Misadventures with chickens

Having moved from London to almost the middle of nowhere in Hampshire I clearly needed to get some chickens. I had attempted, briefly, to keep chickens in our small back garden in Brixton which was an unmitigated disaster. Sufficient time had passed though, and I had pretty much forgotten what a pain chickens are.

A fine hen

One of the biggest beneficiaries of COVID-19 has been our chickens, which have received a stay of execution. My wife and I had concluded that they were more trouble than they were worth. However, with rationing and panic buying of eggs, I began to feel quite smug about our daily egg production so at present they remain with us.

We got off to a bad start with our chickens. A friend had very kindly given us five beautiful Brahmas. I understand Brahmas to be a particularly desirable breed of hen, with fine colouring and standing almost as tall as a small child. My children dutifully named the hens Lavender, Basil, Star, and , rather brilliantly, Pecky. Playing up to gender stereotypes, the cockerel was mine and I decided to name him The Admiral, for no particular reason other than I thought it sounded magnificent.

Optimal housing conditions – an old dog kennel

Gender identity issues

Issue one began a few months into ownership when one of our hens, Lavender to be precise, began to look, well, rather manly. Chickens are notoriously difficult to sex, particularly when they are young. Essentially chickens have two holes, a mouth / beak and a multipurpose hole that seems to be capable of producing anything. Barring dissection, there doesn’t appear to be a particularly accurate way of telling girl chickens from boy chickens. As the weeks past, it become evident that Lavender was definitely a boy which presented us with a problem. It would appear that male chickens like to fight other males. I learnt this at university as the pub you did not want to go into for fear of being glassed by a local was called “The Fighting Cocks”. So as Lavender slowly transitioned from a hen to a cockerel it was clear that we would have to get rid of one of our cockerels before they savaged each another. Despite my protestations, to spare my children’s heart break, it was decided that my Admiral, a magnificent, huge and striding cockerel would have to go. Lavender, inferior in absolutely every measure, would stay.

I evaluated the options on what to do with the Admiral. A good friend of mine was commanding Gurkhas in Aldershot and apparently our brave Nepalese soldiers like nothing more than fresh chicken so that was one option. Luckily our combined disorganisation meant the Admiral was spared eating. Miraculously, a colleague of mine was in the market for a cockerel to pleasure his hens. So, the Admiral was put in the back of the car and driven to his new home in Wiltshire. We were now a one cockerel family.

Assisted suicide

A few weeks later, following a malfunction in our electric gate, our neighbours dog strayed onto our drive and made a beeline to one of our hens. I wasn’t there at the time, so I’m going to keep this fairly neutral in tone as I wouldn’t want to apportion blame, but the upshot of the situation was I came home to very upset children, an angry wife and a hen, Pecky in this case, with a broken leg. Brahmas are the size of horses, so I suspect our neighbours dog probably had a few scratches too.

I was sent out to “deal” with Pecky. Luckily my wife isn’t overly sentimental and had spent the afternoon managing the girls expectations on my likely prognosis for Pecky. Given the cost, you also have to be slightly deranged to take a chicken to the vets. Perhaps the subject of a future blog, I am increasingly skeptical of the veterinary profession – I am certain they are able to keep any pet alive indefinitely if you can afford to pay.

Given the life expectancy of chickens, and that their demise is usually at the hands of a human, they stare at us with a high degree of suspicion. As I approached Pecky, hunkering in a corner of the coop, her eyes met mine and we both knew the writing was on the wall. While I enjoy fishing and shooting, I hate to see any creature suffering, and Pecky‚Äôs leg was barely hanging on. She had to be “dispatched”.

Like most difficult things to do I immediately got on to YouTube to get some internet advice on the matter. Rather disconcertingly, although useful in this context, there are a lot of videos on how to kill chickens. I browsed a selection of options to find the one that I felt most comfortable with and had least risk of me inadvertently decapitating Pecky. I concluded stunning Pecky with a bash over the head followed by breaking her neck would be the quickest and most humane option. It turns out, like many things one tries having watched an expert do it on YouTube, humanely dispatching a chicken is harder than it looks. Somewhat traumatised, I returned to the house with the job done and hopefully not inflicting too much suffering on poor Pecky.

Aggressive coq au vin

A few weeks passed, and life with chickens improved. My children continued to enjoy playing and petting them but would in no way help clean them out. A task that now fell to me entirely, my wife keen to point out exactly whose idea they were. Despite the cleaning, we were starting to get a good supply of eggs, so things were looking up.

It began with a pain in my leg. As I turned to walk out of the chicken run, I felt a sense of pain in my leg, as if I had walked into something. I turned around to see Lavender staring at me with his suspicious eyes. I didn’t think much of it, but over the next few weeks Lavender became increasingly bold. He was definitely kicking me, almost a kung-fu style kick as I walked out of the run from feeding them or topping up their water. Like all problems, my first reaction was to ignore it for a few weeks. He continued, indeed he got bolder, now running at me in the cage before launching into his kung-fu kick. No longer when my back was turned but face to face – he was exerting his alpha-maleness on me. Bear in mind as well that Brahmas are massive so Lavender was now standing nearly seven foot tall.

