Jo Barlow, from Cornwall, has come to love her ex-bats. She tells of her joy as she discovered how each has an individual character. Now she wants to spread the word!
When we moved to Cornwall three years ago, top of my list of priorities was having some ex-battery chickens to supply us with free range eggs. Whilst there are so many other beautiful breeds of chickens available, there was only ever one type of chicken for me. There is something intrinsically rewarding about helping another creature, especially one as deserving as the little battery hen.
So, barely had the kettle been unpacked in our new house, than I was excitedly heading off to the BHWT re-homing centre to pick up my three reserved girls.
As a complete novice, I must confess to having felt rather daunted by the prospect of keeping chickens and, even though I had swotted up a great deal on it, there seemed to be so much to learn and so much that could potentially go wrong. I needn’t have worried. Keeping ex-bats is pretty easy – other than keeping them safe from predators and well fed, the most important thing is to shower them with love. Rest assured these special ladies will return your love ten-fold.
When I re-homed my first girls in 2009, battery hens spent over a year living in tiny cramped cages with no room to move properly or exhibit natural behaviours such as scratching, foraging or perching. They were subjected to long hours of artificial daylight, were routinely de-beaked and were often bald in patches due to being pecked by their cage mates. With the 2012 Barren Cage Ban now in place, at least in the UK, conditions have improved marginally – the girls now have a little more room to move around, a nest box, somewhere to perch and scratching materials. However the enriched caged girls come out in a very similar state to the barren caged hens so there is still a long way to go in hen welfare. It is also worth noting that all ‘spent’ commercial hens, be they enriched cage, barn or free range, are sent to slaughter.
So I knew what to expect …or so I thought.
What I wasn’t ready for was the sight of hundreds of semi-featherless little souls running round the barn delighted and bewildered by their new found freedom. My big mistake had been thinking of battery hens as a ‘whole’ but not as individual characters. This simple discovery was to be a life-changing ‘eureka’ moment.
I am not ashamed to say that I cried as I was given my girls – Agatha, Aurora and Audrey – all in various stages of featherlessness. Over the next few weeks, as we got to know each other, I was amazed by these three very beautiful but very different girls. In the cage they were characterless and faceless, but in my garden their true characters began to shine through: Audrey, whose lack of feathers belied her enormous, cheeky and sometimes rather mischievous character; Aurora, my scruffy, gorgeous girl with feathers all asquiff; and darling Agatha, my big gentle mother hen who never threw a peck in anger.
Very soon, all three reverted to their natural behaviours and spent their days scratching, sunbathing in the Cornish sunshine, foraging and dustbathing. Have you ever seen the joy on an ex-bat’s face as she experiences her first dustbath? She has waited her whole life for that and it will bring a tear to the eye of even the hardest soul – in this case my husband, Gary. They started to re-grow their lost feathers as, firstly they sported five o’clock shadow, and then the paintbrush-esque feathers started to emerge. I spent many days obsessing over Audrey’s undercarriage, watching for any signs of re-growth and was fast becoming something of a chicken ‘anorak’.
However, the main emotion I hadn’t accounted for was the pure, unadulterated joy they brought to my life. If I had to single out the moment I fell head over heels in love with my girls, it was the first day they were free ranging in the garden and I opened the back door. They all ran across the garden, flapping their stubby wings, rushing into my open arms. From then on I was a lost cause!
Although, thinking about it, maybe it was the time I called them and three heads appeared over the top of the small compost heap, like three indignant shower-capped old ladies clutching their towels to their modesty, cross as I had interrupted their dusty ablutions.
Caring for ex-bats can take as much or as little time as you like. However, if you are like me, you can spend many, many hours a week doing not very much at all and just enjoying their company! There is nothing better for a world weary soul than watching these girls learning how to be real chickens again or sitting in the garden, having them gently ‘bwarking’ around your feet.
Like a proud parent, I show pictures of my girls to anybody who is interested and even those who aren’t. Spreading the word about the plight of the ex-battery hen has become something of a mission for me; I feel I owe it to my first three girls to re-home as many of their caged sisters as I can. I am also very proud to say that my gorgeous girls are now ex-bat ambassadors. Audrey became a BHWT pin-up sponsor girl and Agatha and Aurora graced the BHWT 2012 calendar as two very beautiful Misses January.
It will come as no surprise then, that after my original three beautiful girls, I subsequently rehomed 14 more, as well as starting co-ordinating hen re-homings for Fresh Start for Hens in Cornwall. Whilst I was rescuing these hens and offering them a better, free range life, these precious little girls have stolen my heart and changed my life. Caring for them, watching them develop and loving them is addictive and provides sunshine for the soul.