The First To Go

There was always going to be a first to go. This new life of ours is full of firsts; first animals, first floods, first taste of homegrown aubergines. All new, all delightful or difficult or frightening. And there was always going to be a first to die.

Like many fledgling smallholders, our initial foray into livestock-keeping was chickens. Cheap to source, easy to look after, daily eggs. So four chickens were purchased from the local market, brought home, and installed in the brick shed we converted to a chicken house. Two more were added a few months ago, taking us to a flock of six. And, for the most part, they have been a delight; weird grumbles, engaging behaviours, and the best eggs. The occasional escape aside, they have been constant in their easy company.

For our part, we have given them excellent lives. Free-ranging over the whole place (except the veg patch), they have had more space than they could wish for, a diet supplemented by wild scurrying wriggling things, and a house kept clean and dry.

The heat for the past few weeks has steadily climbed. We are now in the high thirties every day. The sheep hide away in the stable, cool earth walls keeping them protected from the worst of the daytime scorch. The chickens have shade under the oak, where they dust-bathe and scratch. We top up water for sheep, chickens, and bees regularly throughout the day. It is too hot to work outside for very long, so tasks are undertaken early morning and late evening. The garden wilts, despite daily soakings, and the fruit trees’ leaves yellow and shrivel. The only creatures that are abroad in the day are the metric tonne of wasps and hornets that have taken up residence seemingly everywhere.

Yesterday ML spotted one of the red chickens was a little lethargic, and did not flee from attempts to handle her. Putting it down to heat, ML moved the chicken inside to the pantry – the coolest room in the house – and gave her cool water and an ice-pack wrapped in a towel. When I returned home, she had perked up a bit. We returned her to the cooling evening air, where she drank a little, and scratched a little.

This morning when I opened the chicken house, she was slumped in the corner. Her eyes were milk white, some kind of discharge hung from her beak, and her breathing was shallow. I once again moved her inside, but held out little hope. My fear was that I would have to put her out of her misery; a task I would not find easy.

She settled a little in the hay at the bottom of the box, thrashed her wings for a few seconds, and stilled. And then was gone.

A conversation with the vet suggested heat stress was to blame. A lot of chickens in the area are, apparently, succumbing to the burning days and hot nights. There was nothing more we could have done.

As a precaution I will dispose of the body safely, then clean and disinfect the chicken house; if disease rather than heat was involved I need to prevent it from spreading. I will burn the bedding and wooden nest boxes, a weirdly funereal thing to do.

The chicken had a good life, and suffered little – less than twenty-four hours from first mild symptoms to death. Nonetheless I am sad. The first to arrive, the first to go, and young. I now worry about the rest of the flock, and feel a bit helpless in the face of the too-bright sun. Goodbye, chook. Thanks for the eggs, and for your company.