Warning to those who may be easily distressed: this post deals with death and dispatch.
Hen keeping is a fun and rewarding hobby but, as with most things that are worth doing, it has it’s challenges. On a day to day basis there is the poop and the general untidiness that is inevitable if a flock of hens are allowed to free range in a back garden. There is also, from time to time, the issue of what to do with a poorly chicken.
I have bought a total of twenty-two pullets over the five and a half years that I have been keeping hens. I have also been given one hen of indeterminate age. My two coops currently house ten girlies so, from the maths, you can work out that I have had to deal with a fair few fatalities. Some of these birds have died of natural causes, others we have dispatched to end their suffering.
I spend time with my flock every day, observing their behaviour to ensure that all is well. When a chicken is ill the signs can be fairly obvious: their stance is hunched and their manner lethargic; they will not run with the flock with their normal enthusiasm; poop may be runny or blood streaked; feathers may not be as clean and glossy as normal.
Internal injuries can be caused by egg laying. This may manifest itself with blood on the egg or the vent; it can also cause a painful looking gait. In the worst case the chicken may prolapse which is very hard to put right. Treatment is painful for the suffering hen and the risk of repeat high.
Any sign of blood on a hen will draw the rest of the flock to attack. A minor cut from a nasty peck can be disguised with gentian violet antiseptic spray, but a major injury such as a prolapse can turn a friendly flock of happy hens cannibalistic. In the worst cases that I have had to deal with I considered it kinder to dispatch the suffering bird rather than treat and then risk a possible repeat followed by likely attack if I were not on hand to remove the afflicted fowl.
Our hens are more than just egg producers but probably less than many family pets in our family ‘pecking order’. I am not a particularly sentimental sort of person but cannot bear to see any living creature suffer; deliberate cruelty, particularly to trusting animals, makes me intensely angry. However, I am fairly stoic when it comes to allowing nature to take it’s course. With my flock of chickens I will assess each situation as it arises and decide on what I think is best for the individual hen.
Unless I am convinced that the chicken is in such pain that she is suffering badly and is unlikely to recover, I will try to treat illnesses. Simple remedies such as adding poultry spice, cod liver oil and apple cider vinegar to the food and water will often be enough to aid natural recovery. Minor injuries may require that a hen be temporarily removed from the flock for her own safety but, in many cases, recovery is possible.
Sometimes I get it wrong and will come down in the morning to find that the poorly looking hen has not survived the night. It is a very unpleasant task climbing into the coop to retrieve and dispose of what had recently been a funny and feisty little character. I always wonder if it would have been kinder to dispatch. However, when a hen recovers from an illness, I am so grateful that I gave her a chance.
Hens require a warm, dry house in which to roost, plenty of open space in which to scratch and a plentiful supply of food and clean water. They thrive on routine. I would not take a hen to a vet as I feel it is kinder if I can work out for myself how to deal with each bird. The stress of travel and treatment can negate any benefit from medicine; many ailments can sort themselves out in time with minimal intervention.
After a particularly harsh winter I had three hens in my flock looking poorly and not laying. They were amongst my older girls and had each had previous issues with sniffles and deteriorating condition that I seemed to have successfully treated. During one week in the spring I lost all three of them; it was a distressing time. It seems likely that the flock picked up some bug and the weaker birds succumbed. I treated the remaining girls and put off buying the Easter pullets that I add each year until I was happy that all existing girls were well. Happily I now have a healthy flock, all of whom lay.
Commercial hen keepers recognise that a flock of hens of varying ages will be more susceptible to illness and cull all birds at a certain age, replacing the flock entirely. As a back garden hen keeper I allow my hens to run free until I feel it is not in the individual bird’s best interests to keep going. As I have said, they are more than just egg producers for my family.
The key to keeping hens in this way is the ability to dispatch a bird quickly and humanely; it is not a pleasant thing to have to do. For those keepers who regard their hens as much loved pets it would be too distressing an option so will not suit everyone. Others will not feel confident enough to do the deed themselves.
So long as my birds have been treated kindly and given a happy life then I see a quick death at the hands of a keeper who has regularly handled them as the kindest way to end suffering. I still see it as a last resort though. I much prefer to allow my birds to reach the end of their natural laying life and then enjoy a retirement spent eating, pooping and demanding respect from the younger members of the flock. Even when they are not providing us with eggs, they are still a joy to have in the garden.