Wild dogs and cats were also a possibility, but we felt it unlikely considering the fence was in good condition.

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Eagle or hawk

Aerial predators can also inflict death upon a flock, and this second group of animals was something we seriously had to consider. Our property is a blank slate, with very few trees. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to make our mark to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately it does mean there are large open spaces without tree cover for our animals.

The Mornington Peninsula is well known to be home to a large number of Wedge-tailed eagles, and they are more than capable of picking up geese so a duckling would be no problem. I’ve seen eagles in the past, but because of their size they tend to be noticed by ducks very quickly.

A few days prior to the ducklings deaths, I was fencing in the ducklings’ area and noticed a strange bird flying high above. It flew quickly and with purpose, and at the time I thought it looked like a very small hawk. This bird ducked and dived in the air above, and while I tried to take some video, it was simply too far away and too fast! After the death of the ducklings, I felt that this bird could be a prime suspect in our whodunnit mystery.

Snake

Snakes enjoy consuming eggs, and are frequently found on farms with poultry. Moorooduc in particular is popular with snakes (or so we’re told – we have yet to see one)! Providing pellets and feed for ducks and ducklings can attract the sorts of animals – like field mice – that are popular with snakes. The two punctures that appear to have caused the death of the second duckling suggested that a snake may be a culprit. But considering we had just had frost, the grass was ultra short and the ground super wet we thought a snake quite unlikely.

Conclusion

Our prime suspect was the hawk noticed in the field earlier in the week. To protect our vulnerable ducklings from more duck deaths, I spent an afternoon time creating duck shelters to shield and shade the ducklings. These were built using reclaimed IBC container cages and vegetation from across the property for camouflage. Since undertaking this work, we have had no more deaths from predators. As there haven’t been more deaths, our strong suspicion is that the small hawk attacked our ducklings. Clearly they have since decided to try easier targets. So far so good!

It was a tough period on the farm, but it’s something that we both will have to deal with. The animals are all really important to us and we care for them as best we can. With the birth and new life on the farm, there is ultimately the flip-side – death.

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