Angie Aspinall: The year of the chicken

Posted on June 7, 2012

It may seem a bit late to do this now but I’m declaring 2011 to be ‘The Year of the Chicken’. In April 2011, I suffered a devastating blow: I suddenly lost almost all of my hearing over the course of a few hours. You may wonder what this has to do with chickens. But bear with me and all will be revealed.

After the sudden deafness, I had weeks of vertigo and sickness. I slowly started to regain my balance but not my overall equilibriums (in life). In August 2011, it was declared that’s my deafness would be permanent and that my left ear could not be helped by a hearing aid. They called it a ‘dead ear’. This was a hell of a lot to take in as I had already suffered a slow, progressive hearing loss in my right ear over the preceding decade so, I started to think I might need to learn sign language. I also thought it might be a good idea to get a hearing dog.

You see, I’d I started to have panic attacks; sometimes at the thought of suddenly losing what little hearing I had in my right ear, other times at the thought of an acoustic neuroma and other times, the panic just came for no known reason: I just felt overwhelmed and simply terrified. I started to reason that having a dog – any dog- would make me feel less panicky and more secure. I started to long for a dog.

I have never had a dog and, as my husband, quite rightly pointed out – my knowledge of dogs as pets mainly comes from watching The Lady and the Tramp (Disney cartoon) as a child. He said if I really wanted a dog, we would get one. But he then pointed out all the downsides – the early morning walks, the evening walks, the vets’ bills, the dog hair – and of course the dog poo, which I would have to pick up.

My husband then came up with what I thought at the time was a bit of an odd suggestion, which was, “Why don’t we get some chickens instead?” Now I have kept birds before – canaries and zebra finches and I love birds but when it came to chickens, I was a bit sceptical about how much of a pet they would actually be; I mean you can’t exactly cuddle a chicken can you? And they have really scary feet, right?

Richard extolled the virtues of chickens as pets and as he had had them before, he could speak with some authority. I started to come round to the idea. I mean at least their poo would be contained in the chicken house and I wouldn’t have to pick it up in a little plastic bag.

So, I read up on chickens and we decided to go for it. We ordered a chicken house and it all took my mind off the impending MRI scan and results. (The doctors were looking for a brain tumour – an acoustic neuroma – as a possible cause for my deafness.) So, then I started to read as many magazine articles and books about chickens as I could: it was a good displacement activity.

On the day the chicken house went up, we were ready with our layers’ pellets, food and drink containers, sawdust and bark chippings. (Chippings proved to be a big mistake but that’s another story.) We’d decided we wanted three bantams but we were having difficulty finding anywhere local that sold the varieties we were after. We were so impatient to become chicken owners that we decided to go to a local farm shop just to look at their non-bantam hybrids and full-size pure breeds. (Just to look, of course.) We also made an appointment to see a chicken breeder later that evening.

At the farm shop, there were over two hundred hens. How on earth could we pick? I was completely overwhelmed and they all seemed really big with big, scary dinosaur feet. A guy offered to catch us a couple to have a better look. He came back with one upside down, held by its feet. It didn’t look much like a pet – more like a Sunday dinner in waiting. He put it in a box and showed us another. Neither looked all that appealing and I was beginning to think little bantams would be the way to go but, as we have made an appointment at the other place, we felt we should at least show up.

We arrived before the owner so, we decided to have a look around. There were plenty of small cute ones – chicks and pullets (young chickens) – to choose from and this was much more appealing. These actually looked as though they could become pets.

A ginger one seemed to be seen particularly keen to befriend me and there was also one pure white one, which was smaller than all the others that I thought particularly friendly too. Richard was taken with the Bluebelles (pretty grey chickens) and so we started to think about a Bluebelle and either the ginger one or the white one – and just stick to two. Our chicken house seems too small for three of this size.

When Jody (the owner) arrived, she explained that all the birds in the coop we had looked at were all roughly the same age, all hybrids and good layers, docile and ideal pets. Her advice was to choose which colours we liked.

Richard, being more confident than me, chose a Bluebelle to look at. Jody caught one and gave it to him to hold. I mentioned that I liked the small white one and I asked what it was. She said it was called an Anne Boleyn. “Oh, dear,” I said, “That’s not a very good name for a chicken. She got her head chopped off.” Jody looked confused. No wonder: the chicken was called an ‘Amber Links’ not an Anne Boleyn! That’s deafness for you.

The next thing I know, Jody had grabbed the Amber Links and was proffering it to me saying, “Have you ever held a chicken before?” I admitted I hadn’t, so she showed me how to hold one and passed her to me. The pullet was so warm and soft and calm, not flapping or struggling at all. From that moment on, it was obvious we’d be going home with two chickens – and that this would be one of them!

They were popped into a cardboard box and we transported them to their new home. I held each one while Richard clipped their flight feathers and then we put them into the coop. Both started eating straightaway and appeared to be utterly unphased by being uprooted from all they had previously known.

Over the coming weeks, Amber and Bluebell provided the perfect distraction for me throughout my period of convalescence, scans, results and coming to terms with the serious news that I had not a tumour but two inter-cranial aneurysms – totally unrelated to the deafness but discovered during the scan. The hens gave me something to get up for in the morning and when I went back to work, they gave me so much to look forward to at the end of the day.

In my memory, 2011 will be the worst year of my life but, it will also be ‘The Year of the Chicken’. My husband and I spent warm summer evenings with the hens happily pecking at our feet as we enjoyed deep-fried courgette flowers from our allotment. And, once the cold weather arrived, I discovered the pleasure of collecting still warm eggs on a cold winter’s morning.

Our hens are totally cosseted pets. They get cooked vegetable peelings or porridge in winter and fresh greens in spring and summer. They eat most kitchen scraps and turn them into eggs. But most of all ‘chicken therapy’ has given me a reason to get up and also given me a calmer disposition. There is nothing like cuddling a chicken to chase the blues away. Of course you can cuddle a chicken: I do it almost every evening! And as for dinosaur feet – well, when Amber curls her toe round my finger when I hold her, it’s like a baby holding your finger – cute and warm and kind of nice!

Angie is journalist, food and travel writer, photographer and co-founder of #Yorkshirehour on Twitter – as well as having a full-time job in local government.  She’s also a wife, chicken-keeper, gardener, foodie and WI member, living in Glorious Yorkshire.  Angie started going deaf in one ear at the age of 30, then suffered total sudden onset hearing loss in her ‘good’ ear in 2011.  Her husband and her chickens keep her sane – or as close as she’s gonna get! You can check out her websiteblogtwitter accountFacebook and Linked In.
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