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
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