Spectator: Birds of a feather

Lucy Baring can't count on chickens.

Sale commences at 9am sharp with the Deadstock.’ At a livestock auction, this can mean anything from a tin poultry sign to a picnic basket, but I bypass it and head towards ‘hatching eggs’, where trestle tables are piled with eggs in boxes and I pass a man patting his beaming boy on the arm as they leave with half a dozen Silkie Bantam eggs. ‘You did well there son,’ he says. ‘Well done.’

I follow them towards the live poultry, where the noise of chickens, bantams, pheasants, guineafowl, turkeys, quail, ducks and geese compete with the different hammers going down. More than 1,800 lots are up for auction this morning and the place is teeming with people, some of whose faces and I’m not being fanciful bear a striking resemblance to the birds.

I pass people carrying cages that were designed to carry dogs and cats but are now stuffed with fowl and then I’m delighted to bump into my sister-in-law rushing in the opposite direction, flushed with success because she’s bought four pairs of hens. The rush is partly because she’s running late and partly because she needs to head back to help her daughter’s boyfriend, who’s currently attempting to wrangle chickens into boxes on her behalf.

I follow in her trail as she whooshes into the office, pays, buys a cardboard box for £2.50 and whooshes back to the auction shed, where cages of birds are stacked skywards and the bids keep coming in. She skillfully manouevres through the crowd to find her pair of Buff Orpingtons and then asks if I can handle them into the box because, she declares with her usual candour, she’s terrified of picking them up. I shake my head because I don’t like picking them up either and couldn’t possibly be relied on in the current circumstances.

We ask the young girl with the asymmetric fringe and the hi-viz jacket that says ‘staff’ if she could help, but she too shakes her head and says she’s never picked up a chicken in her life and she’s not about to start now. We cast about and approach two men, to whom Lucy explains that she’s terrified of handling hens. I expect them to roll their eyes at our incompetence, but they couldn’t have been happier to help and expertly transfer the hens from cage to box in seconds.

Lucy asks if the hens will lay soon and the older man tells us one will and one won’t. ‘How do you know?’ we ask and he explains how to feel the hen between her legs where, if she’s laying, there will be an opening between the bones wide enough to fit two fingers. Neither of us offer our fingers as he examines the second hen, which he says is still closed.

He asks what was paid for the hens and then nods ‘about right’ when we tell him. Just then, another pair of hens goes for more than double the amount and I ask what was so special about them, wondering if breeds go in and out of fashion, so that Cream Legbars or Black Arau-cana are fetching a premium this spring.

He assures me there’s no fashion in poultry, but ‘there’s two women who want the same birds and are outbidding each other’. He sucks on his teeth: ‘They bid £132 for a pair earlier.’ And he shakes his head at the folly of the auction mindset, with which I am, unfortunately, familiar.I ask if he’s buying today, but he doesn’t hear me as he’s staring wistfully at a black hen. ‘Chicken missed his bid,’ says his friend.

‘Sorry?’ I reply, confused. ‘Chicken that’s his name. He’s always been called Chicken ’cos he’s always kept ’em, since he was a lad. But he missed his bid on that hen.’ I look at Chicken, who is staring unblinkingly at the hen, which stares unblinkingly back. ‘I just liked the look of her,’ he sighs.