In The Sticks: Murder most fowl

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The Independent Culture
I'D BEEN ignoring our potential population problem, hoping that this year's crop of mixed-marriage chook offspring would be solely female. But when three out of five of them began crowing last week the issue had to be tackled. It wouldn't be so bad if they were cockerels numbers one to three, but they are numbers three to six, and six dear little heralds to the rising sun of the new rural day are five too many.

In theory there are two easy and practical solutions to our excess of avian alarm clocks. We could sell some, but people only want to buy pure- bred cockerels - Light Sussex, Marrans, Plymouth Rocks and Spangled Hamburgs. What we have are Heinzes, because Bunny and I have never been ruthless enough in our chicken acquisition. We started with a trio of Silver Laced Wyandotts - two girls and a splendid boy - but we were too soft-headed and took in strays and orphans whose racial origins were lost in the straw at the bottom of the henhouse.

In itself that need not have spelt the end to our eugenic plans, but our chooks were wanton: the Wyandotte girls were panting over a bit of rough (part Pekin, part Hamburg, part Bruce Springsteen) called Pie, who'd jump on their backs the moment their rightful hubby had his beak down in the cabbage patch. Hubby meanwhile developed a fancy for the fat feathery bottom of one of Pie's wives. They'd creep into the greenhouse together but were always careful to leave at different times, so I think I was the only one to know about their affair. Sadly hubby's illicit amour didn't sustain him and he died of an infection after a huge showdown with Pie, who had been brought up in a rough yard and knew how to fight dirty, whereas hubby only understood Queensberry Rules.

The other solution was invented by French peasant farmers who often found themselves in this position at the end of the breeding season. It's called coq au vin, and although I am entirely in favour of it, Bunny is not. I considered simply doing for the roosters one weekend while Bunny was with her dad, but I'm just not a good enough liar. The upshot of all this intrigue is that four generations down the line we have two ancient pure-breeds and a whole load of pretty but unmarketable stock that we can't even give away because no one is as daft as we were, and no one will take in cockerels without a pedigree - and Doug can't be relied upon to shut up about a good dinner.

The debate about what to do went on all last week and some of it must have been overheard and partially understood by the dogs, because on Friday they took action of their own. Either that or the crowing before first light has been getting to them, too. We knew they were up to something because they kept disappearing into the hedge behind the chicken shed. Naively we imagined that No was initiating Dog into the mysterious terrier world of rat-catching. We never guessed they were practising a grand deception.

I was away from home on Friday, and Doug had to fetch the kids from school. Just before he was due to leave, Dog and No vanished and refused even to yip in response to calls. Faithful to his step-parent-in-waiting duties, Doug drove off to school. It must have been as they heard the car go up the lane that Dog and No came out of hiding behind the shed, stalked through the unmown grass and ambushed Pie and his two fat-bummed girls.

When Doug returned with Bunny and Buster there were, as they say, signs of a struggle: blood-spattered feathers lay across the footings for the greenhouse and the chicken house door hung loose on its hinges. A search revealed the corpse of Minty, the oldest and fattest hen, with fatal wounds consistent with the use of collie teeth as the murder weapon. Pie and Clara were missing and we assume the criminals removed the corpses for dismemberment away from the murder site.

Two hours later Dog and No came home, claiming to have been rabbiting. Doug split them up and interviewed them separately. In true NYPD Blue style he extracted a confession - in the form of a bolus of coughed-up feathers - within 10 minutes from the less hardened case, Dog. No was reluctant to reveal his involvement but when he too was sick, his guilt became obvious. By the time I got home they'd been refused bail and locked in the cloakroom for the night.

I think it was the clear deception and planning that shocked Doug so much. He could have coped with a crime of passion - "I'm a terrier, Your Honour, I just couldn't help meself"; "It's my collie nature, sir, I thought I'd just chase 'em a bit, but it all got out of hand" - but premeditated murder was almost beyond forgiveness.

My feelings were distinctly mixed: they could at least have killed three cockerels. To my surprise Bunny didn't shed a tear; I think she could be stiffening her pure-breeding resolve.

"It's three fewer Heinzes," she said. "We've got room for some Light Sussex now." Yeah. Sure. And how long before one of Pie's grandsons is siring more cocks in the back of the greenhouse with one of the Sussex uptown girls? I'd give it about three weeks.