Forgive me if this post seems rather long, but it has been a terrible year and I feel the need to express my feelings.
Twenty-seventeen saw a significant milestone in our lives. Ten years ago, on August Bank Holiday Weekend 2007, we spent the weekend building a chicken house and small run. We had never built a coop before, and so we followed instructions found on the Internet. We had also never kept chickens before, in fact neither of us had had a pet since we were children. Rather a strange hobby for two middle-aged people to be embarking upon. Nevertheless, I had read all the advice in magazines and on the internet chicken sites, talked at length to a hen-keeping colleague at work, and I was now ready to give it a go. Hetty, Betty and Letty entered our lives, and nothing has been the same since.
Today, 2nd September 2017, marks our ten year anniversary of the joy, rapture, despair and heartache that is chicken keeping. Joy and rapture, because they are such wonderful, engaging, joyous creatures, interested in everything (try keeping them out of the kitchen if you inadvertently leave the door open!), willing to eat anything (Millie caught a small shrew this autumn and despatched it with vigorous efficiency), smart (they have been shown to apply deductive reasoning, and they certainly recognise and remember), and surprisingly caring of each other even if they do have a reputation for hierarchical organisation and enforcement (the pecking order). Despair and heartache because of the many illnesses that can befall a chicken, how very fragile they can seem, and how much they touch our hearts during their brief lives.
Today, at the end of our momentous year, I am sad at our losses but also so thankful that we took that step into the unknown ten years ago, because I would not have missed knowing and loving these chooks for any other experience you could name.
Our first casualty was Lupin, the smallest of our seven Cream Legbar girls. She was never as flighty as some of the other legbars and I was often able to pick her up for a quick cuddle. She showed signs of weight loss and also of having difficulty swallowing. In early February, we brought her indoors to live in the conservatory so that I could control what she ate – very small things, even liquidised nourishment. She became used to the special treatment pretty quickly, would sit on my lap being petted for hours, enjoyed scratching the soil out of the plant pots, and generally caused hilarity wherever she went! Sadly her swallowing problem became acute and she died on 23rd February. She was one of six hens my husband had bought me for my birthday in May 2015, so she was barely two years old when she died.
A week later, on 3rd March, I noticed Lupin’s “husband”, Charlie, was looking very unwell – hunched, not interested in anything, head down and lethargic. His wattles were cold and clammy and he made no effort to avoid me when I picked him up. I brought him indoors and gave him antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, but it was obvious I was too late and he died a couple of hours later. I have described these symptoms to a vet since, and they have suggested that, if there is a really heavy bacterial load, by the time you see the symptoms it is nearly always too late to do anything about it. Charlie was such a character; smaller than his brother Freddie, with brighter colouring, he had an endearing strut, a fabulous eccentric crest, and a sweet nature. We hatched Charlie and Freddie from eggs laid by our first hatchlings, Amy Blossom and Baby, on 12th April 2012, so Charlie was very nearly 5 years old when he died. We had sold Amy Blossom and Baby, together with their brother Luke, to our neighbours in 2012, and I recently learned from our neighbour that Amy Blossom and Baby had all died this year also; only Freddie remains of all the chooks we hatched in 2011/12.
Dora was our third loss this year, a sweet little Black Rock hen bought in March 2014. She had been poorly for some time with a suspected abdominal tumour, and when she gradually went blind in the early summer we knew that the end was near. She had been remarkably calm throughout her treatment (she was on anti-inflammatories), and was looked after very well by Betty her great friend and perch buddy. Every evening, Betty as head hen claimed the prime place on the perch, and Dora jumped up next to her. They had been constant companions since Hetty’s death in 2014, and Betty never showed any bossiness around Dora, they were more friends than head of the pecking order and minion. Dora died on 20th June, aged about 3 and a half.
Lovage was the next hen to go, on 12th August, suddenly even though she had been on antibiotics for suspected peritonitis. She had been another of the birthday legbars and had lived in the same house as Lupin and Charlie. Another bacterial overload was suspected which the Tylan had been unable to cope with. Lovage had always been quiet, largely stuck with her sisters when out and about, and rarely made a fuss. She did not take kindly to being asked to move in with Freddie and his girls when her “husband” Charlie died, and continued to share her original home with Lucy, even though we got the impression that Lucy would quite liked to have moved! She was just 2 and a half when she died.
