My last minute twilight panics over netting staples and wire gave way to sunny morning, the kind that makes it look as though the world has been washed overnight. A car full of friends arrived at 10am – and so began a long drive up to the Lincolnshire Wolds and my foray into the world of poultry keeping.
My first glimpse of Itchy, Scratchy and Battina was three pale and frightened-looking hens scratching around an otherwise empty stable. We were the last ‘re-homers’ of the day. They’d only been released from their cages that morning but still managed to put up a spirited resistance to being caught. I was impressed: my girls were feisty! Into a cardboard box they went…
Friends tell me that for ‘ex-batts’ (i.e. hens formerly housed in battery cages) they’re really not in too bad a condition – sometimes they can barely walk and have next to no feathers. However, the psychological trauma of being housed in a cage showed itself as I gently lifted them out of their travelling box. They were in reasonable health but they were scared.
Comparing them to the bantams my housemate keeps, hand reared and free-range since birth, these girls were a sorry sight. Shown grass, fresh air and sunshine, they simply didn’t know what to do with themselves. They huddled, bewildered and ghostly looking, close to the fence; perhaps finding comfort in the only thing they’d ever known – enclosure.
So, we lit a barbecue, opened some wine and watched. As the afternoon wore on, tentative peck followed tentative peck, a scratch here and a scratch there. It was as if they were waking up to what species they really were. Not just egg-laying machines, just another cog in the factory farming system; but animals in their own right, with their own free will, allowed and able to do as they please. It was unbelievably heartwarming to see these three bedraggled creatures find their feet.
Every day now as I go to tend them on my way to work, and see them on my way back, I watch as their confidence grows, they become bolder and more exploratory. Even in the space of three days the colour of their combs and faces has improved. I just pray I can keep them safe from Mr Fox.
If you fancy re-homing some ex-battery hens, please contact the British Hen Welfare Trust.