Jason Goodwin: ‘Twice I’ve given chase to a fox with a bird in its jaws in broad daylight and won the bird back’

Our spectator columnist muses about the futility of hen ownership, given the large number of predators and their uncanny ability to break into the most fortified pen.

Do I see hens?’ A friend asks, looking towards the fruit cage at the bottom of the garden. ‘How long have you had hens?’

‘How long? Hens?’ I suppress my outrage. A friend should know we’ve had hens for years. Forever. Not the same ones, obviously, thanks to fox, badger and human carelessness, rather than the natural lifespan of the hen, but we’ve had ducks, geese, and guineafowl all our adult lives. We had hens even before we had children.

In the final countdown to parenthood, something started visiting the hens at night to rip out their throats. Twice, I found the uneaten corpses in the morning and, a few hours after I became a father, a commotion outside propelled me into the hen house.

‘A life for a life: I call it my Lawrentian moment.’

I stepped inside, closing the door behind me. In the semi-darkness, the birds were fluffed with fright and a big rat bared its teeth in one corner.

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He raced around the walls, but I killed him on the spot with a loose brick. A life for a life: I call it my Lawrentian moment. Stella Gibbons would have agreed: there really was something nasty in the woodshed.

Certainly, the basse-cour exists in a darker sphere, persistently stalked by death and night fears. Twice I’ve given chase to a fox with a bird in its jaws in broad daylight and won the bird back, but the tally is stacked in favour of the predator. Of the geese, there was one we ate and one that died, but the last was nothing but a pair of beautiful white wings in the long grass.

Isolated rooster seen perched on a stable door during early evening in an old Wendy house. A hen can also be seen perched on the top door.

The hen run belongs to the dark side, too, banished to a far corner of the walled garden by the compost heap. As Beatrix Potter writes of Mr Tod’s house: ‘There were many unpleasant things lying about that had much better have been buried… It was a shocking place, and very dark.’

Our birds roost in a Wendy house, with a blue door and a pair of little glazed windows, abandoned by the children of the previous tenants. We found it rotting down by the compost heap, under a tar paper roof. Nothing could be more sinister than its twee decrepitude.

The perches are wedged from front to back and the planks apparently chewed away by rats, over a dirt floor. I know there are rats because I feel their soft channels underfoot beyond the wire, in the grass.

‘Every night, we shut the cage door. One night, we will forget.’

Although the door won’t close, the little house is wedged up in a corner of the fruit cage, which is encased in wire netting. Of course, the fruit cage is hopeless now for fruit – huge nettles flourish between the nodding canes and the hens get all the berries first.

Each morning, they emerge onto a bit of lawn that they’ve scratched away to nothing.

I gave them an elderly bale of straw to play with, which they’ve managed to spread across their pen. They take shelter under a wild rose bush whenever they feel nervous and, every night, we shut the cage door. One night, we will forget.

Sablepoot Hen Chicken

They’re not the loveliest hens we’ve had (that prize goes to a trio of tiny lavender bantams, like Victorian gloves, who went when the diminutive cock lost a fight with a badger).

Two are rescue birds, two are bantams, there’s a fierce Maran, a buff bird with a beard and a dainty Faverolle and they’re all terrorised by a handsome cock with loutish manners and splendid tail feathers.

They have one advantage over the dark recesses of my subconscious mind: in their clapped-out rabbit hutch stuffed with straw, with a bent tin sheet as a roof, they lay eggs as smooth as untroubled thoughts.