A Holiday and a Battery Hen Rescue and Rehome

Officially, I’m on ‘holiday’ at the moment, although as yet we have no plans to actually go anywhere and spend a couple of days relaxing. We’ve bandied about some notion of wandering off to the coast and maybe staying for the day, or overnight, but I have no idea whether this thought will come into fruition. So for now, I’m using my ‘holiday’ to get a lot of jobs done in and around The Smallest Smallholding.

First on the list is giving the place a thorough clean and turnout. My housekeeping abilities are somewhat relaxed, although I have improved in recent years and at least my efforts are now regular, and I think I’m finally starting to become a bit more domesticated. Next on the list is finishing the digging out of the Mediterranean eating area. We’re now pretty much halfway, and already Rich and I have sat down together and started sketching out ideas of how it’s going to pan out. I’d love to be able to make use of it this year, but whether finances allow for that, we’ll have to see. I’m a little behind on my savings for the next tax payment, and in between that and trying to pay off my debts (mostly built up during university) and actually Having A Life, there’s next to nothing left over.

Which brings me to number three on the list – getting my websites sorted so that they can start earning. By trade, I’m a copywriter and SEO-in-the-making, so I have the creative skills and half of the technical skill to do this. Whilst I can’t build websites from scratch, and Rich really can’t spare enough time outside of his own gargantuan workload, there are other options open to me that I need to sit down and take time to explore – Joomla and the like. So I’ll need to spend my evenings taking a look at actually getting my projects rolling for the future.

Fourth on the list, is writing my little bookie. I need to start carrying around a notepad because quite often ideas just come to me, things that make me think ‘yes! that would fit in SO WELL!’… and then low and behold, a few hours later, that wondrous flicker of an idea has diminished, and I’m left with virtually nothing but a very vague recollection that’s no use to me at all.

Oh, and then there’s the potting on. I need to do it imminently, as the seedlings that I’ve actually been taking care of this year are starting to look a little yellow and pathetic. So another job to add to the list.

So yes, very busy this week.

Cynthia, from BHWT Norfolk in 2006, a few months after rescue and a year after her rescue

Cynthia, from BHWT Norfolk in 2006, a few months after rescue and a year after her rescue

Last weekend I was pretty busy too. It was my first ever battery hen rescue and rehome, and I am chomping at the bit to go back and help with the next rescue. I worked with Little Hen Rescue, a not for profit organisation set up by Jo, run from her farm in Norfolk. She works tirelessly in her own free time with a handful of volunteers, including the lovely Mel (who took me under her wing and let me ride along in her converted post office van to the farm) and Jules, and rehomes the hens from specially converted fields, stables and a ‘hospital’ room on the farm. Jo never turns away a hen, no matter how ill or weak it is. Little Hen Rescue believes that every hen should be given a chance, and if they need treatment, they get it at Jo’s farm and are given whatever time with a better quality of life, however long that time may be. She’s seem some amazing recoveries, and all treatment comes out of Jo’s pocket, and any money she raises for Little Hen.

Mel the Cambridgeshire coordinator, takes on the ‘wonky’ hens who sometimes have to learn to walk with one good leg, a collapsed breastbones due to their time in the cages, and other ‘wonky hen’ conditions. All live happily together – I’ve seen them ambling about in the their specially converted run with everything where they need it to be, and I can tell you, they are so very contented – and all are given another go at life.

At the farm, I was one of the volunteers given the hens as they came out of the cages, and handed them to the girls putting them in their transport crates, ready for their new lives. They seemed to be very calm, especially when together in the crates with enough room to move about, but somehow soothed by the presence of other hens around them. I can’t tell you how long it took, because I just kept going, kept getting them out as efficiently and calmly as possible. I didn’t feel any emotion really – I’ve seen the videos of the inside of battery farms and knew what to expect, and I tend to crack on with things and then do all the emotional bit later. So that’s what I did. Out of the cage, into the transport carriers ready for their new life. Over and over and over.

There’s about 7000 hens in this farm, and the farmer and his wife are moving over to free range. It’s a fairly long process, and Jo and some other organisations are on hand to get each and every last one of the battery girls out. We got out around 700 this time, and will be going back again for the next phase. Although I did feel sad that the majority of the hens were still in the cages, at least I walked away knowing that I’d be back to help them get out again. I tried not to look in the faces of the hens that I passed – occasionally you’d be watched and as  you passed them, they’d retreat to the back of the cage, not so used to human presence. I was also lucky in that all girls removed from the cages were alive. Each girl is checked over, and if she’s thin, or wonky, or got a fat bottom (peritonitis), she’ll get one-to-one treatment.

I won’t lie, the inside of a battery hen house is bleak. I think that’s the right word. There is artificial lighting, but it creates a strange half light with no colour – just grey walls, grey cages, concrete floors, wire and steel, wooden stairs to the second floor of the four-tier cages. I didn’t go upstairs – we’re working our way through the cages and, I’ve been told, the ‘baldest’ hens will be upstairs, where the heat rises and causes them to drop their feathers more readily than the downstairs girls. The dust is incredible, although apparently this farm is of a good standard compared to some others.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I did get something very valuable from it. I got to drop off some hens to a few points in Cambridgeshire, to see them make their new life. And the efforts that some people go to is incredible. I saw 12 girls rehomed into a corner of a paddock, with a tiny stream running alongside it, two hawthorn shrubs and a tree for shade and shelter, and a huge henhouse made by the husband of the lady rehoming the hens, surrounded by 7ft wire fencing and topped and bottomed with electric wire for extra safety. They were going to be introduced to a cockerel, a very small breed and saved from the table, so a rescue of his own sort. The lady looked at us and asked, slightly worried, “is it OK for them?”. The thing was, I got to see what they came from and what their new life was, and I could safely say that they were going to be in chickeny heaven there. That, for me, was very very special.

