Watching my sleek hens scratching energetically round the garden, it's hard to believe that when I first got them they were so bedraggled that I couldn't tell them apart. Because of this, they were all called Jane at first; then, as feathers grew back and they established a personality pecking order, they were all given new names: Jacqueline-Jane, Susan-Jane, Sarah-Jane and so on.
The tiny proportion of Britain's 20 million battery birds that are rescued from their cages and start a new life must be among the luckiest in the world. But they still protest as, struggling and pecking, they're whisked into the daylight for the first time since entering their prisons as pullets (adolescent chickens).
Holding a chicken upside-down calms her amazingly. Tips like these are helpful to know if there are up to 1,000 to shift in a hurry. Jane Howorth, who runs the Battery Hen Welfare Trust from home in Chulmleigh, Devon, works with other volunteers to extricate the minority of hens who are to be given new homes; the unlucky rest will be slaughtered, end up as pet food or landfill.
Jane, 45, works with farmers who are happy to see unwanted birds going to good homes. She has worked out a detailed rescue plan in the two-and-a-half years since she began rescuing chickens en masse. It is not a dainty process. Wellingtons or work boots are the only sensible footwear, and if you turn up, as I did at first, in a pristine white T-shirt, you want your head examining.
First, the chickens need to be taken out of their cages. The tallest helpers are useful for the top tiers (the main advantage of battery hens is not that they are more productive, but that they can be stacked to make more efficient use of space). They then pass the birds to the runners, who carry them, four at a time (two in each hand, firmly grasped by the legs), out of the shed. Finally, the crate-fillers pack them gently but swiftly into plastic crates, which are loaded onto trailers (or into any available vehicle spaces) for the trip back to Chulmleigh.
Here, a further gang of volunteers awaits, including a vet. Hens are carefully checked over, overgrown claws are clipped and the odd sick bird is left to recuperate. The rest will start happy, new, free-range lives.
When they emerge, they may look bedraggled and in some cases pink and featherless (the "oven-readies"), but each will have a new home, and the vehicles, all with boxes, crates or baskets on the back seats, stretch down the drive. Some take a couple of dozen birds; others just take a few. I hadn't intended to take any. But my six original hens were getting elderly and weren't laying as before; so I ended up begging two stout cardboard boxes and loading each with four scrawny, bald brown birds.
The journey back down the M5 was not the most fun I've ever had. The indignant hens first started a terrific flurry of flapping, scratching and pecking (for heaven's sake! Surely they should be used to close confinement?). In the rear-view mirror I saw a beady-eyed head emerging from a pecked-out ventilation hole. But just as an alarming escape seemed imminent, they all went ominously silent. Had they all died of shock? Nope; when I changed gear, they all squawked furiously again.
The boxes just about held up till home and I plopped them into their new run. This silenced them completely, as they peered around, amazed. Used to drinking from drip-feeders, they didn't recognise a dish of water until dabbled under their beaks, and their unfamiliarity with solid ground led to some unsteady wobbling.
But once former battery hens find their feet, they pick up very quickly. After just a few days, their egg yolks went from pale yellow to a deep orange that looked and tasted delicious. Once into their stride, they started laying eggs faster than we could give them away, to the delight of our neighbours, who at once began contributing kitchen scraps: veg peelings, apple cores, lettuce leaves, stale bread. The supermarket bargain bin late on Fridays also helps (they've feasted on organic Swiss chard marked down from £2.50 to 20p) and they love cucumber.
After a few illegal forays into a neighbour's garden, they've settled into their own territory and are not at all demanding. Chickens really do come home to roost and they retreat tidily to their henhouse each dusk (though some have not learned to perch, as they should, instead squeezing into their nestboxes to sleep).
A well manicured garden isn't ideal for hens and vegetable beds must be out of bounds, but they help in the garden, says Jane. "They eat slugs and other pests, and their poo is great for the compost heap: it's richer in nitrogen and phosphates than horse poo. They scratch around in the soil, break it up and stop weeds getting a hold - they're quite good at ground clearing."
Last year the Battery Hen Welfare Trust rehoused 11,457 hens; all now lead happy and productive lives. Hens live for up to eight or nine years, but a farming cycle clears out the tired birds at just a year old, even though they still have plenty of eggs left in them.
"Chickens really are underdogs," says Jane. "Veal crates have been banned, using farrowing crates for pigs has been limited, but everyone seems to forget about the battery hens." Writing to supermarkets, manufacturers, MPs and MEPs helps, and Jane's website has template letters. "Writing registers your opinion and it's a powerful way to make a difference to those birds we can't rescue," she says.
Jane's first rescue was just 100 chickens; now she often pulls out 800 or 1,000 at a time. She organises rescue coordinators in Lancashire, Lincoln, Norfolk, Kent, Surrey, the Isle of Wight, Worcester and Carmarthen, so if you'd like one (or six or 12), you might not have to travel too far. Jane nominally charges 50p per bird, but this doesn't cover costs, so the charity relies on donations.
RSPCA surveys show that most of us don't approve of battery farming, says Jane; but we forget that many processed foods are made from battery-hen eggs (Waitrose and Marks and Spencer have both, progressively, started using only free-range eggs in their own-brand products). Though sales of free-range eggs have soared recently, around 60 per cent of this country's eggs are still from battery farms.
Farmers, however, aren't to blame for the battery egg industry, says Jane; they are simply responding to market demand for cheap food. And, sadly, if battery farming was banned in the UK, it would simply open the floodgates to imports from countries where welfare standards are non-existent. "In the long term, the best thing we can do is vote with our shopping baskets and give our farmers the confidence that we will support them if they switch to free-range."
Battery Hen Welfare Trust (07773 596 927; www.thehenshouse.co.uk)
Flying the coop: what you need
To keep four chickens, Jane Howorth suggests a minimum internal space of 4ft x 4ft. The more outside space, the better. A plot 10ft x 10ft is plenty, but a smaller run will do as long as the chickens can regularly be moved on to clean grass. "This is mansion proportions to a hen coming straight from a cage," she says.
Secure accommodation is vital, otherwise foxes will take advantage. But you don't have to spend a fortune. "A six-by-four shed from any DIY store makes a nice henhouse you can stand up in, and is large enough for a dozen chickens," says Jane. "You simply need to add a nestbox, a perch and a small doorway." The trendy Eglu is a great idea for urban chicken aficionados; Omlet, which makes these pods, also delivers other hen essentials (08454 502 056, www.omlet.co.uk).
First-grade wood shavings, plus hay or straw for the nestboxes. A thick layer of newspaper on the floor can simply be picked up and dumped on to the compost heap at cleaning-out time.
DRINKER AND FOOD BOWL
You can buy drinkers with large reservoirs, but a saucepan or dog bowl will do, as long as it doesn't tip easily.
Layer's mash (which ex-battery hens are accustomed to eating dry), corn, grit and oyster shells. The grit is a digestive aid and the oyster shells make for strong egg shells. Jane also suggests baking egg shells, crushing them to a powder and feeding them to the chickens every two weeks, for the calcium they contain. Jane recommends a vitamin and mineral supplement to build up former battery hens.Reuse content