The sun felt unseasonably warm on the familiar walk to the farm. Different bird calls – high pitched twittering mingling with resonant clack – clacks, busy birds going about their business of the day. A colony of seagulls joined the cacophony, their mews and echoing ha ha ha ha’s cutting through the smaller bird song as they flew towards a shared destination high overhead in the blue, cotton cloud sky.
A gentle breeze brought with it the scent of newly mown grass. It felt more like summer than just into April, although last night saw plunging temperatures and a touch of frost.
” Perhaps bundling up in three layers of warm clothes was a mistake” I thought gingerly, removing my woolly hat and gloves before stuffing them into the pockets of my waterproof, windproof, claustrophobic, fleecy jacket, “Phew!” I felt hot and sweaty and I hadn’t even started my chores!
A strident ‘ cock a doodle do!’ startled me out of my reverie. Glancing up the grassy lane I saw Mr Cockerel, surrounded by various hens, casually pecking at the grass. He puffed up his chest, his beautiful dark emerald tail feathers, wafting elegantly, like a dandy from a bygone era, and neck extended, gave another loud crow, either in greeting or as a warning for me to stay away from his hens ! Laughing at his territorial behaviour, I made my way into the farmyard, leaving him to scratch around in the grass.
Time passed quickly. I was deeply engrossed in brushing hay and straw to keep my stables tidy and clean when a terrible racket interrupted my peaceful thoughts.
“Cluck cluck cluck! – Yelp! Cackle! Yelp!” – what on earth? Throwing the brush aside, I dashed into the hay barn adjoining my stables, prepared for a showdown with the local cat or worse, a big fat rat that was facing up to the hens. Rats and mice can inflict terrible damage on a hen and I was ready to chase any fiery rodent away!
I desperately looked around the hay and straw bales, searching for the hens, their distressed calls now louder than ever. Then I saw to my horror, a terrible scene of violence taking place.
The cockerel, enraged, was raining a flurry of pecks upon the head and neck of a black headed hen, that was crouched as though laying, not fighting back or retaliating in any way. A red hen had joined in the bullying, pecking furiously at the front end of the poor bird. Both cockerel and red hen jumped up and down , yelping, clucking and cackling as they meted out their awful punishment! The victim sat, head bowed in acceptance, quiet and unresisting. I imagined blood oozing from cuts and holes made by the sharp beaks and indignation flooded through me.
“Gerrout of it!” Instinctively my hand shot out towards the attackers to shoo them off and prevent them killing the poor hen. To my surprise, the cockerel turned his aggression on me. Quick as a flash, I saw his head go up and with a cackle he gave my hand two painful pecks in quick succession! “Oww!” I cried out and retreated as he flew at me, legs outstretched, in fight mode. Jumping back, I narrowly avoided his hooked spurs that could have inflicted a painful jab, although my thick wellies probably provided suitable protection had he landed on my leg. Still, I was mighty glad I didn’t have to find out.
Grabbing my hay shovel, I whacked the hay bale directly above the angered gallus domestici, who retreated immediately at this threat, in a flurry of flapping wings, yelps, cackles and irritated clucks!
Seizing the opportunity, I scooped up the poor hen that sat, still, not moving. Taking her into little rosie’s stable, I quickly closed the door to prevent cockerel from entering and resuming his onslaught, as I figured he would not accept defeat lightly. Sure enough, before long I heard him scratching around outside, cluck clucking in frustration.
I held the injured hen in the palm of my hand and looked at her. She seemed very unwell. Her beak held half opened, as though in a silent scream, one eye was closed, and I feared it had been pecked out. I breathed a sigh of relief when she opened it after a while! She sat unmoving in my hand. A full sized bird, she would normally have ruffled her feathers and jumped off.
Her stillness added to my growing concern. Settling her down in a straw bed, with bird food and water nearby, I left her for the rest of the day. Hopefully, with time to rest, she would get over her shock and bounce back.
Later that night I returned to bring my little equines in. My hopes rose when I saw her sitting upright, seemingly recovering, but on closer inspection, there was no improvement in her condition. Now I faced a dilemma. If I left her in the stable with little rosie overnight, I could not guarantee her safety. If I returned her to the chicken coop, she may be attacked again. I decided to make a nest in a nearby shed and left her comfortable and safe from harm, with sustenance close by.
As I walked home that night I pondered on the paradox. Here I was, trying to save this little hen when earlier the sound of nearby gunshot had filled the air around the farm. The regular weekend ‘sport’ of pheasant and duck shooting was underway, less than a mile away. So many birds must have been slaughtered as I battled to keep this one alive on the farm.
The sun shone warm and bright, when I returned next morning and the yard was full of bustle and business. Horses, shampoo’d , brushed, coats shining, manes gloriously preened, stood ready for loading into waiting horse boxes to compete in the local dressage competition. Excited owners swapped tales of previous events, commenting on judges’ preferences and how to impress them.
Farmer was busy in the cow shed, wielding massive curtains of hay towards the Aberdeen Angus that bellowed and lowed in anticipation. I called him over to look at the hen which was sadly, no better. It seemed to be gasping and I feared that it was dying. He kindly agreed to dispatch it to lessen its suffering. By the time I returned from taking my Shetlands to their field, little hen was dead.
Life with the rest of the brood continued as before. Most followed the cockerel, scratching around in and out of interesting barns, whilst other solitary hens pecked in the hay and straw, seemingly happy in the sunshine.
It was a salutary lesson for me. There is a pecking order amongst broods of chickens. Each hen finds its place and generally the brood dynamics are peaceful. But hens will attack and kill injured or ill chickens. It is brutal and upsetting. Some might advise not to interfere with natural selection, but I have no hesitation in protecting another living being whether big or small, against pain and torment.
Later that day, as I said goodnight to bramble and little rosie who were busily munching their chaff, I heard the gentle murmuring of the brood as they settled on their perches next door to my stables. Another day on the farm.