Birds on the brain: Re-hom­ing bat­tery hens

Jane Howorth, founder of the British Hens Wel­fare Trust, tells us all about the joys of adopt­ing bat­tery chick­ens

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - WORDS: Ly­dia Tewkes­bury

Back when Jane Howorth started the British Hens Wel­fare Trust (BHWT), res­cu­ing bat­tery hens from slaugh­ter was quite a cloak and dag­ger busi­ness. “At that time most peo­ple were go­ing in at mid­night with a bal­a­clava and a crow­bar and do­ing it clan­des­tinely,” she tells me. But that wasn’t Jane’s style.

Res­cu­ing bat­tery hens had been a goal of hers since see­ing a Panorama pro­gramme about caged hens when she was a teenager, but it wasn’t un­til she moved to Devon aged 34 that she was able to make her goal a re­al­ity – mi­nus the crow­bar and bal­a­clava. In­stead, Jane went through the front door. “I think I took the farmer some choco­late Roses or some­thing. It’s al­ways been in my mind to treat them with re­spect and to un­der­stand why chick­ens are kept in the en­vi­ron­ment they’re kept in – it’s down to us, the con­sumer. I’ve never be­rated farm­ers for what they do. I think we need to un­der­stand our role in farm­ing and why an­i­mals are kept as they are – that’s far more im­por­tant,” she in­sists.

That ini­tial trip – in which Jane planned to get 12 hens, but ended up com­ing home with 36 – was the be­gin­ning of the char­ity that would be­come her life’s work, the BHWT, but it was a while be­fore she took the leap from ex-bat­tery hen owner to char­ity founder. “I lost both my par­ents when I was only just gone 40, and I felt far too young to lose my par­ents and they died too young,” she ex­plains. “It brings you up sharp. I thought, life passes by and I re­ally want to do some­thing that has a sense of value to it. So, I put an ad­vert in the lo­cal free ads pa­per and it sim­ply said some­thing along the lines of ‘we’re ex-bat­tery hens, we’ve never tasted grass, and we’ve never seen sun­shine. If you can give us a home be­fore we go to slaugh­ter please call this num­ber’ – and my phone did not stop ring­ing.”

Be­fore she knew it, Jane had a car full of hens and her fin­gers crossed that the peo­ple who had con­tacted her would ac­tu­ally come and adopt them. Thank­fully, they did. Soon, Jane’s achieve­ment spread to the lo­cal and then na­tional press, and peo­ple across the coun­try be­gan con­tact­ing her, ask­ing how they could help. From there, Jane was able to build up a net­work of 37 teams right across the UK.

The non-judge­men­tal and friendly ap­proach Jane took with the first farmer she adopted from is cen­tral to how the BHWT op­er­ate. From the start, Jane knew that she wanted to build re­la­tion­ships with farm­ers rather than an­tag­o­nise them, but it wasn’t an easy road. “Farm­ers would take a phys­i­cal step back from me – and I’m quite a lit­tle per­son!” she laughs. “But I think be­cause they saw me as one of the ‘an­i­mal rights brigade’ they cat­e­gorised me. It took me a few years to say to them ‘that’s not how I work. That way of work­ing is as dif­fi­cult for me as it is for you, and ac­tu­ally I’m here to work with you not against you.’ Over a pe­riod of time it was an ab­so­lute joy to see farm­ers soft­en­ing their stance to­wards us and be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that they can trust us and that our long-term aim is to sup­port them, not to be­rate them.”

This ap­proach is ev­i­dent across their cam­paigns, as well as in their ap­proach to the hens

“Over a few weeks these hens blos­som and grow into in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties”

them­selves. “I can re­mem­ber see­ing lots of what I call ‘shock tac­tic’ cam­paign­ing, which is in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful, but it’s some­thing that you don’t want to en­gage with be­cause it’s painful, it’s up­set­ting. I think that pos­i­tive cam­paign­ing has a much longer-last­ing, pow­er­ful out­come. Ef­fec­tively, what I’m do­ing through the char­ity is send­ing off lit­tle ed­u­ca­tional packs in feath­ers. Each flock of four or six that goes out to a new fam­ily is the best pos­i­tive ed­u­ca­tional tool I could ever wish to have. Peo­ple pick them up and they might see them look­ing a bit tatty, a bit bald, a bit thread­bare and a bit fright­ened, but then over a few weeks these hens just blos­som and flour­ish and grow into in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties.”

Her method is work­ing: to date, the BHWT has re-homed well over 600,000 chick­ens. Peo­ple adore their hens, says Jane, who refers to the birds as “cats and dogs with feath­ers”. She says: “They are en­dear­ing, en­ter­tain­ing, en­chant­ing. They’re full of soft gor­geous­ness, give you de­li­cious eggs and are so pre­co­cious. They love life and if you save their life, they will en­rich yours.

“We have so many peo­ple say that to us. I would be a very rich lady if I had a pound for ev­ery time some­body had said that.” Visit www.bhwt.org.uk to find out more. Bud­ding hen owner or long time en­thu­si­ast? Grab a copy of Your Chick­ens, avail­able now from www.buya­mag.co.uk

ABOVE: Chick­ens can bring plenty of per­son­al­ity to your gar­den

LEFT: A chicken coopRIGHT: Many may not know that chick­ens make lov­ing com­pan­ions

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