On 1st April, we had celebrated Betty’s tenth birthday, an amazing age for a hen! She was active and engaged, scratched, preened, looked after Dora, and, after she lost Dora, took to sitting with the Croad ladies, sunning herself on the patio, demanding sunflower seeds and grapes of me, and generally being her own self. She did her usual late summer moult – lost her tail feathers and grew a magnificent new tail, lost her neck feathers and grew a gorgeous set of chestnut feathers in their place. By the time we celebrated 10 years of chicken keeping on 2nd September, Betty was noticeably slower, ambling along when before she had moved confidently, not so quick to rush over if the treat box was produced. As September began to wane, she too seemed to fade. She was still magnificently feathered with a beetle green and purple sheen, but her face was paler and she looked older. Chickens can live to 15 or 16 years, but they so rarely do that we are not used to seeing age creep over their faces. She had slowed up so much that she no longer objected to being picked up and cuddled, and I have some lovely memories (and videos and photos) of her blissfully accepting neck rubs for the first time ever. On the night of 30th September she slept in a nest box for the first time in years – she couldn’t (or didn’t feel like) jumping up onto a perch; I sensed something then and wondered if I would see her the next morning. She was still with us the next day, although no longer chatting to me as she always had in the past, and I brought her into the conservatory for more cuddles. It was such a lovely day, warm and sunny. We sat on the floor in a patch of sunlight watching the breeze ruffle the grass outside and I stroked her beautiful glossy silken feathers and told her how much she was loved. It was such a privilege to have known Betty, she was such a special hen, not just because of her long life but because of the joy and laughter and fun that she injected into our lives.
Twenty-seventeen had not finished with us yet. I noticed Lucy, the last of Charlie’s girls and another birthday legbar, standing looking poorly; we started her on antibiotics immediately and set up the hospital wing in the conservatory yet again. She showed every sign of having the same thing that took Charlie and Lovage from us, and when she showed no improvement overnight I was fairly certain of it. I tried to get a vet’s appointment that morning but there was none available; Lucy died later that day, 6th November, our third unexplained sudden-death in a year. Lucy had been a quiet hen, devoted to Charlie and so devastated at his death she would come up to me demanding a cuddle as she needed the comfort. She had paler feathers than her “sisters” and there was a gorgeous silvery gleam to them, particularly around the neck and back.
Susie, Lucy’s housemate and yet another birthday legbar, had been ill for a couple of weeks, had seen two vets in that time, and had been treated for both oral canker and oral thrush. I had initially taken her to the vets because she was off her food and I had noticed a hard lump underneath her beak. The canker was really nasty to deal with, as lumps of smelly plaque had to be removed from her mouth and throat every day, before applying a topical treatment. The third vet she saw, who was an “exotics” expert, x-rayed her and said that the lump was a bony growth, most likely a tumour, and there was little to be done other than keep her comfortable, so that is what we did. For nearly two months, we treated her night and morning, removing plaque, giving her medicine, cleaning her up, and giving her the best life we could. She recovered her appetite, and enjoyed being with her companions, Sorrel and Sage, and of course with Freddie. She died on 3rd December, aged about 3 years.
So that was our annus horribilis. We lost over a third of our flock, mainly to disease and unexplained sudden death, and we said goodbye to our beautiful Queen Betty. I’m not making any predictions about 2018, but it can’t be any worse than 2017. I hope it will see new additions to the flock, because we now have two 6-hen houses standing empty, and we still have a lot of love to give.
Rest in Peace:
Lupin, b. circa Nov 2014, bought 8 May 2015, d. 23 Feb 2017
Charlie, b. 12 April 2012, d. 3 Mar 2017
Dora, b. circa Oct 2013, bought 7 Mar 2014, d. 20 Jun 2017
Lovage, b. circa Nov 2014, bought 8 May 2015, d. 12 Aug 2017
Betty, b. circa April 2007, bough 2 Sep 2007, d. 1 Oct 2017
Lucy, b. circa Nov 2014, bought 8 May 2015, d. 6 Nov 2017
Susie b. circa Nov 2014, bought 8 May 2015, d. 3 Dec 2017