Friday 23 February 2018

First person: Heartache and Fred the hen

Scarred by childhood pet disasters, Sarah Carey has a fear of getting too close to her new feathered friends

Sarah Carey
Sarah Carey

We got hens. I've been threatening to do it for years, but there were some impediments. People who haven't grown up on a farm, as I did, tend to be optimistic about animal husbandry. But I know that when animals come into your life, they tend to leave it brutally.

Hens, lambs, ponies, calves, turkeys, cats and dogs: any animal I ever named, eventually died or disappeared in tragic, and occasionally gruesome, circumstances. When you end up eating animals with whom you were on first-name terms, sentimentality is not advisable. Hoppy: you were an injured and tasty turkey. Tom, the imaginatively named cat, was blown away by a neighbour with a double-barrelled shotgun. We didn't make a fuss.

In the case of hens, you'd find a random claw and a few feathers after the fox got at them. There was even Fred, the lovely hen that my sister made a pet of. Then I had a birthday party. My friends chased poor Fred, and when we got up the next morning, Fred was dead.

But I wanted to have some sort of animal to bring some humour about the place. There's a stray ginger cat who does the rounds on our end of the road. We don't mind having him around to keep down vermin, but warmth wouldn't be his greatest quality.

Hens, though, are really entertaining. Also, we eat loads of eggs. But I wasn't going to embark on a hen adventure until we had a secure, fox-proof establishment. Proper chicken coops aren't cheap, and given the capital costs, it's not an economic proposition.

However, one day I had enough of being bored and disgruntled with life. My mother had slipped me a few quid to cheer me up, so I ordered the second-best chicken coop from Farm Fowl's website. It took a team effort, but we managed to successfully assemble the cute, duck-egg-blue chicken coop.

Now, all we needed were the hens. My sister and her fiance, who'd suffered a hen massacre back in December, felt a decent enough interval had elapsed to consider restocking. They alerted us to the hen-rescue movement. This is when battery farms purge their sheds of laid-out hens. People like Susan Anderson from LittleHill Animal Rescue deliver them from death row.

So, on a recent rescue run, my father was dispatched to the Lidl car park in Clane to meet the LittleHill truck. He bought three - at a fiver each - and brought them home and installed them in the coop. That's when we realised we were going to need a Hen Whisperer.

Sure, the poor things were wrecked. They'd hardly any feathers, and they cowered in a corner of the coop, totally traumatised. A committee of the concerned hovered outside. My husband, who'd sworn he was having nothing to do with the enterprise, fussed over what food to give them. My father said we needed to cover the coop because, between the east wind and lack of feathers, the wretched creatures were frozen. We put an old tarpaulin over the coop to keep the draught out. My uncle brought down the mash he feeds to the sheep. And the children peered in, wondering where the eggs were. My mother, who has that way of saying something cheerful while simultaneously conveying inevitable doom, said that, sure, maybe they might lay - if they didn't die first.

In the end, it took them three days to leave their little penthouse apartment. Each development, from feeding to watering, to their slow emergence into daylight, was reported to me with huge excitement by the others. But when my husband urged me to sit by the coop with him, because it was really therapeutic, I found myself reluctant.

Despite taking the executive decision to acquire the hens, I realised I was afraid to get too close to them. The scars of childhood losses clearly run deep. So the others run in and out, nursing the hens back to good health and, hopefully, a productive life. I keep my distance, wishing them well, but holding back. My little heart can't take any more loss - not even a hen.

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