The British Hen Welfare Trust has been taking spent hens from caged units and rehoming them for 10 years, with the total approaching half a million. It also fully supports the UK poultry industry, as Jake Davies discovers.
For many working in the poultry industry, the route in was keeping a few hens in their youth. Indeed, some fairly impressive businesses have stemmed from a simple egg round.
Jane Howorth, who set up the British Hen Welfare Trust a decade ago, has supplied some 50,000 hens to such fledgling keepers every year.
Certainly, when kids visit Mrs Howorth’s house in Devon to pick up some hens, their excitement is palpable. Most birds at the end of a 15-month spell in even the best-managed colony unit will emerge looking a little forlorn to say the least.
It’s easy to see how poor feather cover and a dusty comb can engender compassion to care for hens. The reality is they are remarkably robust, and will often return to full health and steady egg laying within a couple of weeks.
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Mrs Howorth says it was at the age of 17, in the late 1970s, that she first became concerned at the conditions laying hens were kept in. “I was a stroppy teenager looking for a crusade – at that point, I had never even seen a chicken.”
Where her story diverges from what one might expect is the moderate approach she has taken to pressing for change. “Right from day one it was not about berating farmers.”
Instead, what began as a campaign of writing to her MP has ended in a movement that has taken almost half a million hens from intensive poultry farms to people’s back gardens.
It’s a simple education process. They see end-of-lay hens straight from colony units, take them home and within a few weeks will often have a well-feathered bird exhibiting natural behaviour and delivering fresh eggs every couple of days. The improvement speaks for itself, and there really is no need to be anti-farming, or attack the conditions.
“I support the industry across the board,” says Mrs Howorth. While she wants to see as much free-range and back-yard production as possible, her charity is not about ending colony production.
“I would prefer British production because we have the best welfare in the world.” As long as there is a market in the UK for colony, she wants the hens to lay their eggs in the UK.
“The potential for trade deals to open the door for imports from countries with lower standards fills me with dread,” she adds.
From the farm
Poultry World followed the charity during one of its collections.
For the farmer, who allowed a team of volunteers and charity staff to spend a morning catching 1,500 hens from one of his units, it is a simple economic transaction.
The farmer – who asked to remain anonymous – was one of the first to open his doors to the British Hen Welfare Trust, and admits to some initial reticence. “I think the first time, we were both a bit nervous.”
Ultimately, the reason the farmer got involved was the premium that the charity would pay over the spent hen price. “It isn’t significant, but is enough for me to be interested.”
And with spent hen prices currently in the doldrums, this bonus is particularly welcome. It’s typically a few dozen pence above the spent hen rate, but some will donate their birds for free.
So, just before they were sent to slaughter, a small team visited to collect a few hundred hens. “They are pretty business-like and take biosecurity – my biggest worry – very seriously.”
That was apparent on the day Poultry World visited. The first warning was to wear clean clothes and boots, which were disinfected before entering the farm, as were car wheels.
The next step was catching birds – two in each hand – and carefully passing them along a human chain, crating them and loading up a rag-tag band of vehicles. While two present were paid staff, the bulk of the team was made up of volunteers.
Once loaded, the different vehicles split up, travelling to some of the 30 distribution points that the charity operates across the country. It now works with 50 farms, most of which are colony units.
The charity will rehome free-range and barn-reared birds, but finds it difficult – people have bought into the idea of giving caged hens a chance to experience life outdoors.
Back to base
Once back at Mrs Howorth’s home, the confused birds are checked and unloaded into an outbuilding ready for rehousing. The vast majority are given away that day. It makes for one disruptive day before moving on to their new home.
But it’s also part of the education process, allowing people to see exactly what birds look like when leaving either colony or commercial free-range farms. Mrs Howorth says the condition of hens at end of lay from the two systems is now comparable, as the ban on battery cages in 2012 saw a “massive improvement” in bird health.
The minimum number of hens that people can take is three, and people are strictly vetted before they turn up, pay a suggested donation of £5 and take them home.
By mid afternoon people start pulling up to collect their hens. One family is replacing birds caught by the badger, another lady works for a school and will place the hens under the care of children with learning difficulties.
The suggested donation of £5 makes them cheaper than point-of-lay pullets from a garden centre. But most simply want hens for the garden and feel that these birds – with plenty of eggs left to lay – deserve a second lease of life.