As scholarly readers of the Cornish Guardian, and William Shakespeare, will know, Hamlet was not talking about chickens when he said “I must be cruel only to be kind.”
I must however confess to a degree of Hamlet-style melancholia whenever I have to cull any of my poultry.
It is a sad fact of any agricultural venture that livestock, from time to time, develop illnesses or injuries which cannot reasonably be put right. And in those circumstances, it is in my humble opinion a kindness to end the suffering.
Last month I had to observe one of my chickens which had developed a pronounced limp. There was no obvious reason, but this bird stopped using her perch and instead roosted in one of the nest boxes. She struggled to get out of the coup in the morning and hobbled painfully, and slowly, towards her food and drink.
There was no sign of any infection, but I nevertheless put her into a separate run and waited to see what happened. Luckily, after three weeks, she showed signs of improvement and is now restored to the company of her very healthy sisters.
Not every instance has such a happy ending. Although I do not cull birds simply because they get old and stop laying eggs, very rarely one of the chickens develops a virus-like illness which prompts a rapid decline. And in those circumstances, I wring the unfortunate animal’s neck.
Readers of a nervous disposition might want to stop here. Others might be interested to know that the final moments of these birds are protected by the 2015 WATOK regulations.
These are the Welfare of Animals at the Time Of Killing rules and govern such exotic details as the correct procedure to adopt when slaughter is carried out in accordance with specific religious requirements – which sometimes means an animal cannot be stunned before death.
The British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and the National Secular Society all want to see an end to the religious slaughter of animals or to slaughter without pre-stunning.
But you can imagine the controversy this causes amongst British Muslims and Jews – some of whom warn that any such ban would drive those who observe religious dietary laws out of the UK. For many of the UK’s almost three million Muslims, halal slaughter is a strict religious requirement, as is eating kosher for many of the UK’s 300,000 Jews.
There are some animal welfare groups whose position on culling and slaughter leads them to promote vegetarianism.
I’m pleased to report that such controversies seldom cause any loss of sleep in St Mabyn. A primary consideration is how much time elapses between capture and death – the period during which an animal might be caused additional distress.
I know that some groups advocate the use of an electronic stun tool – which renders the bird unconscious after less than one second. A common method of despatch is to then cut the chicken’s throat, although it can then take up to 30 seconds for the bird to die. Should it fail to die in that time, there is a risk it might regain consciousness.
I think if any of my poultry was still flapping after more than 10 seconds I would need to re-examine my technique.
It’s a grim business, bringing a degree of distress to all concerned. It’s one of those areas which tends to puncture the myth of the rural idyll. But I have to say to anyone contemplating keeping a few chickens – the very first thing you need to know is that at some point, you will have to manage the last 10 seconds.