A novice's guide to producing his own food

Fowl play in the chicken coop

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All gone to the coop in the sky

All gone to the coop in the sky

The hens were the big upset of last year. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t stop them falling sick and dying.

I bought eight hens in 2013, and lost three that year. Then at the start of the following spring I was given another two by a fellow allotment holder, bring the numbers up to seven.

But the new year didn’t stop them going beak-up at almost regular intervals. I tried everything I could think of: cleaning the run more often, changing the water more frequently, spraying for red mite regularly, but to no avail. Perhaps, I began to fear, I was just rubbish at looking after them.

But worse was to come: whereas previous chicken deaths were protracted affairs with sickly looking beasts acting under the weather for several days before dying, by the summer I was going into the coop to find them suddenly dead. No warning.

With only three left, I decided I had to get to the bottom of this for once and for all. I took the corpse of the most recently departed to the vets to find the cause. They directed me to a department of Scotland’s Rural College in Perth where they perform animal autopsies.

After a week, I got a phone call. “Your chickens have been dying from Marek’s Disease,” said the vet. I’d heard of this, but knew next to nothing about it. “It’s related to the herpes virus, and hens catch it when they are a few weeks old. It has a slow incubation period, and they start to die after two years.” A few weeks old! To be honest, I was completely relieved at this sudden turn. None of this was my fault after all. The infection occurred before I got them. There is a vaccination against Marek’s, but many smaller breeders don’t use it, because it can only be purchased in batches of 100 doses.

Basically, it meant I bought hens that were already infected with a killer disease. I got them “second-hand” from a guy who was as much of a novice as me, and I suspect he wasn’t aware they hadn’t been vaccinated either.

So what should I do now? I still had three hens left, who were almost certainly carrying the disease. The vet’s advice was quite clear: “You are going to have to destroy them. Then sterilise the whole coop and run TWICE with bleach before reintroducing new hens.” I had to start from scratch. Worse I had to wring the necks of the three little bleeders that were left. I was willing to do it, but was terrified I wouldn’t put them out of their misery quick enough, and give them a slow, agonising demise. “Perhaps they’ll die of their own accord,” I hoped grimly.

Fate, however, was to take the matter out of my own hands. One day just before Christmas one hen simply disappeared. Gone. Only a couple of white feathers left behind. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find her.

Matters came to a head on Christmas Day. That night, my dog Sasha suddenly started barking like crazy. Was there a fox in the garden? Perhaps, but the chickens will be safe as they’re locked up securely. Wrong! On Boxing day morning I went out to find the last two gone, and the door to the run open.

This left me with conflicting emotions. I was glad the fox had done the horrible work of killing them for me, but upset the chickens spent their final minutes in terror. I didn’t hear any squawking, so I guess their demise might have been quite swift.

Looking to the future, I have ordered 10 brand new hens from a recommended dealer. I should take delivery on May 15 — and, yes, they will be vaccinated.

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