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The British Hen Welfare Trust: Adopting and caring for chickens

PUBLISHED: 15:30 06 April 2018 | UPDATED: 15:30 06 April 2018

A BHWT team near Weston-super-Mare (c) Tim Bates

A BHWT team near Weston-super-Mare (c) Tim Bates

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Simone Stanbrook-Byrne takes a look at poultry adoption and introduces a few spring chickens from her own flock

Trekkie died last week. Named for the alien glint in her eye, which, sadly, will glint no more, Trekkie, coincidentally, shuffled off on the anniversary of the demise of the late Star Trek actor who played Scottie. But, unlike Scottie, Trekkie’s ashes were not fired into space. Trekkie, in fact, was never very airborne. For dear old Trek was a rescued battery hen.

Although in recent years UK laws around battery egg production have changed, many hens are still kept in ‘enriched’ cages. A typical caged hen will go into the cage when she is old enough to start laying eggs and stay there for the rest of her life, without access to fresh air or daylight. She will be slaughtered at 18 months old. It’s a stark existence.

But for some of these hens there is hope. The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT) was founded by Jane Howorth in 2005. The charity works with more compassionate poultry farmers who are prepared to redirect the ‘spent’ hens (considered to be no longer commercially viable) away from slaughter and into the welcoming arms and sunny chicken runs in the gardens and paddocks of people who will give these girls a second chance. Jane, who was awarded the MBE for her work, together with BHWT teams across the UK, has found new, free-range homes for more than 600,000 hens – that’s a huge number of little brown lives saved. The charity is now well on the way to its millionth rescued hen.

Working with one of the BHWT teams on a hen collection day has to be right up at the top of the list of Rewarding Things To Do. I recall early one morning we assembled in the farmyard, outside huge poultry sheds containing rank upon rank of cages, which in turn contained thousands of hens.

An ex-caged hen, experiencing fresh air and gentle care (c) Tim BatesAn ex-caged hen, experiencing fresh air and gentle care (c) Tim Bates

Working swiftly, the volunteers moved along the cages, extracting birds and carrying them two at a time to more volunteers outside the shed. Here the hens were gently loaded into crates – the kind you see on the back of lorries heading for poultry processing plants. But this time, unbeknown to the hens, their destination was more desirable. Although crowded, crates are the safest way to transport such vast numbers as there’s less room for jostling and falling about. Part-way through the collection the farmer turned up with welcome trays of coffee. It was a hot and mucky job. By the time the cages were empty, the vans and trailers loaded, we were fragrant with the inimitable whiff of hen detritus.

Then it was back to the local BHWT point (there are several in Somerset). The hens were extracted from the crates, checked over for any obvious health issues, had their overgrown toenails clipped and placed in barns on bedding. For the first time in their lives they were experiencing daylight, a solid floor, room to flap and wander – and the gentle handling and kind voices of the people who were prepping these engaging little creatures for a life so very different to the one they’d just come from.

For the hens it was traumatic, but getting this monumental transition over and done with on one day reduces the shock.

Collection Day afternoon saw adopters arriving for their pre-allocated collection times; a smooth operation in which an assorted array of carriers, from holey card boxes for just a few hens to state of the art dog crates for a couple of dozen, were unloaded from people’s cars, filled with increasingly puzzled poultry and driven off to their new homes. It was a very moving moment, in every sense.

Jane Howorth, the inspirational founder of the BHWT, and a couple of hens helping with the chores (c) Tim BatesJane Howorth, the inspirational founder of the BHWT, and a couple of hens helping with the chores (c) Tim Bates

And that’s how Trekkie and her pals arrived: oven-ready bald, de-beaked and baffled. One of them laid an egg in the car on the way home. After a day spent peering out of the hen house wondering what grass was, they emerged to start scratching and dust bathing, able at last to give rein to previously thwarted instincts.

Over time, they re-grew their feathers, learned to relish fresh fruit and veg and to hop up on garden benches for a cuddle. It goes without saying that caged hens don’t get a vast amount of opportunity to develop individual characters; chickens living free range do. Even so, the degree of personality and avian savvy displayed by a bird whose brain is contained in a head roughly the size of a walnut can be surprising.

But, sadly, Trekkie’s time has come and she’s dropped off the perch. Having had more than 100 hens pass through our care over the years, we’re down to our last few. The BHWT has no local collection dates for a few weeks so I’ve contacted the RSPCA West Hatch Animal Centre, which sometimes has hens to home. It hasn’t. But, I am told, ‘We do have a couple of cockerels who need a home’!

Our girls have never been subjected to boys before. What to do? We decided to take the plunge and two of the most handsome bantam cockerels arrived: Bradley and Cooper. Feeling cautious, we installed them in an isolation coop within the main run so that they and the girls could eye one another up. The girls eyed; the boys ate. At dusk, with the girls a-bed, we introduced the boys to the hen house. Margaret woke briefly to throw a few handbags at Bradley. Then all was quiet.

An ex-caged hen, experiencing fresh air and gentle care (c) Tim BatesAn ex-caged hen, experiencing fresh air and gentle care (c) Tim Bates

At 5am we went to check there’d been no bloodbath. What we discovered was a wonderful outbreak of harmony. The boys, with no hint of aggression, were politely finding choice morsels for their new wives who had abandoned all ideas of pecking order. Peace reigned. All our preconceived notions about riotous roosters vanished. B&C are beautifully polite little gents. We don’t know how we ever managed without them. And neither do the girls!

What can we do

While shoppers continue to buy non-free-range eggs, or products containing them, demand for cheap eggs produced in cage systems will continue. It’s up to us to encourage the change by the way we shop. And for those who have the inclination, ex-caged hens make the most fabulous pets and may even give you an eggy breakfast.

The BHWT re-homes ex-commercial hens in Somerset every four to six weeks. Add your name to the waiting list by registering your details at bhwt.org.uk and then calling 01884 860084 to discuss adoption with a member of the BHWT team. They also have a ‘lonely hearts page for cockerels on their website.

West Hatch RSPCA often has hens and rescued cockerels for re-homing (male birds don’t lay eggs so are surplus to commercial requirements). They can be contacted on 0300 123 0747 or visit their website.

Chicken care

Taking on chickens requires a little forethought and planning – and you will be rewarded with engaging and grateful pets.

Good, draught-proof and watertight hen houses come in all shapes and sizes, from the basic to the palatial. Ideally the house should be attached to a sizeable run, with a high fence sunk into the ground by at least 15cm to deter digging predators. Alternatively, smaller, ready-made, moveable runs can be bought (or made, if you are more handy than I am).

Feed comes in the form of layer pellets or crumbs, ‘layer’ referring to the fact that it is a complete food for hens who lay eggs. Cockerels have no qualms about eating this too. My flock also gets a feed of corn before bedtime, which helps to keep them warm overnight. DEFRA rules state that they should only be fed kitchen scraps if yours is a vegan kitchen!

Both the BHWT and RSPCA can advise on all aspects of hen care – speak to them or check out their websites.

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