The first of an occasional series on chickens.We had lunch outside in the stable yard at Marsh Hall yesterday, since it was too sunny to waste an hour sitting in the dark and slightly cold tack room. Two upturned crates made a fine table. We are talking about chickens and Annie mentions that a college outside Northampton offers a short course on the wringing of a chicken's neck. Fran, who is the most tranquil of the Thursday volunteer gardeners, is a chicken trader. 'I get my husband to wring their necks now,' she says wistfully. 'I'm not as strong as I used to be.'
Annie has recently taken delivery of a couple of Liver Birds from Fran (some chickens from Liverpool). They are not rescued battery hens but rescued free range chickens. Beg pardon? They need to be rescued, Fran explains, because they live very close together, often inside. This is not the fault of the mean old farmer. 'Bully hens' will gang up and block the doorway so the other chickens can't get out. When the hens who do make it outside want to get back in to lay, their path is blocked by the same.
Fran talks of her 'middle aged' hens who want to go to bed early. They sit by disapprovingly, bitching about the younger ones who rush around the field 'clubbing' and having as much fun as possible before being forced inside. Not being a chicken person I am struck by the readiness of chicken folk to attribute their birds with human qualities. The older hens stand around in their curlers and hair nets, allegedly. And it is not difficult to imagine them spoiling things for the young free range chickens, like the militant mothers at the school gates, puffing away on their fags and blowing smoke into the faces of the reception class as they skip by.
So, where can a person buy proper free range eggs these days? 'Well, I have plenty,' says Fran, slightly amazed at the question. And there you have it: you don't buy free range eggs from a supermarket, obviously - you keep chickens. Or even better, make friends with somebody whose chickens roam freely and lay eggs rather too often.