Little Hen Rescue is a Norfolk-based charity that rescues ex-battery hens from farms and installations that are going to the wall, or which are replacing chickens with something else. Rather than letting the poultry be recycled into cat food or some similarly fowl fate, LHR puts the hens in touch with new owners.
Thus it was that the Croxii made an eggscruciatingly early start (for a Sunday) and made their way to the LHR HQ equipped with two pet carriers and a large cardboard box, for the purposes of rescuing four ex-battery chooks and converting them to solar energy.
Most chooks in battery installations are crammed into very small boxes in what look like railway overhead luggage compartments. They never see the sunshine, have little room to stand up or move around, and don’t know how to hold a knife and fork eat and drink for themselves. When they arrive at LHR they are very weak. Volunteer Joan allowed me to take pictures: here are some chickens rescued only yesterday. The reason why they are all sitting down is that they cannot stand up.
After a while they have recovered sufficiently to walk about …
By the time they are ready to be re-homed they are entirely self-propelled, feisty and right little buggers to catch. Here is one of the four we rescued, in the Eglu formerly inhabited by our bantams, but who moved to Pondside Lodge yesterday.
The chooks all looked rather like Rhode-Island Reds, the chickens my mother raised in our garden when I was growing up. These have a great reputation as reliable layers, which is why they are popular with farmers. I asked volunteer Rebecca what breed our chooks were, and she said that battery chooks tend to have strain numbers, selected from a number of stocks to lay as many eggs as possible. Because of this, battery chooks do have Rhode-Island in their pedigree. Indeed, two of our new chooks laid eggs in the car on the way home.
So how did LHR come by these particular hens? Or indeed, hens? Joan told me that the first part – and the trickiest – is making contact with farmers willing to dispose of their poultry in this way, and perhaps none to keen to advertise what might be distinctly substandard conditions of husbandry. Our chooks were among a flock of 10,000: the farmer wanted to get rid of them because of new animal-husbandry regulations which come into force next year, requiring battery chooks to have more room and places to scratch. But this requirement would have shaved the farmer’s margins below that of majors such as Tesco, so he wanted to get rid of the flock and use his barns for something more profitable. Hence LHR has all these chooks to re-home … in less than a month. When we arrived at LHR central, the farmyard was crowded with people buying chooks for £1.50 a pop (note – you can’t just turn up: you have to register first), as well as poultry accoutrements such as layer’s mash.