The answer quickly becomes obvious. With their heads down and fluffy backsides
pointing temptingly skyward as they concentrate on finding the imaginary food,
Svenson is free to make his move.
However he goes about it, the pleasure is all Svenson’s, not least because of the
bony spurs that jut from the back of his legs like a pair of scythes. They can do a lot
of damage — which is why we have fitted our poor hens with a ‘chicken saddle’, a
hefty piece of yellow canvas designed to protect the bird’s back from a vicious
Getting a struggling chicken’s wings through the elasticated straps generates much
mutual stress. And since the idea of repeating the process with all of our flock
doesn’t appeal to me, I usually concentrate on the bird most likely to be alighted
on by Svenson. In other words, poor old Meringue.
After one particularly athletic, if unsuccessful, coming together (which involved a
flying leap, a cockerel doing the splits and some issues over his braking distances),
Svenson slid over the top of his intended and ended up in a heap in the grass. In
doing so, he rucked up and pulled the chicken saddle over Meringue’s head,
making her look as if she was wearing a large Amish bonnet.
But for her and the other hens favoured by Svenson, there are, at least, some perks.
Like all dominant cockerels, he decides who gets to eat first, and his girlfriends are
always high in the pecking order. Those who aren’t his favourites receive a sharp
jab with his beak if they pile in ahead of their turn, and, one summer, I noticed that
he was bullying one of our oldest hens, seven-year-old Brahms. She had long given
up laying, and showed no sign of broodiness to hatch out anyone else’s eggs. In
the unreconstructed world of the hen house, that made her surplus to requirements
our cockerel certainly seemed to find her a turn-off.
Meal-times became a battleground, with Svenson chasing Brahms away from the
food. One day I picked her up and discovered that underneath her plumage, she
had become a skinny bird with fragile bones under thin wrinkled skin.
We eventually solved the problem by chivvying Brahms towards her own private
food supply at meal-times, but not before I had made an idiot of myself by going
for Svenson whenever he went for her. Pretending to be a large chicken and
flapping my hands up and down, I ran after him shouting things like: ‘Go away,
you git!’
Since we have high wooden fences, I knew none of the neighbours could see this.
But I had forgotten that workmen building an extension to our house had a
panoramic view of the garden from their scaffolding. Nothing was said, but the
silence which greeted me afterwards spoke volumes. They clearly thought I was
That impression was no doubt confirmed by another chase a few weeks later, once
again involving Svenson but with an unexpected twist. This was thanks to Jane. My
beloved eventually persuaded me that having a flock of a dozen or so chickens in
our garden — not to mention a family of doves, our cat Mollie and dog Hoover —
was not enough.