Ex-Battery Hen Rescue – 2 Year Anniversary

Today is December 16th. Which is nice.

It also happens to be the 2 year anniversary of the day we picked up four scrawny, balding, pale chickens from the Battery Hen Welfare Trust’s Norfolk rescue.

I’d never kept chickens before, so in a way didn’t really know what on earth to expect from them. Rich had grown up with chickens – one of which he’d named Cheval (for non-Francophiles, that’s Horse in French) – so had a little knowledge.

We didn’t chose the girls, nor did they choose us. Emma, BHWT’s Norfolk co-ordinator, simply picked them up out of a huddle of slightly dazed looking girls, had their toenails clipped and carefully placed them into the large cat carriers we’d brought along. It was quick and well organised, and before I knew it, we’d started the two hour drive back home.

That evening we got our first egg, and I was so excited about it I had to ring Mum and let her know. Being December and typically cold and damp outside, we’d set them up a pen in the conservatory. Cynthia set about scratching away at the straw we’d laid down – something she’d been denied thus far in her life. We’d made a makeshift perch with straw bale staircase to get them used to perching too.

But that first night, I sat in with them as the sun went down. Yoko decided that sitting on my lap and stuffing her head into my armpit was good enough for roosting, whilst the others decided to use their temporary cat-carrier nestboxes as their choice nightime accomodation. I think after a couple of nights Pattie got the jist of perching, and within the week (and a few attempts at perching on the old piano) all four girls had got the hang of it.

After a couple of weeks they seemed well adjusted enough to their partial free range life to take the next step into the big outdoors. We already had our Forsham Ark and extension run ready for them, so out they went one morning. Lots of clucking, scratching and excitable chatter ensued. Around the end of January we started to let them have the run of the Smallest Smallholding, but only when we were around. We quickly found out just how un-hen-proofed it was when having to lean through the ranch fencing, and through gritted teeth (so that the neighbours wouldn’t hear) calling them back in like naughty children. Luckily we discovered that they were entranced by running water, so a few sploshes of Rich’s tea from his tea cup would usually help to herd them back.

Over the next few months we hen-proofed so that they could gleefully free range without having to have us supervising. They sprouted new glossy feathers, their faces coloured up and everybody plumped up nicely. Eggs seemed to flow freely and all was well.

In the summer of 2006, however, Yoko stopped laying and started spending a lot of time sitting in the nestbox. One night I felt her undercarriage and was alarmed at how big it had become. Cue numerous stressful vet visits, changing vets and lots of tests to determine that she had sterile egg yolk peritonitis. The vet couldn’t tell me how long she had, or how it would affect her. It was a waiting game. One that is still going on.

Yoko seemed to cope well with her condition. We decided to let her get on with and monitor her health. She’s not as mobile as she used to be and very large in the undercarriage department, but she deals with it. She follows Maureen about and has fits and starts of running, ensuring her place as head honcho by pecking and barging. I am amazed that Yoko is still with us. I think that next year will be her last, given how big she’s got, but I don’t like to dwell on it and will deal with it when the time comes. She’s doing well now, so to anyone who has a hen with sterile EYP, my advice would be just give them a chance.

We lost Cynthia in March ’08 to suspected Lymphoid Leukosis. We’d been battling with sour crop, but it turned out to be a surface problem to a much deeper chronic illness that we could do nothing about. I cried like a baby when we made the decision to have her put to sleep, but my misery was alleviated by the fact that I knew that we’d given her such a good life. One that she wasn’t originally destined to have.

Then after another five months of turmoil and on-off illness and treatment, Pattie peacefully passed away in August of this year. She’d spent the day sunbathing, with her wings stretched out and pottering around the garden. I went out for 10 minutes and when I got back, she was lying on her side in the garden, as though she’d dropped off to sleep. Again, the sadness that I felt was tempered by the fact that Pattie, a beautiful and perpetually delighted hen, had had over half her life living in freedom and happiness.

So here we are, near the close of one of the worst years of my life. I’ve lost a lot this year – my grandmother, too many beloved family pets, financial security, family issues and lots and lots of stress. But I still have so much to be thankful for. And part of that is my two lovely hens, Yoko and Maureen. Yoko might be a bit grumpy sometimes and doesn’t lay anymore, Maureen’s egg production has slowed a little too, but that doesn’t mean a thing to me. They’re still my wonderful hens. I still get a kick out of seeing them free ranging, sun bathing, dust bathing, scratching. I talking to Maureen and listen to her musical replies.

I sometimes wonder whether they have any recollection of their lives before they came here. In a way, I hope not. All I know is that my girls are content. They’re part of my Smallest Smallholding and they’ve been such an important part of my life, both as pets and as part of this ‘seeking the good life’ journey I’m on.

So if you’ve got any plans for 2009, how about this – rescue a few hens and give them a new life. You never know, it might just make your year.

You can rescue ex-battery hens from the Battery Hen Welfare Trust, and Free at Last.