Mother hen’s chickens come home to roost

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

THE author EB White once said: “I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.”

Well, after a week looking after four hens for a friend who went away on holiday, I do.

And just to prove to you that literature has the upper hand and that I’m not the only one to fall foul of the fowl – here are some suitable poultry-inspired English sayings which sum up my last seven days: I’ve fallen to the bottom of the pecking order, ended up with egg on my face and had my feathers ruffled.

And if that wasn’t enough, I was so wildly optimistic about my abilities to manage a few birds that I counted my chickens before they had hatched.

My friend ran through what needed to be done – clean water, fresh food, a sprinkling of corn and any leftover veg.

I was to let them out of the coop in the morning and then pop them back in the evening.

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The day before my duties were to commence, the big black hen started pecking the feathers out of her three companions and had to be separated in a neighbouring pen to avoid further confrontation.

The two enclosures each had their own coop and were divided by a piece of mesh wire.

I was to make sure the naughty chicken stayed in her own space at all times.

“Leave it to me,” I said. “No problem at all. We will be fine. Enjoy your holiday.”

I have to admit I was rather looking forward to my week as mother hen.

“If it goes well, I might get a few birds myself,” I thought.

Some 500,000 British households now keep chickens, with celebrities including Sadie Frost, Billie Piper, Jamie Oliver and Kirsty Gallagher among them.

Keeping chickens is also a pastime of royalty: Prince Charles is patron of The Poultry Club and the Duchess of Devonshire has published a book on the hens she kept through childhood, called Counting My Chickens.

The first part of my chicken-sitting week was fairly uneventful.

My son and daughter loved letting them out of their coops each morning, watching them stretch their necks into the sunshine and clucking as they searched for their food bowl.

The more passive of the four hens – a white one called Josie – even let my daughter hold her while my son fed her pieces of celery.

It all started to go wrong on day four.

It was late afternoon and we had returned, armed with vegetables for our feathered friends, to tuck them up for the night.

But as we entered the garden, I could see something wasn’t right.

All four chickens were in the same pen for starters. And as three cowered in one corner, the invader – the big, black one – was strutting back and forth, dishing out spiteful pecks.

It didn’t take me long to realise she had jumped the fence and that it was down to me to get her back to her own enclosure.

First I tried to pick her up. But she ran about absurdly, darting between my legs.

Finally I managed to get close enough to put my hands over her wings but she retaliated with her sharp beak.

“OK,” I said. “You win.”

I reached for a tub of mealworms. Placing a single dried bug at my feet, I watched her as she cocked her head on one side, weighing up the delights of the treat with the risk of capture.

I took a step back and placed another bug on the ground. She started to follow me, scooping up each offering.

It took me the best part of an hour and half a tub of mealworms but finally I got her back into her pen.

“Ha,” I said, dusting my hands on my jeans. “I’m getting the hang of this.”

But then I turned round.

My two-year-old son was holding the gate to the main enclosure open and the three remaining hens, ecstatic that they had been rescued from the clutches of the bully, were dancing their way out into the garden, running around like, well, like headless chickens.

I started flinging mealworms wildly in all directions. “Don’t let them into the neighbour’s garden,” I yelled as I grabbed the grey lavender before she hopped onto the compost bin and over the fence.

“Don’t scare them,” I shouted as I caught up with the white one in the vegetable patch.

“Where’s the orange one gone?” I groaned as I started searching behind the shed.

“She’s getting away, mummy,” shrieked my son, pointing to the garden gate.

And sure enough, the bird had hopped over onto the gravel drive and was flapping her way towards the road.

Quick as a flash, I got between her and the pavement.

We eyed each other up and down.

I took a step forward. She took a step back.

And just then a car drove past and the noise gave her such a fright she forgot she was in the middle of a great escape and scurried back to the safety of her pen.

Later that night I was filling my husband in on the near disaster.

“So,” he chuckled when we had finished. “Why did the chicken nearly cross the road?”

“To get to the other side,” piped up my daughter, grinning.

“Very funny,” I replied.

But the joke – or should I say yolk? – was definitely on me.

Email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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