My mother-in-law returned from Spain with eggs from feral Galician chickens, smuggled in in a cornflake box. We hatched them under our broody hen, hoping they would replace the chicks that had been murdered by foxes. But half of this batch was male and, as the chickens grew, war broke out in the once-peaceful and all-female run.
Cockfighting is rather exciting. It’s easy to understand why our bored ancestors were thrilled to watch these murderous ninja birds. But if blood sports seemed inappropriate in our south London garden, so did wringing the young cockerels’ necks.
Eventually, we persuaded a friend who once worked on a poultry farm to do the twist-and-pull. We killed two and plucked and gutted them, but no one wanted to eat them so I had to throw them away.
We let one male live and my elder son, who was then around 12 and obsessed with reruns of The Good Life, called him Lenin. He grew into a nursery-book rooster: deep auburn plumage, flamboyant tail and scarlet comb.
Lenin, however, was an utter bastard. When you went to feed the hens he’d rush out and kick your legs, ripping them with the sharp spurs on his feet. We learned to go armed with a broom handle.
As the patriarch of six hens and the two white ducks that my son had hatched in an incubator from eggs bought at Sainsbury’s, he was a brutal tyrant. He screwed the smallest, sweetest chicken so violently that he ripped the feathers off her back. With a cross-species broad-mindedness, he savagely f***ed the ducks.
Then there was the noise. At first, we thought it amusing that our neighbourhood rang with cock-a-doodle-doos. But it wasn’t at all funny by spring, when Lenin was up throatily greeting the sunrise at 5am.
Every evening, someone would ask, “Have you put the cock away?” The drill was this: grab Lenin, hold down his razor-blade feet, then stow him under a box in the shed. If he couldn’t see daylight, we were told, he wouldn’t crow. But neighbours were still woken up by his distant, strangulated cries. In the morning, we would gingerly lift the box and find him furious.
This couldn’t go on. His comb looked awry, his plumage greasy. No one had slept well for months. I proposed inviting over our chicken-strangler friend but everyone was appalled. So I made a secret plan. One night, while my son was away on a school trip, I crept down to the run, seized Lenin and threw him over the fence into my neighbour’s garden, where the foxes lived. I went inside and told no one.
I barely slept that night. I kept thinking I could hear Lenin. I told myself I’d given him a gladiator’s chance: maybe he’d fly up a tree and ninja the foxes. I vowed to let him live if he survived. The next morning, the cock didn’t crow.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain