Caring people find homes for thousands of commercial laying hens destined for slaughter each year. Here our guest blogger Julie tells her moving story about rescuing these gentle, friendly creatures, otherwise known as ‘The Broiler Babies’:
“As of today there are 20 chickens living in our house and garden. I include the house because ailing birds are brought indoors to the “hospital wing”. 66 pigeons also inhabit the pigeon house, disabled annexe and 2 indoor houses in the loft, where the show pen for poorlie chickens is also to be found. But how did I get here? This mad chicken lady has been a long time developing, about 30 years in fact.
In the mid 1980’s I lived in Weston Super Mare and rode a motorcycle up the M5 every day to work in the transport department of a chemical company based in Avonmouth, near Bristol. The day that changed my life was a cold, grey late winter morning. Sleet was blowing across the carriageway almost horizontally. It was a morning to wrap a scarf over your face, pull your visor down, hunch over the handlebars and go for it.
I was tanking down the middle lane at about 80mph (sorry officer, I was young and reckless on an Italian V twin in those days) when I drew up to a flatbed truck. It was packed with poultry crates about 6 high. As I passed it I slowed to match the driver’s speed, 70mph. I looked in horror into the little faces, pushed out through the plastic mesh of the crates, blinking in the wind rush of icy sleet as it slammed into their featherless bodies. Wings and even legs stuck out through the mesh. I tried to imagine the suffering of these poor birds and felt a rush of rage. I was now level with the driver and gave him a selection of my best “Italian style hand signals”. You won’t find them in the Highway Code, but he got my meaning, I’m sure. I also memorised the name of the company and the vehicle registration. As soon as I arrived at work I phoned the RSPCA, gave them the details and explained the breaches in animal transport regulations I had witnessed.
A couple of hours later an RSCPA inspector rang me back, thanking me for the information and explaining that the birds I had seen were end-of-lay battery hens. As they were, “worth less than a bottle of pop”, they were treated with less care than a bottle of cheap lemonade on that last horrific journey to their slaughter. Most people don’t care about them the inspector told me. I felt sick but didn’t know what I could do to help.
It took Jane Howarth, founder of the Battery Hen Welfare Trust (now British Hen Welfare Trust) a long time to be able to turn concern into action too. She watched a documentary about caged hens in 1978, was horrified, wrote to her MP and tried to make other people aware of the issue, but was only able to rescue hens in the 1990’s when she had a house with enough land. In 2005 she started her charity and shortly after I was able to take my first rescued ex-batts from a BHWT rescue. We had kept pet chickens before but it was only after we lost most of our little flock to Avian TB that I thought my son, who loves chickens, could cope with the inevitable sadness of giving a home to weak hens that a farmer had written off as fit only for killing.
The first group of 4 became known, inevitably, as The Old Girls. The smallest hen, Tiny Hen came to us with an injury with which I have become too familiar over the years, bruising and tendon damage to her leg caused by being grabbed by the legs and pulled out of her cage. Hens are then carried, dangling upside down, to the crates which will carry them to their deaths. A very tiny few, the hens who have won the lottery, are packed into crates which are loaded into vans or trailers which take them not to slaughter, but to a new life as hens in gardens and paddocks. Tiny Hen was lucky, after a few days in a pen on her own her leg healed and she joined the flock. She was a clever little hen and being only the size of a woodpigeon, knew she needed an ally to avoid being the hen-pecked bottom hen. Old Roxy, my son’s pet Rhode Island Red, was flock matriarch and hen in charge, so Tiny Hen attached herself to big, tough Roxy.
Although Roxy lived to the venerable age of 6, she had various ailments during her life, including arthritis in her legs which resulted in her spending time indoors with us, including one Christmas when we really did have Chicken for Christmas dinner, as Roxy joined us next to the dinner table and enjoyed treats from our vegetarian dinner. When the weather warmed up and she went back out to her flock, Tiny Hen raced to greet her and assumed the submissive pose of the hen to the cockerel. Roxy, fully recovered, then performed the flamenco style dance of the cockerel with one wing dropped and some fancy footwork around Tiny Hen. I’m not sure what the exact nature of their relationship was but they were inseparable until, after about 2 years of freedom, Tiny Hen died.”
If you would like to find out more about rescuing hens destined for slaughter, please go to www.bhwt.org.uk