“After several years of caring for rescued ex-battery hens I started to think about the fate of those birds reared for meat. Compassion in World Farming recently organised a campaign to raise awareness about the miserable existences endured by these birds in their brief lives. It was called “41 Days for Rosa”, this being the length of the life of the modern “broiler” meat bird; about 6 weeks; If I could care for even a pair of meat birds and give them a decent life with no violent death at the end then every day they lived would be a real experience of life for them with every day beyond their predicted slaughter date a bonus. I decided to contact a poultry supplier who purchases fertilised eggs from a company who keep the breeding flocks for these birds. I also decided I needed to research the particular needs of these special, physiologically modified birds.
Most websites and blogs about keeping broilers are obviously intended for commercial poultry businesses with a few addressing the small holder end of farming. The information is widely available and can be read via organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and Mercy for Animals. What particularly shocked me was the advice that poultry sheds only needed to be cleaned out and soiled litter removed after every 3 or even 4 batches of birds had been raised and sent for slaughter, that’s 18 -24 weeks of faeces with most of the birds never knowing what clean bedding feels like. Several years ago my husband worked on a project with a man whose day job was to intensively raise chickens. Among his peers he was considered a diligent farmer because he cleaned out the sheds after every batch of birds.
The birds are also fed a high protein diet to make them grow fast and reach slaughter rate as quickly as possible. If you can think of the comparison between an animal that consumes large amounts of high protein foods, perhaps dogs or humans, then think about the difference between their faeces and those of animals eating a diet higher in fibre, perhaps horses or rabbits. Which poo would you rather clean out? Comments on smallholder discussion groups often refer to the awful smell produced by broiler birds, but thinking about their diet and the conditions they are kept in is, to my mind, like saying, humans are filthy and smelly because when you keep them in a prison camp in dirty, overcrowded conditions they stink. Another comment is that compared to free-range egg laying birds, broilers have no personality or intelligence, all they do is eat and shit. One comment I read concluded with the statement that the writer was relieved to slaughter the birds in the end. Again, think of how any animal, humans included, behaves when all stimulating activities are denied them, when they have no opportunity to develop natural inquisitiveness and complex patterns of behaviour. In a broiler shed there is nothing to do apart from, eat, shot and sleep and sleeping wastes time as far as the farmer is concerned, so even for small scale operations it is recommended that lighting is left on to leave night time to only 6 hours or so. Chickens only eat when it’s light so with nothing else to do and selectively engineered to be abnormally hungry, the poor birds eat themselves to their grisly deaths.
I was determined to see if by changing their care and environment I could show that each broiler chicken is as much a wild jungle fowl at heart as the rescued battery hens are. With advice from other carers who had looked after broilers I prepared a diet plan which included plenty of green plant matter and a lower protein main ration with 50% wheat added to the standard chick and growers feed. Of course there would also be plenty of opportunity for exercise, exploring, learning and being birds.
The poultry suppliers had promised to contact me when they had their next batch of day old chicks but as I was such a small order I was forgotten about and when I called to check the birds were 3 weeks old. This left me with a quandary, day old chicks can be sexed on the eruption of their tiny flight feathers, but by 3 weeks it was impossible to be sure which birds were male or female. Keeping a cockerel would give me problems as I have neighbours within earshot so should I delay the whole project or cross my fingers and hope I didn’t end up with all the birds as males? I decided to go ahead and 5 chicks came home with me, 3 Hubbard breed free-range type broilers as I “bottled out” and feared the difficulty of raising the standard, indoor type of birds at a first attempt, and only 2 white Cobb breed indoor broilers.
All 5 chicks were settled into a broader in our house, plenty of interaction with us and each other and of course names to identify the individual. The Hubbard birds were all various shades and patterns of peachy beige and as it was October when they arrived they were given seasonal names, the palest became Mist, the one with a bright pale orange colour was Autumn and the darkest chick whose plumage reminded me of the beech boletus mushrooms growing under the trees in the woods around us was Mushroom. The 2 white Cobb chicks were also identifiable as individuals, one was quieter, while the other was lively, inquisitive and always the first to hop up onto the side of the brooder when you opened it. They became, respectively, Spirit and Sprite.
All babies grow and change quickly and soon they had progressed to living in our hospital pen, still indoors but with regular outings to explore the front garden where the only adult chicken was a fading ex-batt called Mouse, spending her last days quietly away from the main flock. As her name implied, Mouse was a shy bird and preferred to keep away from the boisterous members of the flock especially when she became weaker. As she had never met the young of her own species before we kept a low fence panel between them. It always grieves me that hens are such caring, attentive mothers but no commercial hen, even in the breeding flocks gets to hatch a clutch of chicks, and no chicks ever know the care and rearing of a mother hen. Mouse recognised the chicks for what they were and made soft calls to bring them over, the inquisitive chicks obliged and briefly Mouse met chicks and the chicks were introduced to an adult hen.
The Broiler Babies all showed the same normal behaviour I would expect of any chicks. They not only explored and scratched about for bugs and worms, but also loved to flutter up onto anything higher up to give them a vantage point, whether in the garden, in their run, or even one of their human carers. Sprite especially loved to fly up onto or over anything around her and would happily sit on an arm or shoulder to investigate her surroundings. The Babies at this point were about 5 weeks old with huge feet that made one of my chicken-keeping friends laugh when she met them, they were big for their age in general but the diet and exercise was keeping them lively. They were a week off the age when the largest birds would have been selected for slaughter and I wondered how long lovely white Sprite would be able to carry on flying out of her pen and up onto my shoulder.
