Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ode to the Old Cockerel

(This article was originally published in TouchStone, the journal of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Issue 185, April 2012)

The old cockerel came free of charge with the six young bantam hens we bought for £30.  When I agreed to buy the hens, I was asked:  “I don’t suppose you want a cockerel too – it’s just I’ve got a spare who I don’t want and he’s got too much character to wring his neck – he’s old, but he’s a good cockerel – he’ll look after the hens, stop them from attacking each other, and take them out to the best places to forage every day.”

It seemed like a good idea at the time ... I am always attracted by the word “free” and I was reassured that he was unrelated to the hens who were all sisters.  I’ve since discovered that every keeper of poultry in Orkney has an old bantam, full of character, going spare.  Even farmers have a soft spot, although it may take some digging around to find and will usually be kept well hidden.

When old cockerel turned up he was a bit battered – his feathers had got bent in transit but he soon perked up.  We were worried about him at first as all his hens flew up to roost, whereas old cockerel just flopped on the hay underneath, but once Mark had built him a ladder up to his ladies he was able to join them.  We were told to keep them all in the henny hoosey for the first three days, to make sure they always remembered it as home and knew where to return to.  When we finally opened their door, they wouldn’t come out – admittedly, it was October in Orkney, it was cold, windy and perpetually raining – food and water were inside, they had no reason to come out.

When they did all venture out, finally, I watched them peck excitedly around their pen.  A couple of hours later, at sundown, I noticed that the hens were missing and old cockerel was pecking around by himself.  I assumed that the younger hens had all flown out of the pen, leaving the old boy behind (despite promises that their wings had been clipped).  I went in, looked into the hen house with a torch, only to be met with six pairs of eyes all peering down at me in curiosity and fear.  I tried then to get old cockerel back into the hen house so I could put them all away for the night, but he was having none of it.  As I chased him around and around the pen, I got my first inkling into his canniness – this was a survivor.

The young hens started laying eggs in February and we let them all out to free range over our garden.  Old cockerel did as promised and predicted and looked after them all, taking them around for the best insects and worms.

We knew he was doing what he was mainly kept for because he would periodically pin one of his ladies to the ground and impregnate her with all the amorous finesse of an automatic stapler.  Then one of the hens went missing and a few weeks later waddled out of the rosea bushes with fourteen chicks.  She only lost one, with an amazing thirteen chicks surviving to adulthood – astounding for a little bantam hen who could hardly get all her brood under her at once.  The following month another hen went missing, finally reappearing with another six chicks.

Old cockerel ignored the chicks as they grew, continuing to keep a watch over his ladies.  The chicks grew and fourteen of the nineteen were gradually revealed to be male.  We sold seven, killed and butchered six (for Christmas dinner, since then I have returned to being strictly vegetarian), and we kept one as a “spare” cockerel.

It was obvious that old cockerel experienced some relief at this cull, not having quite so much competition from his male offspring, but young spare cockerel was clearly vying for the job of alpha male.  Young cockerel had a deeper call and would impregnate a hen whenever he got the sneaky chance.  Occasionally, old cockerel would chase young cockerel around the hen house and Mark and I would watch, singing along with the Benny Hill theme tune.

Old cockerel in front with new cockerel behind and some of their ladies in attendance.

We knew they fought, old cockerel soon lost all the feathers around his neck, but old cockerel was still very much king.  At five years old (he was three when we got him) he was old for a bantam but in good health, as were all of them, even though, periodically, their claws would get encrusted in the bantam shit, sawdust and mud they constantly walked around in – although usually a few days of Orkney rain would loosen the problem.

In late July 2011, old cockerel got quite mud encrusted and he started to limp.  We were very busy with weddings and it was a week after he started to limp that we got around to catching him, bathing his foot in water, scratching off the encrusted shit and mud, drying his claw with tissue paper, smearing on Savlon, and then wrapping his toe with a plaster (I couldn’t make this up!).  He whimpered when we caught him but permitted us to do what we needed to do, almost as if he knew we were trying to help – despite the indignity!  Mark has always had a way with animals – they love him, all manner of injured beasties come up to Mark to be touched by his healing hands.  Old cockerel was no different.

Old cockerel went limping off, we thought we’d let him see if he’d survive, after all he was still eating and shagging (when he could catch a hen!) so he clearly still had a life impulse; he hadn’t given up and neither had we.  Mark put ladders into the hen house so he could get in and out more easily, and we made sure there was water and food inside and out as he’d taken to not leaving the hen house but just gazing balefully out.  However, his foot was massively swollen and he must have been in considerable pain.

