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.

The first thing I noticed about the meat was the colour of the fat around the legs: a really bright yellow, not at all like the fat you see on the meat of the young chickens which are normally offered for sale. The leg meat was also much darker, although the breast meat looked much the same. I'd never cooked meat from such a (relatively) old bird, so I spent a little while researching the best way of doing that.

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.


Lisa from Iroquois, ON said...

Any chance you noticed paw prints or scat and took pictures? We had something here, figured it was maybe a weasel. Lost one hen. Whatever it was tried to drag it down a rat hole and when my hubby pulled it out it hissed and snarled. There was only one bloody wound to the head. I've seen prints in the snow but we've lost no further hens so I'm hoping it's opted for rats instead of hens.

Linda said...

I love reading about your 'adventures.' GOOD for you in using those chickens for food. I would not have a clue how to do that. I have only met 'dinner' chickens at the grocery store! Although my stepson lives in the country and has some really gorgeous chickens. I love seeing them when we visit him. Chickens and roosters are seriously BEAUTIFUL! Guess that's why they are so popular in prints and paintings.

Amanda said...

Lisa - no, there were no tracks in the snow outside. I think the thing must be living in the barn. We've had something occasionally making a nest in the chicken's food container for several months (it's been dragging dropped feathers into the top of the plastic container). Since strengthening the defences, that's stopped happening, so I'm assuming it's the same beast.

I spotted an ermine in the barn this time last year, so am fairly sure that's what it is.