For their move to permanent outdoor living we prepared a house in a run with a covered area for food and shelter during the day and a secure house to roost in. The problem faced by those of us who rescue broilers as well as ex-batts is that the ex-bats need to put on some weight, especially as the weather gets colder, but the broilers must have a low protein and fat diet. Add to this the limits on space meaning that all healthy birds end up living in the same outdoor areas and keeping the Broiler Babies healthy was going to be tough. Spirit, Sprite, Autumn, Mist and Mushroom were about 7-8 weeks old when they moved out. Their eyes were still baby blue and they cheeped like the chicks they were. Their brothers and sisters would be going for slaughter or already be dead by this age.
Once integrated into the main flock for daytime foraging the Broiler Babies continued to show their individual personalities. Spirit has always been more thoughtful and gentle while Sprite is cheeky and loves to be first out of the house and off to find her favourite places in the garden. Autumn was always a friendly bird, enjoying being cuddled and spending time with humans, Mushroom is fearless and Mist was beautiful and enjoyed, watching the world from patches of warm autumn sunshine. While you could see they were a family group they also fitted into the flock and behaved exactly as any other young chickens. So much for the myth that these birds, especially the Cobb broilers have no personality or intelligence and are nothing more than junk food on legs.
Autumn 2014 was long and mild with many sunny golden days. I was so grateful for this as everyone reminded me that these birds are not bred for longevity and I knew that most, if not all of my little family would not live to see summer. Their bodies outgrow their hearts and their developing bones fail to support the excessive weight of their bodies. I had included the 3 Hubbard birds, Autumn, Mist and Mushroom as an emotional insurance against the pain of losing our Babies, I had been warned by a wonderful lady who runs Lucky Hens Rescue that taking on the Broiler Babies would “tear your heart out”. The other view of our wonderful young birds was provided by the poultry supplier when I collected the chicks as she told me that if I wanted, 1 of the Hubbard birds could be kept long enough to be slaughtered for Christmas dinner.
I hate the dark mornings when I wake up the chickens to let them out but only in their runs as it will be dark when I get home. I loathe the bad weather, rain or worse that keeps birds, for whom every day is precious, in their covered, predator secure runs. But we were lucky last winter. The fine weather held to Christmas and once we had passed the Winter Solstice I could feel a faint hint of optimism that each day was getting 3 minutes longer and the year had turned the corner towards the light.
Christmas Eve was fine and golden and I used the bright morning to clean out everyone’s houses. The Broiler Babies house had condensation on the inside of the roof so I wiped it and left the heavy wooden roof clicked back open on its hinges while I tackled the other houses. From time to time I stopped to watch the birds, everyone was enjoying the winter sunshine, chickens, including Mist, were demonstrating just how solar powered they are by stretching out their wings and lying back in their favourite spots. The Broiler Babies had also found something incredibly interesting among the ivy along the fence. I took photos of the happy birds and tried, like them, to just live in the pleasure of a glorious moment.
I disappeared into the pigeon house, always a hard job to clean and noisily scraped and shovelled away for half an hour until my son came out. “Mum, one of the chicks is dead!”
My heart sank and I felt sick. It was Mist, she had gone into their run to investigate the cleaned house with the propped open roof and then jumped up onto the side wall to fly off. That’s when the heavy roof fell on her, breaking her neck and killing her. No day is a good day to die, not when you’re young and full of life as Mist was. She had lived 3 and a half months only a day or so more than the maximum lifespan allotted to her and her siblings.
There are always so many what ifs, but none of them would bring back the beautiful, bright soul that was Mist. My sons reminded me that even if we hadn’t prolonged her life we had given her a better quality of life and even though the manner of her death, a broken neck, was the method she would have suffered on a smallholding, Mist, unlike birds whose deaths are planned, did not have food withdrawn the night before and had no idea what was going to happen until the terrible accident. Her eyes were closed and my beautiful young pullet lay dead in my arms. After dark, under a clear, starry sky we cremated her. Mist’s ashes lie at the end of the garden behind a curtain of ivy.
Don’t try caring for anyone, especially rescued animals if you can’t bear the pain of loss and regret, along with the joys of witnessing a successful rehabilitation and a life regained and lived well, even if only for a little while.
Before Mist died, something else had become apparent, Mushroom was a boy. He stood a little more upright than the girls, his legs were longer, his comb bigger and he started to grow a cockerel’s tail. We wondered how much, or even, if, he would crow. Flopsy Fudge, a male egg-laying hybrid with the wrong colouring from the sex-linked breeding had not only survived undetected in a battery cage but he had been selected for rescue at the end of his sisters’ laying cycle. He lived to grow a bit of a cockerel’s tail and follow his paramour, little Russet, who had her leg broken on removal from her cage, around the garden during their summer together but Flopsy Fudge never crowed.
Mr Mushroom grew into a magnificent boy, a mixture of cream and flame, like the wild Beech boletus mushrooms after which he was named.
So far we have managed to keep Mr Mushroom, he comes into our house to roost at night, his sleeping quarters next to the downstairs loo and under Rory’s bedroom. We keep him in the dark until a reasonable hour and then let him out into the garden at circa 8.00a.m. but we know that even if almost all the houses within earshot are happy with him, it only takes one complaint and Mr Mushroom would have to be re-homed at a proper sanctuary.
The two Cobb meat birds, re-named by my son, The Cloudbirds are also still with us as I write. They have passed their birthday and even completed the first month following. They have lived with us for over a year now. Both Spirit and Sprite have to take twice daily doses of frusemide for their failing hearts but Sprite still charges down the garden to the back door when I come out and Spirit still sings and chortles as well as laying big, round white eggs. They are all incredibly precious with their individual, indeed unique personalities.
Would I repeat the process of rescuing and caring for “meat birds”? Of course, I only wish I didn’t have to.”
If you would like to find out more about rescuing hens destined for slaughter, please go to www.bhwt.org.uk