Tuesday, May 21, 2013
MITE IS RIGHT Two years ago we’d made the momentous (to us, at least) decision to keep hens. We bought four of them: a Redco; a Bluebelle; a Light Sussex and a Rhode Rock. We’d given them nonsensical names (one of them is called ‘Paxo’ which pretty well tells you all you need to know about that), my husband had built the last word in hen-housing, we’d bought the feeders, we’d fenced off the vegetable patch (which has never yet kept the little so-and-so’s off) and we collected our eggs every day and thoroughly enjoyed our tiny venture in poultry keeping. Nothing, however, had prepared us for the full horror that was waiting for us in our first summer…. It began quite mildly. When cleaning them out, my husband had spotted a bit of movement along their perch. “Damn!” we thought, having carefully read the literature and knowing what this was, “Red mites.” We were annoyed, that was all. We went to the shop and bought red mite powder . We caught each chicken and then stood like fools, staring at one another, wondering how – exactly – you are supposed to dust a chicken. We put the stuff on them, we put it on their perches, we put in under the swing, where they liked their dustbaths, and then we went inside and washed it all off ourselves. A week later there were more of them. We dusted the girls again, but half-heartedly, as clearly this was not going to be a long-term solution. I decided to apply my brain to the problem. The books we had suggested taking the hen-house into the middle of the garden and hosing it down with a jet spray, and keep on doing it until no more mites appeared. Since we (a) didn’t possess a jet spray and (b) my husband had built an immovable hen-house this wasn’t going to work. The next book I consulted suggested moving them into a different area completely and a fresh house while the first one was fumigated, but their hen-run is also immovably built and, besides, I could see my husband spending the rest of his days building hen-houses! I went to the internet. There was plenty of information available – unfortunately some of it was rather more graphic than I could have done with. There were also a lot of chat rooms and blogs on the subject. The problem here was that, however calmly they started, they all, sooner or later, involved someone writing something along the lines of, “…so we wash our hands and boots in bleach fourteen times a day and make sure we always wear the biohazard suit when approaching the hen-coop…” and I began to suspect that I was listening in to the darker side of hen-keeping. Determined to be upbeat and sensible about things, I remarked that it was a pity we couldn’t just Frontline them, like we do the cats. This idea germinated in my brain until a few days later, when I was looking on the net and came across someone who mentioned that they did, indeed, use Frontline on their hens, so I rushed out to do the same to ours. A week later, there were more red mites. It had got beyond a joke now. We were getting to be afraid of opening up the door of the hen-coop, for fear of what might scurry into the dark at our approach. Forcing myself to remain calm, I suddenly remembered Sally. My friend Sally has kept chickens for years and years (not the same ones, obviously!) and was our local expert. She was never reduced to a blubbering wreck because a few dark red specks were trolling around the chickens’ perch, so I went to her. She’d know the answer. “Red mites?” she asked. “What are red mites?” I may have sobbed a little. The next day I opened up the bin to put some rubbish in and looked in. Three million eyes looked back. They’d got into the bin! I slammed the lid back down. Then, in an obsessive manner I had hoped I would never descend to, I started looking over my clothes, to make sure I hadn’t got any on me. I rushed inside and feverishly washed my hands. I filled the kettle for some tea, while I calmed down and thought about this. A red mite strolled across the top of the kettle! There is a point where you finally, irrevocably snap and a red mite nonchalantly attempting to colonize my kitchen (and I’d been reading this stuff up, remember – I knew almost to the day at what point one mite could become millions) was the final, absolute finish for me. Either you fold or you fight back. I was going to fight back. First I squashed that particular mite into oblivion. Then I washed my hands a compulsive few times, and then I did something I should have done before – I telephoned the farm which had sold us the hens. Armed with their helpful advice and some Diatom and Poultry Shield, we went to war. I boiled the kettle, put on some rubber gloves and picked out the bin bag. I tied it tightly and put it into another bag. The dustbinmen were due in a few minutes, so that was put out for them. (The mites can last without chickens for up to ten months, but eventually, on a dust-heap without chickens, they would all die.) All the paper, etc. from the hen-coop we burned. I dragged the bin into the middle of the garden where the sun was full on it (red mites are like very small vampires – they don’t like the light), poured some bleach into it and filled it with boiling water. “Suck on that,” I advised them. I was amazed to find how bloodthirsty I’d become! We put yet more red mite powder on the chickens and kept them out of their house, while my husband took all the perches and their supports out, and took the nest boxes apart. We scrubbed everything thoroughly with strong bleach, left it out for the sun to dry, then at twilight, which is when any remaining mites would appear, we soaked the house with Poultry Shield and coated it with Diatom. Then we let the girls back in. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” they say. Damn right!!