The life and mysterious death of a £1m chicken

A hit-and-run attempt. A threat of strangulation. But how did Violet, the bird with a seven-figure life policy, really die?
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To her many admirers, Violet was a little cracker. Not a classical beauty, admittedly, but there was something about those black eyes and the coquettish swing of her backside as she sauntered around the village. She was also a friendly soul. She loved animals, particularly the ducks around the pond in Finchingfield, Essex. She may only have been a chicken, but such was Violet's social standing, she was included in paintings of the pretty village sold to tourists.

To her many admirers, Violet was a little cracker. Not a classical beauty, admittedly, but there was something about those black eyes and the coquettish swing of her backside as she sauntered around the village. She was also a friendly soul. She loved animals, particularly the ducks around the pond in Finchingfield, Essex. She may only have been a chicken, but such was Violet's social standing, she was included in paintings of the pretty village sold to tourists.

So residents were understandably horrified when rumours started circulating of a plot by Finchingfield Parish Council to strangle her. But their outrage was nothing compared with that of Violet's devoted owners who, despite insuring her for £1m, found her lying in their back garden, stiff as a board.

''The suspicious thing is why her body was outside her pen,'' says Violet's owner, Paula Flight, 35, who runs a bistro where chicken is now firmly off the menu. ''I always locked her up in the evenings. It was an automatic thing, like feeding my children. She couldn't have got out.''

Violet, a Rhode Island Red, became a member of the Flight household in Cornish Hall End, two miles from Finchingfield, four years ago. She was five weeks old when Mrs Flight's daughter, Jessica, then 10, brought her back from school.

It was love at first sight for all the family. ''My husband Ron built a luxury apartment in the garden,'' says Mrs Flight, sitting in her lounge, looking wistfully at a picture of Violet. ''It was five-star for a chicken.''

In October 1997, the Flights moved to Finchingfield to manage a pub, the unfortunately named Fox, which overlooks the village green. They initially tried to keep Violet in her pen, but she became so distressed her feathers started falling out, and she was soon given free rein of the bar.

''It was like opening Pandora's box,'' says Mr Flight. ''She saw the ducks on the village green and naturally assumed it was OK for her to wander around because they were. Off she would go, lording it up.''

But trouble began several months later. ''I was in the pub one day when someone came up to me and said: 'You'll never guess what's on the agenda at the parish council meeting - your chicken.' I couldn't believe it,'' Mrs Flight remembers.

At the meeting, chairman Edwin Collar read out a letter from a volunteer who looked after the war memorial, accusing Violet of encouraging the ducks to come over to the memorial from the pond. The volunteer claimed they were scattering the grass with tree bark used to keep the weeds down in the surrounding flower bed, and she had to tidy it up.

''Then one of the councillors said one cheap way to deal with it was to wring the bloody chicken's neck,'' says Mrs Flight. ''This was my daughter's pet they were talking about. I told them that Violet was not the ducks' ringleader.''

Unable to keep Violet in her pen because of the distress it caused her, the couple cleared up the bark themselves. Not long afterwards, the chicken, named after Mr Flight's grandmother, was involved in a hit-and-run. ''Violet had a particular style of crossing the road,'' explains Mrs Flight. ''She would stand at the edge, then put one foot down and run like a bat out of hell. She was running across the road when this van suddenly appeared and crossed to her side of the road. The driver most definitely aimed for her. There were feathers everywhere.'' The unmarked van has never been traced.

The Flights were so upset that they insured Violet for £1m against abduction and being eaten by Finchingfield parish councillors, or abduction by aliens. ''The aliens bit was a laugh, but the rest was to show our concern for Violet's welfare in light of what we considered an assassination attempt,'' says Mr Flight.

In July last year, when he got a job as operations manager at Stansted airport, the family moved back to Cornish Hall End. But just when they assumed Violet was out of harm's way, tragedy struck. One morning, Mrs Flight found Violet's body lying outside.

Should the Flights put in a claim for the insurance money, a DNA test would first have to be carried out on the chicken's body - now in a flower bed - to establish whether it is the insured bird. Simon Burgess, chief underwriting officer for Grip, the firm which organised the policy, says the DNA would be compared to that of a feather he has on file. Mr Burgess, a Finchingfield resident, plucked the feather from Violet's rear end after sidling up to her on the village green.

''We will pay the full amount if death is determined to have been caused by the parish council or their agent,'' he affirms.

But a payout is unlikely - Mrs Flight refuses to have Violet's body exhumed. ''Who wouldn't say 'no' to £1m? But I wouldn't let them dig her body up. She's worth more to me resting than £1m.''

Has anyone accused the family of doing Violet in, in an attempt to get their hands on her life insurance? ''No one. Everyone knows what we thought of her,'' says Mrs Flight. However painful, the question of practically disposing of the body has to be asked. ''You don't eat one of your own,'' she says archly.

Members of Finchingfield Parish Council are protesting their innocence. Chairman Edwin Collar admits the neck-wringing comment was made, but insists it meant nothing. ''It was a facetious remark made by one of the councillors. I'm sorry the chicken has passed away.''

So if it wasn't a councillor, who was it? In the Fox pub landlord Mike Paviour, who is blatantly serving roast chicken for dinner, is stony faced. ''She used to shit everywhere,'' he huffs. ''If you were sitting down for a meal, how would you like to look down and see a chicken? We don't allow animals in the bar, apart from guide dogs.''

Any idea whodunnit? ''No idea.''

Peter Curry, owner of the Antique Centre next-door, has his own theory about Violet's demise. ''She led a very privileged life. At 10 in the morning she would be waiting on the pavement for me to open the front door of the shop, and would scuttle in and take up her usual position by the counter where she would snooze or eat chocolate biscuits. She would then go outside for a little foray. There may have been something untoward about the way she died. On the other hand, she may have been confused over the change in her domestic surroundings. She may have pined for her former lifestyle.''

Perhaps, then, a broken heart - or even suicide. But the mystery of why her body was found outside her pen remains. I retrace Violet's steps to the village green she so dearly loved, cross the road where she was nearly squashed, and head to where all the trouble began. But the war memorial offers no clues. Even the ducks are no longer there. Maybe they heard the rumours...

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