And having met the farmer, it helps bring things into perspective. When it comes to battery farming, I don’t think there’s a ‘villain’. We’re all responsible, in a way. To move away from battery farmer, as this farmer is doing, is a very expensive move, and one that has to be supported by merchants (supermarkets) and consumers (us). We all have to make the stand, make the difference that drives more sustainable and kinder free range systems forwards. Of course, there will be farmers around the country that don’t really care, and will carry on regardless (in which case, we need to push forward-thinking legislation) but you might be surprised how many of them do care, and want to make the move away from intensive systems. That’s got to be supported and reinforced by the whole buying chain. All of us. We need to demand it. We need to support it.

Maureen, rescued 2006, RIP 2009, living free at The Smallest Smallholding

Maureen, rescued 2006, RIP 2009, living free at The Smallest Smallholding

I know a lot of you reading this will no doubt already buy free range or even better, organic free range eggs (although, did you know, supermarkets mark up battery eggs by a few pence, and organic free range eggs are marked up by around 63p!). But we’ve got to make everybody around us aware – no just the eggs they buy, but the cakes they buy, the pasta, the sweeties, the pastries, ANYTHING that contains eggs. Most battery eggs are ‘unseen’, and we’ve got to make people aware. So go on, tell people. Write to the supermarkets. Get them to bring their margins down on organic and free range eggs, so that the myth that they’re THAT much more expensive isn’t so true. Encourage people to buy British free range, to support our farmers to make the switch and move away from foreign imports. Buy local free range, if it’s available.

Keep fighting the fight to get these girls out of cages. Let’s take control of our farming systems. Let’s show everyone what we really want! Are you with me? 🙂

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Waiting for Yoko

Today is Wednesday and I’m not at work.

Last week I booked off two days in anticipation of a plethora of chicken-related problems and sorrow. On Monday I booked an extra day of holiday. Yesterday was my first day without Maureen. Tomorrow we may be saying goodbye to Yoko. Tomorrow I may be chicken-less.

She’s been booked in for an operation, and it’s literally a case of we’ll be lucky if she makes it through. Yoko has had sterile egg-yolk peritonitis for around 18 months, and it got to a point where she’s so big that something drastic had to be done. We couldn’t just leave her to waddle around and prop herself up in bushes until she was too big to move.

We’ve tried having her drained before, but the needles they use for a hen that’s not under anaesthetic mean that they couldn’t get much of the thick, gloopy liquid out of her. Not enough to make any sort of difference. So we really had to let her get on with it until we got to a crossroads. And we’re there now. If we do nothing, Yoko may die. And would probably suffer. If we do do something – an operation – she may still die. But there’s a slim chance that she’ll make it through. And that’s a chance we have to give her.

So tomorrow, we’re taking her in in the morning. The plan is for the vet to put her under anaesthetic, get the widest gauge needle possible and try and remove as much fluid from her abdomen as possible. Because she’s under anaesthetic, they can be a bit more aggressive about it. But there are several factors which are making it into one very risky procedure. Firstly, Yoko is so big that the pressure on her lungs (not sure if she’ll be breathing with her air sacs too) may mean that she stops breathing when she’s under the anaesthetic. She might not wake up.

The other risk is that because she has air sacs and organs near the fluid, there could be a puncture. Obviously the vet will do their best, but it’s still a risk. Thirdly, they may not be able to drain much fluid off at all. It’s very thick – a mixture of egg yolk, egg white and possibly some other fluid – and the stuff that’s been in there a while probably looks a bit like cooked egg. They can’t risk taking too much off because it would cause all sorts of problems that would send her into shock. So it’s a case of trying to get the right amount out that will mean she can go back to living a more fulfilled life, but not so much that her system is sent into disarray.

The other risk is from infection. But we’re not even thinking that far ahead yet – there are so many things counting against her that we’ll be surprised if we don’t get ‘the call’ to say that we’re going to have to let her go. Or that she went already.

I’m trying to be philosophical about it, really I am. And I’m betting there’s people that may stumble across this blog and think I’m some wimpy, sentimental vegetarian. Yes, I’m attached to my chickens. Or chicken, as it is now. Yes, I get really upset when they go. Yes, I don’t think of them in terms of productivity. No, I don’t think they should be culled or eaten when their ‘usefulness’ has passed. I just don’t see chickens in the same light as some people. I just do what I feel is right for me and my girls.

I firmly believe we’ve done all we can for Yoko, and now it’s out of our hands.  We’ve cared for her, made sure she’s not suffering (although she has been getting increasingly uncomfortable). She’s been spoiled rotten, she’s had the freedom to do what she wants when she wants. In the past couple of days, because I’ve been off work I’ve been able to spend loads of time with her to make sure she’s not lonely and feels secure. She seems OK with Maureen not being around. As I type she’s stood under a bush not three feet from the sofa I’m on.

The really annoying thing is that I can’t spend as much time fussing over her today as I did yesterday. My back ‘went’ this morning (remember, I’m 26 with a cheap back) whilst I was putting the lid on the rabbit’s run. So I’ve been hobbling, bent over looking like I ought to have a dowager’s hump, trying to do as much as I can without wrecking myself. It’s so bloody typical. I’ve give her treats, talked to her through the window, hobbled out there every half an hour or so. Urrrgggghhh. Not helping my mood.

But anyway…It’s just a case of wait and see for Yoko. Rich will take the call – although, I’ll be there to help make any decisions that need making. By this time tomorrow, I’m sure we’ll know what’s going to happen either way. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Best of luck Pokey xx