The Simple Things

A job well done Friend to retired hens,

Jane Howorth is founder of the British Hen Welfare Trust, which rehomes retired caged chickens

- Jane Howorth

Every hen has a personalit­y. You can build a relationsh­ip with her, just as you can with a cat, dog or any other pet. I adopted my first chickens in 1995 when my husband and I left the ‘rat race’ and moved to Devon. One of them had to be separated from the rest of the flock due to illness. She would waddle into my kitchen and snuggle on the rug while I was doing the ironing, or potter over to the dog’s bed and climb in. The friendship I developed with that bird made me see chickens in a new light.

Life events can help you focus. Losing my parents when I was 40 made me ask myself what I wanted to do with my life. They'd always encouraged me to love animals. After moving to Devon, I'd go looking for laying hens to rehome from commercial farms (alongside a horse, some ducks and a couple of pygmy goats). When my parents died a few years later, I had a lightbulb moment: I could do for chickens what rehoming charities do for cats and dogs. There are 16 million caged hens in Britain. We take them from commercial egg-laying units at a year old – when they’d otherwise go to slaughter – and match them with people who want to adopt them as pets. I never get over the magic of seeing a caged hen look up at the sky for the first time, wondering where the ceiling’s gone, or lift the feathers on the back of her neck to absorb the rays of the sun.

If you have a passion for something, it controls you. I started in 2005 with a two-line advert in the local paper, and the phone never stopped ringing. I was operating from my back bedroom; my filing cabinet was the bed; I had a dilapidate­d old computer that I couldn’t really work. Twelve years on, we have ten staff and 500 volunteers. The charity has grown organicall­y at breakneck speed. It’s like holding onto a tiger by its tail.

Politeness and friendline­ss goes a long way. From the start, I always approached the farmers with a big smile on my face. I was determined to treat the farming industry with respect. In the early days I would pick up cratefuls of hens from the local slaughterh­ouse minutes before they were due to be killed, and the chaps there were never anything other than helpful. I made it my business to learn about the egg industry, so I could talk their language. What I didn’t do was go in and talk about "fluffy chickens".

Be gentle and respectful when asking for money. My first experience of fundraisin­g was when a lady I’d never met raised £168 after she’d read an article about us – the money was donated by guests at her wedding. There are many good causes out there, and I prefer to let our supporters decide when and how much to give. Whether someone donates £2 or £200, I’m really grateful for it.

We’re all responsibl­e for animal welfare. Farmers don’t keep chickens in cages because they don’t like chickens. They do it because it’s the most cost-effective way to give consumers cheap eggs. If we were all prepared to pay a lot more for our eggs, hens would have a much nicer lifestyle. Free-range egg sales have increased markedly in the past 12 years, and we have played a role in that.

Experience changes perception. Each rehomed chicken is a little education pack. Both the new owners and their wider family and friends start to learn about what lovely animals they are. Chickens are pets with benefits. They are intelligen­t and affectiona­te, and they provide you with a tasty breakfast. I only keep 12 of my own now – when I started, I had 200 in my garden.

The impact on people has been the biggest surprise. Hens worm their way into people’s hearts. They appeal to young and old, they live happily in back yards or on grand estates. We’re having academic research done into the therapeuti­c benefits of keeping hens, for example for children with autism and adults with depression. Our postbag shows that they really do enrich lives.

Nothing is impossible. This has taken over my life, and there have been moments when I thought I couldn’t keep up with it. But if you feel strongly about something, your passion won’t let you stop. Last year I was awarded an MBE for ‘Services to Chickens’, and it was my proudest achievemen­t. I am thrilled to bits to have made a difference to the lives of so many animals and people.

 ??  ?? Jane and some of the Hen Welfare Trust's staff – plus a few of their feathered friends – enjoying their new, carefree lives
Jane and some of the Hen Welfare Trust's staff – plus a few of their feathered friends – enjoying their new, carefree lives

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