Free at last!

Owen and Cather­ine Jones, from Devon, de­cided to adopt some ex-bat­tery hens. Owen de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence

Your Chickens - - Contents -

It’s fair to say col­lect­ing res­cued chick­ens from the Bri­tish Hen Wel­fare Trust isn’t much like choos­ing a new kit­ten or puppy. There’s no look­ing at pho­tos on­line or turn­ing up and choos­ing the one that looks cutest or with the sad­dest eyes.

In­stead you turn up at the char­ity’s col­lec­tion site where scores of be­wil­dered chick­ens have been de­liv­ered in crates from whichever farm has dis­pensed with their ser­vices.

You say how many you can take (just four in our case). A vol­un­teer van­ishes into the shed or barn, catches the near­est squawk­ing birds that can be reached and puts them into the boxes, crates or cat car­ri­ers you’ve pro­vided. So the first mo­ment you re­ally dis­cover who you have brought home is when you re­lease them into your gar­den or chicken run. Out they come, ner­vous and cu­ri­ous.

They look worn out. Their combs are limp and their eyes are dull. The lucky ones have only a few feath­ers miss­ing, oth­ers are bald in large ar­eas.

They have spent their short lives - prob­a­bly 18 months – in what is known as an en­riched or colony cage. While an im­prove­ment on the pre­vi­ous bat­tery cages, they will still have been in­doors all their lives, shar­ing a cage with up to 90 other hens.

Of the four we col­lected, the small­est had al­most no feath­ers at all. If you’d wrapped her in plas­tic she’d have looked like an oven-ready bird from a par­tic­u­larly poor su­per­mar­ket.

What do they know of the nat­u­ral world?

Un­used to grass un­der­foot, they walk cu­ri­ously, tak­ing lu­di­crously big steps. They are fas­ci­nated by every­thing.

JOUR­NEY OF DIS­COV­ERY

We live near a main road, a farm and a rail­way and so ev­ery new sound is un­usual – pass­ing trains, emer­gency am­bu­lances, bird­song, traf­fic, trains, horses, lawn­mow­ers.

At each new noise the hens stop what they are do­ing, crane

What do they know of the nat­u­ral world?

their necks and lis­ten in­tently. Sud­den noises star­tle them and they dive for cover.

But de­spite the new­ness of it all, it is clear there is some­thing in their DNA that does not need to be taught.

When a spar­rowhawk dives across the gar­den a black­bird raises the alarm. The hens freeze, clearly alert to the dan­ger.

In very lit­tle time these tired crea­tures are be­gin­ning to be­have ex­actly as hens raised in the farmyard would do.

They dis­cover long grasses and en­joy reach­ing up to nib­ble seeds from the ends. They scratch in the soil be­neath the fruit trees, in­stinc­tively snap­ping up any grubs they re­veal. They dig into the warm earth and kick clouds of dust un­der their wings.

On a hot day they stretch out their wings in the sun, bathing in the heat like tourists on a beach. When it rains they shel­ter un­der the hedge, look­ing grumpy. Be­fore long, rested and eat­ing well, they bloom. Feath­ers ap­pear, like tiny paint­brushes, from their pale skin.

Their eyes change, from a wa­tery yel­low to warm or­ange. Their combs be­come red.

And their eggs, on diet sup­ple­mented by fresh grass, have beau­ti­ful golden yolks.

Per­son­al­i­ties, ev­i­dent from day one, be­come more pro­nounced; the shy chicken, the bossy one, the trou­ble maker who will al­ways be hatch­ing an es­cape plan.

You can’t help but won­der if they re­mem­ber any­thing of the caged life they have es­caped.

And think of the mil­lions who spend their whole lives in cages pro­duc­ing cheap eggs for con­sumers, never ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the sun on their backs or a good old dust bath. G The Bri­tish Hen Wel­fare Trust says in the UK there are ap­prox­i­mately 16 mil­lion hens kept in colony cages. The char­ity has so far found re­tire­ment homes for over 500,000 caged hens, all of which were des­tined for slaugh­ter. Find out more at bhwt.org.uk

ABOVE LEFT: Free­dom at last! Ven­tur­ing out into the big wide world TOP: The hens dis­cover the joy of sunbathing ABOVE : They soon set­tle in - and en­joy all the green­ery

Cather­ine Jones with one of their res­cue hens

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