Life with Poultry

Everyone starts out with the classic idea that for a farm to be A Proper Farm it needs free range hens scratching about and ducks sailing on the pond.

The hens officially lived in a couple of huts at the foot of what we still call the Hen Field. The children had the job of rounding them up at night and shutting them in; I let them out and fed them in a morning. Of course they only slept there; the rest of the time they were raiding the hedges, the fields, the flower and vegetable gardens and the roadsides, leaving destruction, footprints, feathers and hen-shit wherever they went. I was upset when one got run over by a passing car; but after a while I began to feel it would be more honest to rejoice.

One summer we invested in some ducks; Aylesbury crosses they were supposed to be. There was a lot of Mallard blood in this first lot and they were not very big. We bought six which we brought home in canvas bags. Released at the intended “duck hull” they stayed roughly half an hour and then took flight, disappearing northeastwards over the cowsheds. The children and I tracked them feverishly, envisaging their total loss down the Lune valley along with our cash investment; and found after a long hot slog that they had gone in a reconnoitring circle and returned to the hull where they, no doubt, were anticipating a scoopful of grain as a refresher after their journey. I can’t recall what happened to these ducks; maybe we ate them.

We bought fertilised eggs after that, from someone in the village, and incubated them ourselves in a circular poystyrene incubator. Later we bought six big Aylesburies, two drakes and four ducks, and hatched their eggs too. It was nice to see the ducklings breaking out of the shell, but the little incubator was unpredictable for heat and sometimes its excessive warmth resulted in “July Sprawlers”, ducklings that had no control over their legs and couldn’t stand upright. Sometimes they got better; more often they didn’t.

The ducks themselves never sat on their eggs; they were too busy avoiding the drakes, who were endlessly after them. The morning release from the hull was like a Viking invasion: the drakes came out into the open, stretched their wings a few times, and with furious quacking, waddling and flapping the rape and pillage began. In a mad way it was entertaining. Once Spring was well underway all the ducks were bald-headed from the grip of the balancing drakes.

Their social behaviour was a complete contrast to that of the hens. Yes, the cockerel comes running the moment a hen cackles that she’s laid and is ready for the next egg to be fertilised, but he is also protective and community-minded and calls the hens to him if he finds anything good to eat. But the drakes were all self.

The ducks couldn’t negotiate the gate out of the field, so inside there was duck-muck everywhere. Through the constant activities of the foraging few, the field developed a series of interconnected mud holes where the rain ran through hollows to the beck; which in turn became empty of fish, empty of snails, empty of plants, and so dirty that the other animals wouldn’t drink from it and would only use the trough. The lack of snails may have severely annoyed the liver fluke, but the sheep were unscientific enough not to care.

One night on our rounds we forgot to shut the poultry in. The fox, who also obviously made his rounds every night, in the hope that this might happen, took away one drake and two ducks’ heads. The hens were found perching in strange places, on roofs and in bushes, with even more worried expressions than usual. They were right to worry. Not long afterwards we forgot again and the fox killed the other drake and ducks, plus several hens. Two remained, of which one died of shock, leaving just one.

We stopped buying hen food. I bought eggs in winter from Joyce. She too had given up keeping her own hens and now bought in eggs to sell. Graham talked of getting some more hens but “not until that old one dies, she’ll teach them all to come ratching in the garden.” As she had been several years old when we got her he didn’t expect her to live long.

He reckoned without hybrid vigour. She just went on. And on. Chickens in a group appear daft as brushes, hysterical and silly, but one on its own is noticeably intelligent. Chucklebuddy, as she became known, was clearly a sharp bird. Having cheated the fox twice, she developed strategies that were endearingly sensible. She decided the safest roost was among the farm buildings; she never again used the hen huts. Her preferred places were in hayracks above the sheep pens where she enjoyed the convected warmth from them during the night. She became tame enough to stroke and even to carry about. She laid energetically each summer. Occasionally she moulted, often in midwinter, a daft time to choose - she’d be half naked in severe frost - yet she still survived.

She ate almost anything and could kill mice - from which she most enjoyed the brain. Her method of stealing dog food was to tempt the dog and its chain to follow her round a tree, then to return to the food bowl, to which the chain would not now reach. By the time the dog had unwound itself (or more usually wound itself up even tighter) Chucklebuddy had had her pick of the goodies. Before long the dogs were resigned to her thefts. Shep occasionally pounced at her if she thought no-one was watching but since she had been smacked for doing it and knew that it wasn’t allowed, most of the time Chucklebuddy was well in charge.

Unfortunately, she pushed her luck too far one day. Shep caught her and plucked all the feathers off her back. We found Chucklebuddy crouched in a corner of the shed. Though not badly injured, she was in deep shock so we put her in the byre with food and water to recover. She did not eat or drink and two days later she died. She was one casualty chicken which I wasn’t in the least tempted to eat. (from Horses in the Garden)