How the pullets discovered a miracle cure for zombiehood : Country Matt ers

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The purchase of 10 pullets may not sound an epoch-making event - but in fact it has proved of consuming interest.

Over the years, our flock of free-range fowls had been steadily reduced, mainly by foxes for although we are careful to shut the hens up in a secure stone barn at night, we suffer occasional daylight raids, and every now and then a laggard accidentally pgets locked out, with fatal results.

Once 20-strong, and including birds of every colour from white through grey, red-brown and buff to black, the flock had been whittled down to nine hens and a snowy rooster. Last summer several raised families, but rats, cats or foxes got all the chicks before they reached maturity.

At the end of last year the survivors went into a prolonged period of zero production. All hens take time off - although with luck one or two keep laying through lean periods - but this shut-down was total.

For weeks we held out, refusing to buy eggs - something we could not remember ever doing. Then we gave in and got some from a butcher, who claimed that they were free-range. So disappointing were they - so pallid, insipid, runny, tasteless and generally revolting - that we decided to capitulate and jazz up our old girls by bringing in new recruits.

An advertisement in the local paper soon led us to a source near Bristol, and in no time my wife was back with 10 smart pullets. Neat, well-grown birds, resembling Rhode Island reds (but, in fact, hybrids), they cost £4.50 each, and were alleged to be onthe point of lay.

To describe these birds as idiotic would be to damn them with faint criticism. On arrival, they were as completely clueless as it is possible for birds to be.

They had absolutely no notion of danger: it did not strike them that if they stood under a horse's feet, they might be trampled, or that if they ambled up to a strange dog, they might be chomped. They did not even have the wit to pick up food which we threw on the ground for them. Nor did they realise that if they stood out in the rain, they soon became wet, bedraggled and cold. Worst of all, they regarded the onset of night with equanimity, and had no fear of the dark.

All this made them exceedingly vulnerable to the hazards of farm life, and for the first few days they stood around looking pathetic. It was difficult even to drive them into the barn in the evenings, so sluggish were they in responding to human pressure.

Wretched creatures - what chance had they? Brought up in a dim hut with a wire-mesh floor, they had had no contact with reality. Having never touched the earth or seen the sky, they had no conception of what the world was like. Because generations of their forebears had been reared in mindless captivity, the instinct for survival seemed to have been bred clean out of them.

Sure enough, on the fifth or sixth morning, we found tell-tale brown feathers left by a nocturnal fox-strike, and could find only eight survivors. Somehow two had been left out the previous evening, and it looked as though the fox had had a £9 dinner. But then came a minor miracle: next morning one of the defaulters reappeared - and this proved the beginning of an extraordinary transformation.

Not only did the pullets start to lay beautiful brown eggs. Primeval instincts also gradually asserted themselves as the birds discovered the power of their feet, and began to scratch about the farmyard. Realising that grass is good to eat, they took to grazing energetically, and quickly learnt that if my wife appeared on the lawn with a bucket, it meant kitchen scraps. They even started to pay attention to the orders of Whitey, the rooster, who was doing his utmost to educate them.

Their emergence from zombiehood reminded me powerfully of a scene on a trawler off the coast of Scotland. A group of young managers, arriving for an adventure course, had just been told that they were to spend their first night on an uninhabited island, with nothing to eat but the fish they could catch.

As the first mackerel came wriggling over the side, the girls in the party turned green and shrieked. Never before had they considered the awful possibility that their food might come to them alive; but, as in our chickens, instinct rose to save them, and within minutes they were knackering fish like Neander-thals, whacking off heads and slitting bellies, bloody to the elbows, as if they had done it every day of their lives.

As on that boat, so here; and now that our clueless pullets are well on the way to becoming regular farmyard hens, we shall look after them with still greater vigilance.