Fowl Deeds in the Hen House
Dubious remedies from history, by Jeremy Hobson
Chicken keepers of old tended to have weird and wonderful — and occasionally dangerous — ideas and concoctions when it came to treating illness or ailments within their flocks.
At one time it was, for instance, quite common to treat an infestation of gape worms (one of several types of intestinal worms that affect poultry and game birds) with a flight feather stripped of almost all the barbs, but leaving just a few at the end in the manner of bristles on a brush. This was inserted down the poor bird’s throat (sometimes with the addition of some noxious fluid like paraffin) and twisted before being withdrawn. The corkscrew action of the movement supposedly collected and removed many of the worms resident in the trachea.
Even worse is the advice from a book written at the turn of the last century which told the reader that “in advanced cases, the only effectual remedy is to catch up the birds, draw out the tongue and spear it with a large darning needle that has been dipped in Elliman’s Embrocation”. Nowadays, for any type of worming problem, it is far more effective to use Flubendazole-based products specifically created for back garden chicken keepers.
At about the same time as the darning needle and embrocation method was being recommended, poultry keepers who kept breeds of the Mediterranean varieties (which tend to have large combs) would sometimes come up against a problem which was, at the time, known as black rot. This was, among other reasons, thought to be the “result of over development of the comb”. According to information of the period, it could quite easily be cured by the simple expedient of placing a red-hot bar of iron into the drinking water as often as it needed replenishing.
For inflammation of the eyes, provided that they are “not associated with roup or other infectious diseases”, it was recommended that one should always bathe the affected area with warm milk. For leg weakness caused by putting too much weight on table poultry, it was seemingly necessary to give lime water and powdered shells in the food. For pip (apparently a horny tumour on the tip of the tongue), the treatment was simple— just scrape it off and dress it with powdered alum.
Stockholm tar featured in many remedies, but was, perhaps, most often used to treat wounds and damage caused by feather pecking. At one time in the dim and distant past, it would have been unusual to have gone into a poultry keeper’s shed and not seen a yellow-coloured tin of the stuff alongside a bag of Karswood Poultry Spice, or Ovum Spice, together with a can of louse powder of a certain brand.
What an outcry there was among chicken and pigeon fanciers when the aforementioned louse powder was taken off the market due to the fact that it originally contained DDT.
As far as Karswood was concerned, it worked really well and the company could see no real reason for change. It was a regular part of the hen house cleaning regime and a little dusted frequently under the wings and around the vent area was a sure-fire way of eradicating fleas and mites. It is, though, perhaps interesting to reflect that this particular product was developed as a result of the company that made it creating a formula intended to eradicate lice in the blankets of war-time servicemen.
The austerity of the war years sometimes necessitated the feeding
of household scraps. Indeed, there is a Penguin handbook called Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps that was written in 1941 by Claude Goodchild and Alan Thompson. It was reprinted as a facsimile edition in 2008 and while it makes interesting reading, to adhere to its methods — particularly when it comes to feeding — won’t bring out the best in your chickens. For instance, some of the laws about feeding household scraps to chickens have changed since the book was originally written — and were modernday readers to follow some of the ideas and recommendations they would undoubtedly fall foul of current DEFRA guidelines regarding the recycling of some scraps and kitchen waste, particularly “raw meat and fish (including shellfish)… or fully or partially cooked meat, fish and shellfish”.
Things were very different back in 1941 when it was essential that nothing went to waste in the war effort and very few (if any) animal feeds were available commercially. Nevertheless, more often than not living free range, these war-time chickens had the advantage of being able to forage and augment their diet with grubs, insects, seeds and incidental naturally occurring herbs — not a luxury available to many of today’s chicken-keeping hobbyists. A correct feeding regime that includes scientifically balanced commercially manufactured feeds containing all their requirements is essential and perhaps something some of us take a little for granted.
Despite what erroneous treatments and magical cures some of our chicken-keeping forbears might have put forth in books of the time, there was also a lot of sensible advice included too. This, from F E Wilson, writing in 1916, is just as true now as it was then — and is worth the modern day chicken keeper bearing in mind: “Some fortunate poultry keepers enjoy an almost unbroken immunity from disease among their birds. If their methods are studied it will be seen that this is not by any means attributable to mere luck. Dirt is not tolerated… the houses and runs are well ventilated, sweet and clean, and the eating and drinking vessels in similar condition. Good wholesome food only is fed… Overcrowding is strictly guarded against, as also is tainted ground or grass… when poultry are kept on such lines it… makes for healthy, happy birds.”