For the love of chickens

Hen Collection Day

We got our first hens on 23/09/2018 from The British Hen Welfare Trust, who last year won JustGiving Charity of the year (I like to think my vote helped). If you’re interested in keeping ex-battery hens, they’re a brilliant charity and everyone I’ve spoken to there seems lovely and incredibly enthusiastic about what they do. And hens themselves? They’re the most incredible little fluffy-bummed creatures you could want to know.

Ex battery hens acclimatising to their new home
Two of our girls acclimatising on their first day of retirement

We’d waited for what felt like years to get our hens, such was our excitement. After registering our interest, it was a good two/three months until we could go and pick them up. When hen collection day finally came around we arrived at the farm with the best darn foldable pet carrier we could afford (although we soon learned a sturdy cardboard box with holes in would’ve worked just as well). Of course, we arrived early, and so grabbed some food in a local cafe first of all.

Carrier between us, we marched up to the collection point and the poor bedraggled ladies who were racing around a barn. They had traveled down from Slough en masse and either we went to rehome them, or they would go off to slaughter for no longer producing an economical number of eggs. We stated the number of hens we could rehome (four) and the friendly handlers lifted them into the top of our zip-up carrier. I was told to hold my hands over the open lid, while the handlers scooped up the other girls. Of course one tried to jump up through my hands in a bid to escape. Looking back, I’m almost positive the thwarted escapee would’ve been Speckles (they all have very unique characters, and although bottom of the pecking order, she was by far the most adventurous).

Speckles the ex battery hen perching
Speckles the explorer – the first to jump and perch, the original Hendini

We’d already seen a little hen escapee scooting across the courtyard of Farrington Gurney (eventually one of the adept handlers was able to grab her before she reached the car park, after a succession of failures from green soon-to-be henkeepers).

The journey home was stressful, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the girls. Looking to the car’s back seat and our carrier (which barely fit our Kia Picanto), through the blanket covering most of it in an effort to chill them out, it became apparent to me how like dinosaurs they were. They peeked through with their little dinosaur eyes, blinking and twitching and making their little dinosaur sounds. I felt every lurch of the carrier and every complaint as my partner tried as gently as she could to maneuver the car around road bends and back home.

One of my first “discoveries” was that the sound I ordinarily associated with hens was actually the alarm call and the main sounds they make are flute-like, Gizmo (of Gremlins fame) -esque woo-oohhs, samples lifted directly from the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park (or vice versa) and occasional creepy Predator purrs. Thinking the alarm call/stressed hen sounds are the norm makes sense, given our exposure to them is generally a massive flock in a confined space where they’re likely to be stressed and the pecking order is messed up through sheer numbers.

Our hen, Broken wing aka Dumpling
Original name “Broken Wing”, this sweet hen became Dumpling. Not because of Chicken dumplings, but because she often maker herself a little pudding-like ball. Despite being “free range”, our hens were undernourished and unhealthy when we got them, and all free range egg-laying hens go to slaughter (to become pet food and the like), when they start to lay less and a thus, less economical.

I was (and ten months on, still am), struck by how little I knew about these creatures before we collected them, and indeed how little I still know. I find myself getting more and more angry at my previous hypocrisy – thinking of chicken as just a snack I could not live without, but getting all teary-eyed when I saw an abused cat or dog. For me much has changed, but speciesism rages on. Even though I have a guilt complex associated with this, I don’t really have any right to preach about it unless provoked (over thiry years a carnivore), which in my eyes is a good thing.

The next blog will cover what happened when the hens arrived in our garden and the first few days. Would we be accepted into their flock?

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