Chickens at the Bottom of the Garden

I should probably title this FOWL PLAY or INJURY TIME, but I will resist. You can have too much of a bad thing.

When we moved to the bungalow in Allestree, which was actually just across the road from where we had lived previously, there was an empty hen run in the garden. My parents rather ambitiously decided it might be  great idea to try and keep a few chickens. Well, my mother had been a Land Girl, after all. She’d only dealt with vegetables, however, which turned out to be rather more obliging. After we’d cleaned it all up and dutifully disinfected everything, my farmer cousin duly arrived with six Rhode Reds, some feed and a few instructions. The venture seemed to be doomed from the start.

Our chickens turned out to be the most discontented, vicious, sadistic little swine imaginable and nothing you did for them was ever good enough. Despite our good intentions, assorted pleas to our farmer cousin, who responded with suggestions, improved feeding methods, hints re vitamins and minerals, grit etc all they did was whine, pine and attack one another. Their main hobby was pulling the feathers off one another’s bottoms. This seemed to be their one source of  pleasure, though actually, I don’t think they enjoyed it all that much, especially if theirs was the bottom in question. Believe me, a bare bottomed chicken is not a pretty sight.

Apart from my cousin, who was actually a dairy farmer, no-one else in the family had ever kept poultry, apart from my grandmother, presumably, more years ago than anyone could remember, especially her. She’d grown up on a small-holding a few miles away. However, apart from chickens, or fowls, as she preferred to call them, her knowledge of bird life was negligible. Mum once commented that my grandmother only recognised three kind of birds – Big Birds, Little Birds and robins, and even those were probably chaffinches. Once she’d married and left the countryside behind her, she left all knowledge of country pursuits with it, although to be fair, she could whistle and also jump over gates – I know, because I dared her once, and she did, much to my surprise, and in a narrow tweed skirt, too. But whenever she came to stay at our house in the outer suburbs, she always complained she couldn’t sleep because it was too quiet. And there weren’t any hat shops. No point asking her, then.

So we carried on trying to be nice to the little slobs, feeding them healthy mush boiled up in an old pan on the stove – I can smell it to this day and shudder – old potato peelings, corn and grit for the calcium, as recommended, and generally trying to be responsible poultry owners while they carried on pecking each other and pulling the feathers off each other’s bottoms. No eggs were forthcoming, although I have a feeling one of them may have had a go once and eaten it. There were a few suspicious smears and a bit of shell lying around, but no guilty looks. On one occasion, they escaped while I was feeding them after coming home from school and all went hurtling haphazardly down Kingsley Road, with me in panicky pursuit. The Keystone Kops had nothing on a 12 year old me in a state of stress. This being Kingsley Road, nobody stopped to help, of course. Not that there was anyone around anyway, but a pursed lip and a twitched eyebrow and sniff may have occurred behind a curtained window or two. It was all wonderfully undignified and I can’t remember how I got them back, but I probably scattered a trail of corn or enlisted the help of Dog Peggy, who was good at rounding things up, as we discovered shortly after we adopted her from the RSPCA, whether they liked being rounded up or not. At any rate, the little swine were safely back whining in their coop by the time my mother got home, so I thoughtfully didn’t mention it.

Eventually they started dying off, probably just to spite us, or looking as though they might do any minute, until I think in despair we did call in my cousin to dispatch a couple and rather guiltily ate them. After a year or so, only one survived, a lame one, which had seemed rather more docile than the others(or was there something we didn’t know?)and we just let it loose in the garden, where it made a kind of truce with Dog Peggy and survived for quite a time as something of a pet, until it, too, keeled over one day and expired. And were we ever, in the whole time we kept chickens, rewarded with an egg? Not one.