The Chicken Question
0 comment Sunday, June 22, 2014 |
So, I've been thinking lately about the Chicken Thing.
I have been resisting what is, to many, a logical jump when it comes to being self-sufficient. I grew up in farm-country and while feeding chickens was all right (one of the best bits of keeping chooks for me, honestly), there's a lot of stuff that tends to go on behind the scenes of a farm which isn't a whole lot of fun, especially when it comes to chickens. They're just vicious creatures, really - "henpecked" takes on a whole new meaning when you see them literally pecking a lesser hen to the point she starves to death. Cannibalistic behaviour isn't uncommon (they'll kill and eat a chick sometimes). And while they're not quite as disease-prone a sheep - which always seem to be looking for a new way to die - they get some really nasty stuff, and there's nothing else for it at that point but to put them out of their misery. At that time, vet bills for chickens was almost unheard of; it was "just" a chicken and vets are expensive. If it was sick and didn't perk up with a few home remedies, it was put down (and it was the one time you didn't eat it, who knew what had killed it?). If it didn't lay, however, and hadn't done for a while, it would become stock and the feathers were kept for a pillow or quilt or something. Waste nothing.
And that's the big one right there - chickens to me aren't pets; I can't even think of them in that regard. So, if one stops laying, into the pot it goes - and yes, I can just visualise the horrified looks of people who treat livestock as something cute and cuddly just reading that. But where I lived there was no luxury of getting chicken wrapped in plastic at the store - that's why we kept chickens in the first place. If you couldn't deal with killing and eating it, you didn't keep it - it was too expensive to feed something that wasn't going to pay its way somehow: cats did the mousing and ratting, dogs did the herding and guarding and sometimes helped with hunting or hunting snakes (I had a dog who HATED snakes, and he kept the place clearer than any mongoose), and horses are sometimes cheaper than petrol so they were used as transport and pulling the feed wagons or running errands. Crazy I know (snort), but that's just how it worked. Nothing suburban-idyllic about keeping the stuff, and I guess that's why I can now tell I've become a bit more "well off" (to the scoffs of society considering my 'near poverty level' budget-wise) in that I keep cats now for pleasure and not for pest control.
Still, with that said, there's nothing more cringe-worthy for me than snapping a chicken's neck - I won't go into detail but it's unpleasant. And plucking hens, oh gods, I cannot even describe how much I HATE that job, truly; it's time consuming and tedious and I'm not my hands could even manage it anymore, honestly. And yet, the idea of just burying a food animal to me just feels rather wasteful, so I'm undecided what to do. So I've put off chickens, and keep putting them off, even though I buy eggs weekly and have loads of space.
As I'm still sort of in "house-flux" at the moment - trying to downsize, but also trying to take my time with it - I am unsure what I'll end up with but it occurs to me: if the garden were a bit smaller (and therefore not so much work to do upkeep) would I have the energy and time to keep some hens? It's been ages since I've kept any, I'm not even sure what's out there these days and all the varieties I'm familiar with are US types. Could I guard them from roving cats and suburban foxes? Would I have the energy to deal with mites and to clean the pen, to get the wings clipped and check for beak-rot? If The Day came that the bird was ill or injured, would I call in a vet (wow, what a thought) or would I do the Old Skool way? Do I even have the strength in my hands to dispatch and process a hen, come to that?
That's the grim stuff - it's the stuff people don't know about or want to think about when it comes to raising chickens, and when it crops up folks tend to be horrified, but I already know about it, and it's what has had me thinking whether I really wanted to deal with it or not.
But what about the positives? Feeding chickens, for example - there's something about just going out early in the morning, crack of dawn, feeding the Laydees and watching them scratch and cluck contentedly to themselves as they get their first grain, then letting them out for a bit in a run and let them do their thing with cup of coffee in hand. They come in such a dizzying array of colours and sizes, and personalities are a spectrum. Some are dumb as posts and some are so clever you find yourself wondering whether brain size is really an indication of intelligence. They sulk, they rejoice, they stare at you with that sizeways look that always looks like they're sizing you up. The feel of a freshly laid egg in your hands, and the bright golden colour of the yolk of a happy, healthy hen which you've probably never seen if you're used to buying eggs from the supermarket.
And when they do die, and I've plucked them to keep the feathers (you could keep that at least if they had been ill, even if you didn't dare keep the rest), I shed a few tears over my favourites. You can get attached to livestock, "pets" or not. You can't pour that much attention and care into something and NOT feel that way. I don't know many farmers who didn't have a favourite animal in the flock or herd; it's how I was taught to judge whether a farmer was a good one or a poor one.
I'm still debating on it - but I think, if I get a smaller space, with no stairs to wear me out, and a bit more time to tend outdoors, then I think I'll look into chickens more seriously, read up on what's new in hen-rearing, get a feel for some of the UK breeds and how to keep them happy. I'll keep my mind open to it. Maybe one or two. No more than three. If I get as many as four, point to me and laugh at my lack of resolve.