Put in their cages at 22 weeks the hens never learn to behave like hens, the wire mesh floor can damage their feet and claws, and many lose their feathers. After a year of this they are then taken out and slaughtered as their productivity drops. However for some hens there is a happy ending
Supported by Jamie Oliver, Amanda Holden and Antony Worral-Thomson the Battery Hen Welfare Trust is a charity committed to helping them. It was begun 3 years ago and since then has rehomed over 100,000 chickens. The charity’s aim is to improve life for Britain’s 20 million battery hens which it does by raising awareness of the situation and how the public can help, either by adopting some ex-battery hens of their own or by being more careful when shopping as even if you buy your fresh eggs free range, battery eggs sneak into the most unlikely of foods!
The charity is perhaps unique in that it does not condemn battery farmers but rather works with them to ultimately help the hens. AdÃ¨le Hall, one of the BHWT’s rescue co-ordinators explains that initially it can take time to build up a farmers trust: â€œMany battery farmers are obviously very suspicious of our motives but once they realise we are not ‘extremists’ and empathise with their struggle to fund their change over to either free-range, barn or ‘enriched’ cages, they are fine.â€ The farmers receive a small fee for the chickens and many are glad not to see the birds sent for slaughter.
AdÃ¨le rehomed her first hens in January 2006 and now rehomes about once every six weeks. Her waiting list is always full of people keen to become the proud owners of some rescue chickens and so far she has helped many people home ex-bat chickens. She particularly enjoys seeing the faces of the new owners and their children as they take their new pets home and last year these new owners included Lynne Jones and her son James.
Lynne began keeping chickens three and a half years ago at the insistence of James, then 13. A keen gardener he had come across an article on poultry in a magazine and was soon determined to join in the chicken craze. Lynne felt this was a great activity for them to do together and began combing the internet for more information, where she came across Ayside Poultry Arks, a one stop chicken shop selling starter packs, and crucially running one day courses in poultry keeping.
Lynne and James signed up and by the end of the day had got their chicken rearing certificates and bought a starter pack, complete with four chickens. An month later it arrived on the back of a lorry and they were ready to embark on their new lives as the proud owners of two black rocks and a couple of warrens, henceforth to be known as Omelette, Nugget, Kentucky and Britney â€“ ironically of course!
Kept in a run for the first week the four hens enjoyed their freedom so much when finally let out that they refused to go back into the run, leading to an anxious chase around the garden for Lynne and James. Later two hens escaped, and were spotted strolling leisurely up the road, but despite these small setbacks Lynne and James felt so committed to chicken rearing that when Omelette sadly had to be put down they immediately went to Shropshire to try their hand with pure breeds.
A couple of years later Lynne read about the Battery Hen Welfare Trust in a poultry magazine, and having just lost another couple of chickens decided it was time to try rescue hens. As she says: â€œIt seemed awful to buy ‘bred for backyard’ chickens when all these thousands were going to die.â€ She registered her interest on the BHWT website and soon they contacted her to say AdÃ¨le, her local representative, had a date for her to collect them.
At AdÃ¨le’s collection point there were chickens running around everywhere, making it impossible to pick out individuals, so taking pot luck Lynne and James became the proud owners of four rescue chickens. All about one year old, without the intervention of the BHWT and chicken owners like Lynne and James the hens would have been killed.
Having lived in a small cage for their entire lives the four hens were initially amazed by their new habitat. At first they had to be kept in a run, but even that must seem like a palace compared with their previous abode. Never having seen grass, or sunlight the hens were rather confused at first, standing rigidly in the shade for about half an hour before finally venturing into the light. The first night they refused to go into the henhouse, but by the second they were beginning to get the hang of being hens. By the fourth day they were even making their way back to their own house after being allowed out into the garden.
After about ten days it rained, and while the older hens ran for shelter the rescue chickens just stood still, staring up at the sky in confusion. They had never seen rain and so had no idea what was going on. Since then they have successfully learnt to shelter, in addition to other aspects of being a hen.
“Tamer than other chickens they try and get into the house; they run to be stroked and are extremely affectionate.”
The other hens gave the newcomers a hard time at first to establish the pecking order, but the rescue chickens have settled in exceptionally well. Lynne compares them to puppies, very friendly with a habit of running round the legs of the nearest available person, asking for corn. Tamer than her other chickens they try and get into the house at any opportunity and are much less wary than the others. They are extremely inquisitive which surprised her as she had expected them to be quite timid after their early lives. Instead they run to be stroked and are extremely affectionate. AdÃ¨le agrees, saying that her rescue hens are â€œmore affectionate and interesting to watch than my couple of purebreds. They seem more adventurous and ‘gung ho’ for some reason.â€
Bred to lay, Lynne gets an average of three eggs a day from the four hens, which is more than from the others. She is fortunate as other than a slight limp on one of them the hens are all in good health. Whilst the BHWT don’t knowingly pass on sick hens Lynne feels that due to the nature of the operation there is always the chance of sickness, or even premature death, which is something to prepare children for if you are thinking of getting some chickens. On the other hand, she says, it is a nice way to prepare children for death and to teach them that happiness can be brought into the lives of creatures from the most miserable of circumstances so to bring some enjoyment to them is worthwhile even if it is only for a short time.
Lynne and James heartily recommended rescue chickens to anyone thinking about getting some hens. Lynne describes them as â€œincredibly rewarding, very amusing, entertaining and affectionate. They are more self sufficient than dogs, and more dependant than cats with the added advantage that they produce eggs.â€ Hers now run to the backdoor to greet the family whenever they hear cars pulling up, providing a nice welcome home. In terms of what’s required to care for them they need daily food and water, letting out each morning and shutting up at night, and cleaning out once a week. You also have to be prepared for a garden covered in chicken poo, and while they keep the weeds down they also eat any vegetables they can get their beaks on. Once settled in looking after rescue chickens is no different than any other hens, so they are equally suitable for beginners as for old hands at poultry. So if you are would like a rewarding pet, fresh eggs and a chance to make a real difference to an animal’s life then why not get in touch with the BHWT?