Arthur Parkinson on the heartache and highs of keeping chickens11/14/2023
Gardener, writer and poultry fancier Arthur Parkinson on the heartache and highs of keeping chickens – and how he’s battling to outwit their deadliest foe: ‘I’d never experienced a fox attack before’
- Ten of Arthur’s 14 hens were killed in a single fox attack in August
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I haven’t yet cried over the majority of my hens being killed and carried off by a fox. Will I? Yes, but I don’t know when.
I got my first chicken when I was seven years old; I’m 30 now and have owned at least 40 hens since then.
When the fox attack happened, back in August, I had 14 chickens living in my dad’s garden in Nottingham. They had been free range there for almost ten years; during the day, they’d wander around the entire garden.
I’d never had a fox attack before. This one was a dawn raid. I was visiting my grandma Sheila down the road and only my dad and his partner Caroline were at home. They heard nothing.
They’re very sly, foxes, they don’t make any noise. But, surprisingly, the hens remained silent throughout their ordeal, too.
Arthur, 30, from Nottingham, has owned at least 40 hens over the course of his life
This particular fox was a very swift killing agent. Ten out of my 14 hens were killed. Mercifully, he – or indeed she, as summer is prime vixen and cub season – didn’t leave any headless bodies, as foxes often do.
In the aftermath, my blunt-but-good-hearted dad is bearing the brunt of my farmer-like briskness as I hold a surviving chick on the kitchen sideboard, slipping into its beak a quarter of an antibiotic tablet.
This medicine, costing almost £100, was prescribed a few weeks ago by a vet for an older (but now dead) hen, to treat an abscess.
The rare-breed Legbar chick in question has been wounded in the attack. The saliva from foxes can lead to infections, so we bathe her skin with some warm saltwater before taking her back to the now silent henhouse, where she cuddles up to her surviving sister chick with mumbling cheeps.
Their mother hen – who has been left without any feathers by the fox – is stunned and doesn’t notice anything going on around her.
The day before, she was entirely consumed with her brood’s welfare, clucking and fussing. Now, she sits motionless in the nesting box. I fear she might not get over the experience and will shortly die of shock.
The only hen unfazed by the ordeal is Claudia – named after Ms Winkleman. She is a bouffant, ball-shaped Pekin Bantam who has the sort of chicken character that could see her happily become a house hen – if she was dressed with some sort of nappy!
Claudia is mischievous. She once appeared on an episode of Gardeners’ World and caused such an adoring stir with viewers that I was told by some producer I couldn’t have her appear on it again.
Now she sits and preens as if nothing has happened, not at all shaken by the lawn festooned with feathers that could easily have been hers.
She arrived about five years ago, after her flock had been killed overnight by monster rats on an allotment plot. Immediately sassy, she rose through the pecking order within a day to become queen – after some quickly resolved chickeny arguments.
Arthur, aged nine, with one of his first chickens. He got his very first chicken at the tender age of seven
But what of the hens who died? I think Linda – a Cotswold Legbar – will be the most missed. She was, ironically, hand-reared last year after a dog killed her mother.
She was the tamest hen you could ever have met, who adored to sit on knees, to have her earlobe feathers stroked.
When my book, Chicken Boy, was published last March, I went to give talks about it at bookshops and would take Linda with me, tucked happily in a Fortnum & Mason hamper.
We would travel by train and I trusted her enough to let her out of the hamper so she could roam around the carriage and stretch her legs.
None of my hens had their wings clipped to stop them flying. So, when they chose to, they could launch themselves into the air like ungainly pheasants, landing in neighbouring gardens.
Alas, their flying skills didn’t save them from the fox. They must have been so frozen in terror that the killer could simply pick them off.
The risk of foxes comes with keeping chickens. The best way to defend against them is a robust perimeter around your garden or yard. We thought ours was well defended, as we had not had any bother from a fox before.
Another solution is to build a hen-run fortress. We already have this, a solid penthouse that the henhouse leads out to.
The whole thing stands on a stage and is carpeted with deep straw. It provides safety at night and has expensive doors that are timed to open every morning and close every evening.
The romance of having the hens about the garden – by the door, partying around the cloche-protected flowers – would be lost if we had them imprisoned for their welfare.
But if the fox attempts to make regular visits, confined chicken-run days may have to come into force.
Still, poultry fancying is in my blood. This month, I bought five Sablepoot Bantam hens, along with a spirited cockerel. Hopefully, with an enforced perimeter fence the fox won’t have the last laugh.
- Chicken Boy: My Life with Hens by Arthur Parkinson is published by Particular Books, £22*
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