01 February 2012
Chickens, inside and out
We keep getting little tastes of winter, followed by warm spells. Yesterday there was an inch or two of snow on the ground in the morning, enough to keep the chickens indoors. It melted over the course of the day and by this morning the chickens were happy to scratch around in the soil of the orchard.
January was stressful in relation to the chickens, as they were being preyed upon by a nocturnal killer. We lost five hens over the course of ten days. Mike spent a lot of time hammering wire over any holes he could find in the chickens' corner of the barn. We think the killer was a stoat (or ermine, as they are known in their white winter coats), as they just drink the blood of their victims, rather than eat their flesh. All the dead birds had damage to their throats but were otherwise unharmed.
Since the carcasses were basically sound, I decided that I should use some of the meat. It seemed a waste to just dispose of the bodies. The hens range in age from one to three years old; they weren't going to suitable for roasting and I therefore decided not to go the whole plucking-and-gutting route. Instead, I removed the skin from their fronts and legs and cut the meat out. I write that very casually, but I felt very nervous and sad about it. I don't look upon the chickens as pets but cutting them up for meat wasn't something I had been planning to do.
Long, slow, cooking seemed to be the Internet's answer, along with letting the meat mature for a few days in the fridge before using it. I just added water to the chicken legs and cooked them for eight hours on my oven's slow-cooking setting (around 225°F/108°C). Afterwards, I chilled the meat so that I could take the layer of fat off. The meat was very good to eat and the resulting stock was great but I would still much rather have had the chickens alive and well and producing eggs.
It has been ten days now since we last found a dead hen, so we're hoping that the ermine has been foiled in its chicken-hunting enterprises.