In this touching second instalment by our guest blogger Julie of her life with ‘The Broiler Babies’ – rescued ex-battery hens given another chance at life, we hear about a group of hens affectionately known as ‘The Floppets’
“Much has already been written about the conditions in which farmed chickens are kept, both for eggs and meat. It’s not for me to add to that, I share my life with birds who have escaped these situations and it’s the story of their lives from that point which I can document.
Part of the evidence, as I see it, for the individuality of each bird’s personality lies in the way they deal with life after rescue. Like humans freed from imprisonment, some move on within a few days but always remain aloof from us, others make friends and even become inseparable companions with me for the rest of their lives; while others form special bonds with their own kind, as Tiny Hen did with old Roxy. At a re-homing you don’t know if the birds you collect came from the same cages or not. Your group may all be strangers to each other and over the first few days have to organise themselves into a hierarchy, their pecking order. On the other hand, you may have birds who endured their captivity together. It’s guesswork on my part what their previous relationships were.
An early group of hens who came to us were given the title of “The Floppets”, rescued ex-battery hens always have overlarge floppy combs as a result of the heat in the sheds they are kept in. They also have pale, waxy faces and an unpleasant smell, all of which goes within the first days and weeks of liberty. The Floppets had suffered especially, it was early January 2010, there had been snow for the past few days and in the hills further north, snow since before Christmas. These birds should have been sent for slaughter straight after the Christmas holiday, the farmer had kept them, as many do, a little longer to produce eggs for the lucrative Christmas shopping market and then they became “spent” hens. Added to this he was getting out of the battery egg business so they were his last batch of hens. There was no need to buy more feed than he needed to get the birds to their slaughter date, but then the snow fell. The farm was cut off and neither rescue van nor slaughter truck could reach the farm. For a week the birds were left without food. When they eventually got through, the rescue team were not allowed into the shed to collect their lucky birds. They did however find out that the birds had been kept on the pyramid system, 3 tiers of cages with no droppings boards between so the excrement from the top layer of cages dropped onto the 2nd row and all dropped onto the unfortunates on the lowest rank.
I had planned to collect 3 birds from this rescue, the weather was so bad that they would all need to gain weight and hopefully feathers indoors for a couple of weeks and space was limited. 3 birds were duly placed in our carrier while we were told their sorry story. Then one of the volunteers picked up a hen, limp and glassy-eyed she was semi-conscious already. “Please take her, we don’t think she’ll even survive the journey home but could you give her a chance?” The fading hen joined the others and we returned home.
On arrival the other 3 started eating and drinking and settling into the warm bedding of our indoor pen, the hospital wing as it is called. The frail hen sat, unable to move. We had to help her, so my elder son and I returned with warm glucose solution to gently syringe into her mouth. As I picked her up the largest and strongest looking hen let out a piercing scream, the chicken alarm call. The strong bird’s eyes never left us as Alex and I coaxed Frail Felicity to swallow the fluids. We kept this up for 2 days, hardly daring to hope that Felicity would survive and every time we lifted her out of the pen her companion, now named Morse (from the tapping of her beak on the floor as she fed) would cry out in anguish. On the third day Felicity managed to feed herself and from then on her recovery was amazing.
It was some time before the Floppets were strong enough to live as outdoor garden hens, it was winter after all and one of the group, Tiggy, was completely bald when she arrived, so she needed to grow a complete set of new feathers. However they all did move into one of our secure runs as the weather improved.
Morse was a hen who never totally trusted humans, she always watched me with those stern eyes and would peck my on the back of the knee when I entered their run, just to let me know she was still wary of my intentions. Frail Felicity blossomed into a beautiful hen and followed Morse about everywhere in the garden or the run. That first year summer was warm with still balmy nights on which I would leave the pop hatches to the houses open. The runs are bio-secure and safe against foxes and rats so the girls have the freedom to choose when to roost and when to rise in the summer. Their run also contained a large branch for birds to fly up to and this is where Felicity and Morse would roost, side by side through the summer nights.
The first of the Floppets to die was Tiggy. She lived for a year out of the cage, saw the sun, felt wind ruffle her new, beautiful feathers, dust bathed, sun bathed, explored, scratched about and generally lived a proper hen life before dying peacefully at home. Frail Felicity lived nearly 2 years of freedom with Morse before she too left us. Morse lived on to reach 4 years of age. Commercial egg-laying hens are slaughtered at about 18 months old, at the end of their first laying cycle. One of the most pitiful things to see at a rehoming is the line of eggs retrieved from the poultry crates, laid by hens classed as “end of lay”, “spent” and fit only to be killed as of virtually no commercial value except as cheap pie fillings and pet food. Although any length of time spent out of the horror of the battery cage is a blessing for the birds, I always hope they will live at least as long a time as free birds out of their cages as they suffered in them.
Morse remained a feisty lady to the end. On her last day I entered their run in the morning with food and a few treats, Morse as always pecked me on the back of the leg to remind me of my position in the order of things in the garden. It was our ritual. In the afternoon I returned home and couldn’t see Morse. It was a sunny early Autumn day so we searched the garden before looking in the hen house. Morse had taken herself in to roost in a quiet dark corner of the house. Her breathing was laboured but she was not in great distress so she was given a dose of pain relief and a diuretic for chronic heart failure. We then placed her back in her bed. In the morning she was gone, peacefully in her sleep with her head tucked under her wing. The last remaining Floppet, Hilaria and her friend Toffee looked closely at Morse, were they wondering why she didn’t get up, or did they understand that she was dead?
As I write this, Hilaria Floppet is still living in that hen run and house. She is approaching her 7th birthday and for almost a year she has suffered from chronic heart failure. Hilaria is a friend. She earned her name by being the 1st of the Floppets to sing, a trilling chirp, rather like the sound of a contralto trim-phone (for those old enough to recall such things). Hilaria sang within a few days of their rescue, she was happy and knew their lives were getting better. She still sings to me every day. There is a medication for chronic heart failure, it’s called Ferusemide and is prescribed to humans with heart failure, I know someone who has used this medication. Although the daily dose for a hen is much less than for a human it was still costing over £40 per a month – fortunately the vet has now found that birds can take the 10mg tablets. I wrap them up in grapes or raisins, it’s much easier on the birds and it now costs about £11 per week for everyone, much easier on me!
Hilaria sings and tells me that she loves life, she is a flock matriarch and enjoys exploring our jungle of a garden, she loves to sunbathe, her favourite treats are grapes. One day I will no longer hear Hilaria sing to me. I don’t look forward to that time. Until then we will carry on. I wouldn’t let an old friend down.
Hilaria and I have a comfortable relationship, even if she grumbles about taking her medicine. The stories of those who become as son Rory puts it, “the dog chickens” and follow us everywhere, is for another time.”
If you would like to find out more about rescuing hens destined for slaughter, please go to www.bhwt.org.uk