In Virginia, the most common predators are raccoons, possums, foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks and bears. In this blog post, we will cover steps you can take to bear proof your homestead and keep your animals safe. Over the past few years, we’ve lost three baby chicks to a weasel and a Pekin duck to an owl. Our donkeys are excellent livestock guardians, but they can only protect our animals from small to medium predators.
I was letting my dogs out one morning when I noticed feathers all over the yard, not just any feathers, but peafowl feathers. I knew immediately something terrible had happened. My flower boxes had been ripped off the coop; the newly built aviary expansion was ripped to pieces. As I was surveying all the damage and accounting for all my animals, it was apparent the predator had killed three out of five of my peafowl. Thankfully, our adult peahen and peacock pair, Bam Bam and Pebbles, survived. The peacocks had a few scratches on them, and the peacocks’ spurs were covered in blood and fur, so they fought back.
Assessing the damage
At first, we didn’t know what kind of predator had caused so much damage. From our assessment, the predator climbed onto the roof of the chicken coop and knocked down the hardware cloth we had under the pergola roof. Then the bear ripped through the chicken wire on the peafowl aviary from the chicken coop roof and must have snatched the peafowl right off their roosts. Finally, the bear went down to ground level, ran into the wire, and tore all three sides out of the aviary. There was nothing left of the peafowl but feathers.
It was a devastating blow to the homestead. I felt so guilty for not being able to protect my livestock. I was grateful that the predator didn’t make it into the chicken coop because it could have been much worse. At first, we thought raccoons were the culprits. I started reading articles and hearing stories from other homesteaders about the damage raccoons can have on a flock and how a whole family of raccoons can attack at once. While they can be vicious predators, we ruled them out quickly, along with possums and foxes. Due to the damage, the size of the holes, and the fact that the predator climbed a 10-foot chicken coop, it was something big, something we hadn’t experienced before.
I felt responsible for the attack because we had primarily used chicken wire with some hardware cloth on the new peafowl aviary expansion, even though we knew chicken wire doesn’t hold up well to predators. We got complacent, and that night, the hardware cloth and chicken wire were no match for this type of predator.
The Predator will Return
Two nights after the attack, my husband, David, was letting our dogs out before bedtime, and he looked over at the ruined aviary and saw something huge and black trying to get into the coop. The predator was back for more, and it was an enormous black bear. He said it was the giant black bear he had seen and was quickly 350 to 400 pounds! David shot his .44 magnum in the general direction to scare the bear off. Luckily, it scared the bear enough he took off back into the woods. We immediately called the Sheriff’s Department to report the bear incident, and we were transferred to the Game Warden.
The game warden informed us it was against the law to kill bears in the state of Virginia outside of hunting season, even if they were killing your livestock. The Department of Game and Island Fisheries will only issue kill tags if you are a commercial farm. Since we are currently a hobby farm, they wouldn’t permit to kill the bear, even if he was attacking livestock. Trapping and relocating bears was no longer an option, because bear’s no longer migrate because there is nowhere to put them. We were advised to remove all access to trash, feed, and bird feeders and to lock up our animals at night, until the bear moves on.
There had been reports in Virginia of bear killing goats and miniature donkeys, so we must try to protect everyone the best we could and make the necessary steps to bear proof our homestead.
How to Bear Proof Your Homestead- Black Bear Facts:
• Black bears can sprint up to 35 miles per hour
• They can climb 100 feet up a tree within 30 seconds
• Male black bears typically weigh between 130 and 500 pounds
• Females weigh 90 to 350 pounds
• Females raise cubs for up to a year and a half
• Males’ home ranges up to 300 square miles
• Female’s home ranges up to 50 square miles
• Before winter, black bears can consume up to 20,000 calories a day
• Bears are omnivores and eat both meat and vegetables
• If a black bear charges, stand your ground and don’t run
How to Bear Proof your homestead- Prevention:
· Store all animal and livestock feed away from their main living quarters
· Store feed either in a locked, bear-resistant shed or in bear-resistant containers
· Place livestock pens at least 50 yards away from wooded areas and another cover that could protect bears from view
· Confine livestock in buildings and pens, especially during lambing or calving seasons
· Consider bringing livestock, particularly smaller animals, inside at night
· Remove carcasses from the site and dispose of them by rendering or deep burial
· Locate beehives as far as possible from forest and brush that provide bears cover and travel routes
· Harvest honey crops as soon as possible after the spring, summer, and fall nectar flows. Bare hives reduce their appeal to foraging bears.
· Install electric fencing around coops, pens, and pastures. Electric fencing works best to keep out bears and prevent structural damage.
· If the animals are pregnant or have little ones, keep them in a bear-resistant building or within an electric fence until they can fend for themselves.
· Guard animals, such as dogs, donkeys, or llamas, can help deter bears and other predators from preying on livestock. For livestock protection against black bears, well-trained guard dogs such as Great Pyrenees or Black Mounted Curs appear to be most effective.
· Scare devices (non-lethal) can frighten wary bears from livestock, such as sirens, air horns, bangers, rubber bullets, bean bags, and paintball markers.
Now that I had a better understanding of black bears, we had to decide what was the best option to bear proof our homestead. Installing game cameras, flood lights, and solar lights on all the runs and coops along with electric fencing was our best option. At night, we bring everyone into the barn and lock them up to keep them safe. It’s important to check our game cameras regularly, and remove all access to livestock feed, trash, and bird feeders.
We recently brought home a new lab puppy just two weeks before our attack, and all five of our dogs are indoors, so adding a Livestock Guardian puppy was not a feasible option. Though, we will consider adding some once some of our senior dogs cross the rainbow bridge. Predators are adaptable and able to learn quickly, so it’s essential to be flexible and use whatever combination solves the problem in your area.
Death is a part of life
Even though death is expected on a farm, it doesn’t make it any less bearable when it happens. It broke my heart to lose Roxy, Rubble, and Chip. I watched them hatch into this world and become such remarkable birds. They were our first animals born on the homestead, and we had grown attached to them. When I found what was left of them that morning, I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and quit. However, I also know that I couldn’t imagine my life without the farm. So instead of throwing in the towel and leaving, I cried, mourned their loss, and reached out to other farmers for advice.
One thing I’ve learned about being a farmer, we are tough! Whether you’re a newbie homesteader or an experienced rancher, we love the farm life despite its challenges. We dry our tears, grab the feed buckets, and carry on to the next task because our animals depend on us. We share our grief with other farmers and ranchers, learn and grow from our painful experiences together, and hope that next year will be better!
Other Helpful Resources:
How to install an electric fence – YouTube Video by Tractor Supply Co.
How to Install an Electric Fence – Step-by-Step Article by DIY Network
Black Bears: How To Avoid Run-Ins – Farmers’ Almanac
Staying Safe Around Bears – U.S. National Park Service
Thank you so much to everyone who offered their condolences and suggestions about their experiences with predators. I have learned so much from the farming community and am grateful to have your support. I hope this blog post was helpful so you can make the necessary adjustments and bear proof your homestead.