When we caught young cockerel attacking old cockerel, we penned off a corner of the run, giving old cockerel his own nesting area with fresh hay, own water, grain and some bread.  We hoped that not having to walk through shit and mud would give his claw a chance to heal.

But old cockerel desperately wanted to get out.  His hens flaunted themselves before him; every night for two years he had called his hens to roost, now he was stuck outside.

Whilst washing up and looking out the kitchen window, I noticed he’d tried to fly out of his penned area and had got himself hooked up on the chicken wire whilst trying to escape.  He was hanging from the netting by his injured foot – he must have been in agony – we released him and he limped off to his separate nesting box, defeated.

When I judged all his hens were in – young cockerel was proving rather ineffectual at calling them to roost – I went to shut the run, but old cockerel was missing.  I looked into the hen house and found him.  His hens had all roosted with young cockerel and were up in the rafters, old cockerel wasn’t able to get up with them but he had got out of his pen and he had joined them, he was in one of the nesting areas on the ground but he was with his ladies.  I looked in on him.  “Put put” he said pathetically, “leave me here, please” I translated, and left him alone.

I awoke as usual about 7am (courtesy of cat).  The voices in my head had been telling me to sort out the bantams for about an hour before but I had been ignoring them because I wanted a lie-in.  At 8am I could no longer ignore the voices.

I went out to the pen and for the first time ever all eleven hens and a young bantam cockerel came running to the door of the run.  The young cockerel was rather full of himself, like a cat that’s just caught a mouse.  I looked in.  Something was wrong.  And they all knew it.  There was a real sense of guilt and anticipation in the flock.

Old cockerel was on his back, at the end of the run, covered in blood, totally still, both claws in the air.

Horrified, I called to Mark and he came out to help.  Old cockerel was dead.  Killed by young cockerel who had finally got his revenge and was currently prancing around as the alpha male he now was. 
I should have gone in the night before and taken him into his penned off corner.  We should have left the main door of the run open so that he had a chance of escape.  I was disgusted with young cockerel now strutting around, he’d always been sweet, calling for food and coming quite close, but now he was a murderer, performer of patricide, and he had a suspicious brown liquid splattered on his legs.

We gathered old cockerel into a bin bag and moved him into the garage where he couldn’t be pecked anymore and where the crows and ravens wouldn’t gather for him.

The dynamics had changed in the flock, young cockerel was so arrogant but not used to command.  The hens were a bit rebellious; he obviously had further contests to endure before he gained their respect.

In the afternoon, Mark dug a grave and lined it with stone slabs, a cist.  We laid old cockerel in it and placed with him a feather from one of his ladies, a slice of bread for the journey, and some flowers from a wedding as a gift from the land.  A grave to truly confound any future archaeologist!  I asked Mark to take off the plaster from old cockerel’s claw because a hero bantam should not enter the chicken summerlands wearing a plaster.  When Mark took it off, we saw that the swelling had gone down – old cockerel had been healing.  We covered the grave; by the late afternoon, young cockerel was scratching over the disturbed soil for worms.

The king was dead, long live the king.

Spirit is a little golden bantam who does not want to be shut away from his harem.  Defiance is a brave old cockerel who gets out, somehow, and chooses to be with his ladies, even though he is in danger from his younger son.  Pluck is a little old cockerel who does what is needed, what has to be done, even though it is not in his own best interests.

We salute you, old cockerel, you were a good cockerel and we miss you.

Perhaps it is how you would have preferred to have died?  Perhaps you would have preferred to go out fighting rather than fading away in pain and succumbing to an infection?  Perhaps the nursing we did gave you a fighting chance at the end?  Perhaps young cockerel had to kill you in order to have your spirit enter him, so that he could be king cockerel – although he messed up getting your hens in for quite a few nights to follow!

Perhaps.  Perhaps.  Perhaps.  Too many unknowns, and what ifs.

Old cockerel, you had a good long life.  You lived for five years, which is good for a bantam.  For one of those years, you had six hens.  You passed on your DNA and in your last year you shared eleven hens with your son, staying top cockerel until the last week of your life.  You were brave, you put protecting your ladies above your own self-interest.

Did you suffer?  I hope not, but the fact that I found you on your back, with your feet in the air, vulnerable and submissive makes me think you did suffer at the end.  When we examined your body, your head was covered in blood and there was a big hole on the back of your neck that had been pecked out.

I hope it was quick.  I suspect it was not.  But I think you went out like a hero warrior and I salute you, brave old cockerel.  May your spirit walk in peace on our land and protect us.  May your life and your death be a lesson to us.

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