July 5, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Clear 22°C

It's hard to love a chicken, II

By Lucy Brignall
Published: 2015-06-30

If you want to avoid a massacre, avoid building a pen.
W

e've had mixed success with chickens over the years. We bought our first ones on impulse, only to discover that a surprisingly large number of people do the same thing, rarely giving much thought to the fowl or said our amusingly titled manual "Starting With Chickens" (I admit to wondering if this bit was true. I didn't seem to me that chickens were common item on the average high street. You'd have to seek them out, wouldn't you?)

Anyway, we bunged our newly bought chickens in the old house, gave them food and water, and hoped for the best. They each laid an egg a day and we were soon feasting on custards, cakes and puddings, trying to make good use of all the eggs. But there only so many omelets you can eat. (If you happen to have a preponderance of chickens, try making Bakewell Pudding, with homemade lemon curd and real custard.)

We'd let the chickens out during the day and shut them in at night. They seemed perfectly happy with the arrangement. They also ate scraps, which was useful, nibbling on the mash I made from cooked up peelings. They didn't seem to need much supplementary food. Despite the manual's admonishments, all went well until emboldened by our success, and how easy the chickens were to keep we decided to get 20 free chicks with two bags of feed (life is cheap if you're a chick). At this point it seemed wise to protect the little things by building a pen. And that's where we made our big mistake.

Our little brood of fowl happily pecked around in their pen clucking and cawing while Hoovering up scraps and bugs in the sunshine. But paradise was short-lived. A small pack of dogs began visiting, two corgis, a Doberman and a miscellaneous Beagally-type thing. The visitors would scamper off into the woods if we appeared, but they definitely hung around with a purpose.

Returning from a school run one morning, we found the two corgis standing guard while the Doberman and the Beagle ran amok in the pen. With the chickens trapped, the Doberman picked them off one by one, apparently for the fun of it. When we ran in shouting, the dogs grabbed what they could and scampered.

The pen was a very sorry sight. Parts of chicken littered the ground. Heads, feet and feathers were scattered and the survivors cowered in the corner shaken and terrified. Furious, my husband gathered the remains into an evidence pile. He then made a very Anglo-Saxon visit to the Carabinieri, who apparently weren't interested in his evidence. They were glad to take his word for the massacre but reluctant to have a look for themselves. After a couple of days, all of us begged him to bury or burn the victims. The stench was awful, to say nothing of what the gruesome sight was doing to the morale of the surviving chickens.

The raid left us with one cockerel and three hens, one on the critical list. All were visibly depressed and the injured hen refused any sustenance and reproachfully keeled over in front of our supper table a couple of days later. It's not something we'll forget any time soon, particularly when it become apparent that burning a pile of rotting chickens, even using petrol, was surprisingly difficult.

We did away with the pen. Our chickens now wander around freely, and if a hungry fox picks the odd one off, so be it. The others can flee or hide, which is probably for the best since the manual, for all its wisdom, doesn't cover dealing with chicken post-traumatic stress disorder.

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