One of the reasons why we wanted to raise chickens was because of the appalling way most meat birds are raised. We’d changed from buying free-range eggs to organic only while living in the UK, where “free-range” doesn’t legally come anywhere near what most people consider it to mean. But, stupidly, we’d never really thought much about the living conditions of meat birds. Jo had even raised some at school, as part of her Agriculture class.
Warning: short rant follows.
It wasn’t until we started watching Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall and doing a bit of reading around that we learned what sort of conditions are considered acceptable by the big producers:
- Genetically obese F1-hybrid birds.
- Grow too fast for their bones to be able to support their weight, so they spend the last few weeks shuffling on their hocks.
- Slaughtered at five to six weeks old, with two weeks needed at the end of each ‘cycle’ to re-sterilise the pens.
- Allowable stocking density of 17 birds per square metre; which equates to each bird having less space than an A4 piece of paper.
- No access to the outdoors, no natural light, only one hour of darkness per ‘day’.
And yes, that’s how they do it in Australia and New Zealand too. No wonder supermarket chicken is flavourless. Do you want to put that into your body?
Walking the Walk.
We buy organic products wherever we can. It’s a moral and philosophical choice. (Forget about gimmicks – it’s the only system that rewards farmers who take the extra time and effort to farm without shortcuts.) We also try to grow things for ourselves – we already had the vegie garden(s) and the orchard. Eggs were the next step. The logical progression was to raise our own birds for meat. We’d certainly always thought it was the right thing to do – complete control over the animal’s welfare, and then control over the manner of its death. Logical, rational, sensible. But could we bring ourselves to do it?
At the end of August 2007, having laid sixty-odd eggs, Bessie went broody. We decided to buy some fertile eggs of a meat breed, and try to Walk the Walk. Raise them to slaughter weight (around 18 weeks old), dispatch the boys and sell the girls.
There are a number of good meat breeds amongst the pure breeds. White Plymouth Rocks were part of the genetic cocktail of the modern broilers, so they were an option. Rhode Island Reds are a good dual purpose breed, and we thought we should be able to sell any hens fairly easily. But there was an uncommon old breed that we liked the sound of: the Dorking.
Dorkings dated back to the time of the Roman Invasion of Britain, and used to be considered one of the very best meat birds – Queen Victoria was apparently very partial to Dorking breast-meat. They tend to be very big bodied, but comparatively short legged. Supposed to grow reasonably quickly too (being in an urban area, we aren’t allowed to have roosters: so they needed to grow to slaughter weight before they started crowing).
Full details of the eggs and the chicks can be read here. Suffice to say, we ended up with only three boys, and none of them were Dorkings. Sigh!
Dispatching the Boys.
The day of reckoning came a sooner than we’d anticipated. Fifteen and a half weeks. Sky and Basil had started bullying some of the girls, so we’d had to separate them. Then Sky started crowing. All three were at a reasonable weight, so we decided to go ahead.
We kept them in the broody overnight, with no feed. We’d set everything up in the garage – sharpened the axe, made a chopping block, set up a trestle table, put down a tarp, got heaps of buckets (for blood, heads, entrails, feathers and clean water) and printed out a very handy article from the Backyard Poultry Forum.
They were all quite relaxed and unstressed. We started at about 6 am, so they were still a bit sleepy. We brought them into the garage, one at a time, said thank you, said goodbye, and did the deed. That was the only bit we’d really worried about – making sure everything was quick and painless. And it was.
The Mucky Bits.
We decided to try to dry-pluck. We had water ready for scalding if we needed it (in a 25 L homebrewing mash-kettle), but managed to do a pretty good job without. Jo’s grandmother had taught her how to pluck and gut chickens when she was a little girl, so that part was no drama.
It was fascinating to cut open the gizzards, and see what they had in them. Buster had managed to pick up a metal button from somewhere, and Basil had a nice collection of plum stones.
We buried the entrails in the garden, composted the feathers and blood, and put the boys (cleaned, rinsed, dried, and wrapped in plastic bags) into the fridge to age for 48 hours. Necks etc were frozen for stock.
We kept Buster in the fridge for a week, and then roasted him for dinner the following Saturday night, with a bottle of very nice Chardonnay. And he was beautiful! Not stringy or tough, and with the most amazing flavour. The muscling was completely different too – much bigger wings, and the breast meat was much much longer, but not so dense or ‘fluffy’. Big, meaty drumsticks, and the ‘oysters’ very much larger as well. Nothing was wasted – we had leftover meat in risotto and sandwiches, and bones etc are in the freezer, waiting to be made into stock.
I know they say you should never name an animal that you intend to eat. And maybe it strikes other people as odd, that I can talk about “eating Buster” or “cooking Sky”. But … they were individuals. They deserved names. And although we (I admit it) did shed the odd tear during and after, I don’t think it made us any less kind or effective. I know, with absolute certainty, that they had full and happy lives, and good deaths. None of us shirked any part of the process. A bit of sadness on our part doesn’t seem a bad price.
Would/will we do it again?