25 April 2010 ~ 4 Comments

Death & dressing: killing, plucking & butchering our first chickens

On Friday night, we killed, plucked & butchered two chickens. As you do.

To be accurate, the wonderful John B and my John did the killing, then my John’s brother Chris and I joined them in plucking, then John B showed me how to dress the chicken, and then I showed Chris.

The chickens first came into our collective lives late last year as unwanted day old chicks and Chris handreared them in a make-shift nursery in his conservatory until New Year, when he had to clean out the chicken poop, ahead of the arrival of his son, Zachary on Valentine’s Day/Chinese New Year. Despite being planning/building a chicken pen/coop since we got this house last September (well, planning it since I went on a chicken course in April last year), we still weren’t ready to take them when Chris needed to get rid – and John B, who already had his own girls, offered to take in the still-unsexed chicks. He gave us regular updates about how they were doing – and a few weeks ago, his suspicions were confirmed: two of them were definitely boys. Over the last week, the boys had become somewhat randy boys and were hurting his girls with their “affection” so one way or another, they had to go. John B has been banned by his daughters from eating anything they’d named so he couldn’t do it and a friend on his allotments offered to do the deed instead – but he thought he’d give us first refusal.

When I first developed an interest in raising chickens, I considered the possibility of having to kill one and decided that it was an important thing to accept if I wanted to have hens. I doubted I’d do it just because one got a bit old or stopped laying but I expected that I might have to do it if, say, one of them was badly hurt and it would be inhumane to let it live. Then I read this great article about bringing up boys alongside girls until they reach eatin’ age (15-20 weeks). Getting only point of lay pullets means someone else somewhere along the line has had to kill the boys. If we bought hatching eggs/day old chicks, that someone would be us. When my John asked me on Thursday if I’d be ok with doing the necessary on Friday, it was a bigger version of my cat poo epiphany the day Carla & Carbs came to life with me: Carbo did a poo in the tray on the first evening and in a split second, I realised that no one else was going to help me get rid of it, that having to scoop poop was part of cat ownership – and since then, I’ve not flinched when it comes to doing my poo duties (pooties).

So at around 6:30pm on Friday, John B arrived with the boys and first one, then the other, grew a few inches taller. There was no pleasure in the killing and it was solemn & serious – which, as most people who know us in person will realise, is quite a change from normal for us. We wanted to do right by the birds and made sure they were very dead before we started plucking. In the temperate evening air, the birds cooled gradually while we pulled at the feathers. Some of the bigger ones needed to be pulled out one at a time. Others left behind a sticky residue. The light pinfeathers could be pulled out by the handful. It was still a time consuming process for us newbies, even with John B’s help and supervision. Eventually though, the chickens were bald and we took them up to the kitchen to butcher/dress them.

As it had all been a bit last minute, we hadn’t made preparations to hang them (although afterwards, we realised that our little garage would work for that in the future) and we didn’t have all the right tools for the butchering job – we had a reasonably sharp chef’s knife, a serrated-but-pretty-blunt paring knife and a block of wood but it would have been easier with super sharp, small knives, a pair of just-for-the-kitchen secateurs, and a tenderising mallet (for hitting the top of the knife). Still though, we made the best of it and I only stabbed John B twice ;) Once the head, feet and wings tips come off, it felt a lot more like handling a shop-bought chicken – less like an animal, more like food, even with the pulling-the-innards out bit. That bit actually went surprisingly easily for me and I found it fascinating how everything looked like it should look – everything was very well defined and crisply coloured, like a plastic anatomy teaching aid. The whole process wasn’t anywhere near as bloody as I expected and when I finished (including skinning it, because the skin was a bit tatty and tbh, off-putting), it looked like an actual edible chicken.

It took us just shy of three hours from start to finish – from the chickens arriving to having two ready for the oven – which wouldn’t get us hired at a chicken farm but I didn’t think it was too bad since most of the work was being done by first timers. The whole process was far from fun, it wasn’t how I’d choose to spend a Friday night, and I don’t think we’ll be doing it regularly but it wasn’t as horrific as I thought it might be and we’ve accepted that we’ll have to do it again – and we’re ok with that. We won’t start raising chickens for meat – certainly not here anyway, we haven’t the room to make it worthwhile – but as a side effect of laying, we’ve accepted that it’s inevitable.

I expect we’ll get better at plucking and butchering, and as a result, will be able to use increasingly more of the chicken. As it was, we used all the breast & leg meat (from ours) to make a lovely big curry tonight, the cats & dog had the fried livers & hearts between them on Friday night, Chris took all the feet home with him and the rest of our carcass will end up as soup via stock. I think we’ll be able to save more of the innards once we’re more comfortable poking around that whole mess and more of the neck/wings when we get better at plucking. Not fun-fun, but very interesting.

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