I am usually met at the garden gate by a flock of racing hens, it’s like a slo-mo scene from a Race For Life promotional ad; buxom breasts bouncing, bingo wings flapping and each of them determined to greet me first with an inquisitive peck of the boot, or a long friendly “Braaak?” Yesterday afternoon however, following a brief spectacular snow storm, I was met with a very different scene. Just six hens, approached me, lacking their usual vigour. I assumed the others must still be distracted by a particularly fruitful corner of the compost heap. As I bent to open the nest box however, my eyes met with the sickening sight of a decapitated carcass in the corner of the run. My heart sank.
A moment of complacency on my part had given Mr Fox the brief window of opportunity he’d been waiting ten hungry years for, and he really made a meal of it, a five-bird roast, seven if you count the two he left behind for afters. I gathered the poor chewed bodies and walked miserably to the very top of the garden where a gate leads up into Bratt Wood. As I hurled them over the fence and into fox territory, I gave an angry shout, a strange bitter cry that I hoped he would hear, and be afraid of. (But probably only served to reinforce my neighbour’s belief that I am a bit mental.)
I can’t stay angry with Mr Fox for long, and while my support for The Hunt continues and I sincerely hope that thundering hooves and baying hounds scare his furry pants off soon when they pass through the village, I tell myself that his vile pillaging of my beautiful flock is just ‘nature’s way’, and I am reminded of a recent close encounter with other feathered friends which left me a little uneasy.
Danny joined a frosty farm shoot near South Cave a few weeks ago, and the next morning two familiar faces looked down at me from a hook in the garage rafters; a brace of mallards. Having grown up on eye-level with these ducky friends in my childhood home on the banks of a Kentish millpond, it felt at once thrilling and ghastly to be permitted at last to touch their beautiful plumage, and to twirl the drakes curly tail feathers with my fingers. His head was exquisitely iridescent, rivalling any fancy Castle Howard peacock, and the hen duck who appears at a glance so dreary by comparison, on closer inspection gave up her subtle secrets of the most finely patterned breast feathers and luxuriously dense underdown.
First I watched a macabrely compelling YouTube video of a young hunter preparing his game on a mossy tree stump in the woods. His apparent reverence of the bird that he had shot down was touching, and I resolved to do my best by Danny’s Mr & Mrs Mallard. As I grasped the first pinch of breast feathers I felt the weight of expectation from centuries of no-nonsense countrywomen before me and, with a satisfying Velcro rip, I found the pearly skin beneath plucked clean. I can now see the attraction of becoming a beautician in a waxing salon.
Badger the Parson’s Jack Russel watched, drooling and whining helplessly, from the living room window while I worked at the garden table, and soon, with a big bag of feathers, and a snicker-snacker of sharpened steel, I had before me on the chopping board four beautiful fillets of wild meat. I drew the line at drawing…maybe next time?
We enjoyed our noble fowl marinated in soy sauce and spices on a bed of noodles and greens and I felt more than a little proud of my achievement.
While on the subject of free-ranging and wild birds I should also mention that recently I had the opportunity to rescue what my farmer friend at Wot a Pullet calls ‘dynamic brown hens’ from certain misery and an untimely death. (Ironically, three of them have just ended up on the dinner table of a certain local pointy-faced red bastard, but at least they lived their last months in a country idyll) The British Hen Welfare Trust advertised on Facebook that they would be attempting to re-home 500 caged hens from a factory in Bradford. These poor pathetic creatures were in a dreadful state; stinking, (it is the smell of stress that I recognise from intensively reared Danish pork) bald and completely untrained in how to be a real hen except for the essential bit of dutifully plopping out an egg every day. Their crime is that of living beyond 76 weeks when they are classed as ‘Spent’ and their sentence is a hellish journey to the slaughterhouse to be processed for animal feed or compost, so I swooped in with a big basket and bought freedom for a handful of them, I would have taken more but I hadn’t the room, and that day the BHWT managed to re-home nearly all 500 birds.
At dusk on that first night they stood listless and gormless, looking about like bewildered visitors to an alien planet. There was suddenly greenery, sky, sunshine and fresh air, all very new to them, and as I encouraged them to roost inside their new house, almost having to demonstrate it myself before they understood, I vowed NEVER to knowingly purchase a non free range bird or egg as long as I live, and I urge you to do the same.
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