Lavender (left) with suspicious eyes

While I am normally the paradigm of placidity, I was not about to become some chicken’s bitch. Having attempted to train a gun dog, I thought I would apply some of the same techniques to Lavender. Bearing my teeth, growling and adopting dominant body language. Lavender, unmoved, staring back at me with his suspicious eyes.

These were my chickens and so this was my problem. Again I thought the best thing was not to share the news that we had an aggressive cockerel – it seemed to be only directed at me. Clearly my alpha-maleness was causing an issue. Reading a couple of the chicken books we had, the outlook for an aggressive cockerel was not good. In essence, it seems that for some cockerels a switch is flicked that turns them into aggressive shits. Once flicked, there is no turning back.

A few more weeks passed and I was beginning to accept my fate that every time I went into the chicken’s cage, Lavender would take a swing at me. The prospect of a fox to take away the problem my only hope.

Life changed quite suddenly.

While I was splitting logs, or some such activity, there was a sudden scream from my eldest daughter who was being pursued down the drive by Lavender. My daughter bravely stopped, turned to face Lavender, and was met by the flying kick. Lavender and my eldest daughter are about the same height so this landed somewhere near her waist and must have been terrifying. An aggressive cockerel Brahma is not unlike a dinosaur. Luckily, in thick, waterproof outdoor trousers no damage was done, at least not physically. The mental scars I’m sure will manifest themselves in due course.

Lavender has gone insane and was now rampaging my children. Action had to be taken.

Unlike the demise of Pecky, my children’s point of view on the matter was clear. “Kill him Daddy”, seemed to be the universal view of all members of the household. I had to agree, counselling wasn’t an option and who wanted re home a gigantic killer cockerel?

Despite the general disdain now towards Lavender, my wife suggested that once I had dispatched him we didn’t waste him. This somewhat would alter my approach to dispatch and I enlisted the support of a local friend whose father was a farmer. This time we went for a stun over the head followed by an axe to chop the head off, and bleed the bird. This was a disturbing experience and I regretted wearing blue suede loafers.

Incredibly, my wife then plucked, drawed and then butchered Lavender turning him into a very good Coq au Vin, which seemed particularly appropriate.

Lavender on his way to the pot

Prolapse vent or chicken haemorrhoids

Normality ensued for several weeks and again, our chickens felt like a blessing. That was until eggs started appearing with blood on them. Again, much googling and referring to chicken books resulted in a lot of staring at chickens bottoms (vents to use the technical term). Eventually we discovered Snowdrop had what is called a “prolapsed vent”, which in layman terms means her insides were beginning to move outside through her vent. Faced with the prospect of a chicken slowly turning itself inside out, we had to act.

Having gotten used to bashing chickens over the head, I was surprised to learn that the first step was to give Snowdrop a warm bath. I wasn’t entirely sure how a chicken would respond to a warm bath. We filled our boot room sink with warm water and a weak disinfectant and tentatively lowered Snowdrop in, fully expecting an explosion of flapping and squawking. Instead, Snowdrop settled in and seemed quite content while I tried to wash her vent and my wife tried to contain her laughter. This was the comparatively easy bit, the next part was somewhat more challenging and involved rubber gloves.

According to chicken experts I needed to push bits of Snowdrops vent back into her. This required the insertion of two lubed up fingers into her vent. Armed with my rubber gloves, I attempted to push back in whatever it was that was hanging out. Snowdrop, having looked quite relaxed in her bath, reverted back to default suspicion. For me, fingering a chicken felt like a new low point in chicken ownership. Each time I retracted my fingers, whatever had gone back in would re-emerge, accompanied by a little wet fart and some vent convulsions. After several attempts I was feeling sick and was beginning to think head bashing a better option. My wife, somewhat more rationally, suggested Sudocrem. Sudocrem in our family has legendary powers to heal nearly any ailment. It works on humans, so why not chickens? I was keen to try anything, so we slapped some on and hoped for the best.

The next morning, much to my astonishment, Snowdrops vent was looking much better. We continued to bath and then Sudocrem her vent for the next few days until she had made a complete recovery. Whilst recovered, after our shared rubber gloved intimacy, Snowdrop now keeps her distance from me whenever I go in to top up the feeders.

So our first year of chicken ownership has been more trying than I anticipated. My reflections on it are that while the idea of chickens is appealing, the reality is somewhat different. I would never buy a rare breed one, instead choosing the hardiest, most genetically modified one possible that will reliably fire out eggs come what may and doesn’t get sick. While we are in lock-down and eggs are in short supply, our reliable layers are an asset, but whether I can sustain the enthusiasm in more normal circumstances is a question.