A couple of weeks ago I took a trip down to Watton, Norfolk with Paul (Hench Herbivore), Gemma (Finding Gemma), Penny (Founder of Norwich Vegans) and Vegan Revolution to collect twelve ex-commercial hens that were to be rescued by a volunteer from the non-profit organisation Fresh Start For Hens that same day.
Commercially, all laying hens are slaughtered at the age of 72 weeks, when their production drops slightly. Their often underweight carcasses are worth very little and are usually sold for dog food, baby food or cheap, processed pies etc. Fresh Start For Hens work closely with British farmers and purchase the hens from the caged, barn and free range systems, just before their slaughter date. The rescued hens are then rehomed to individuals such as myself and Penny as companion animals for a chance to live out a peaceful retirement.
The sad fact is that despite a hen’s natural lifespan being up to eight years, the vast majority of rescued commercial hens only experience another one or two years before their exhausted bodies give up. Intensively bred since the 1940s to lay an egg every single day, their reproductive systems simply aren’t designed to keep them alive past those 72 weeks.
Upon reaching the pick-up point, which just so happened to be the volunteer’s own rural garden, we discovered that the hens in question were from a barn in Essex and the condition of their feathers varied from hen to hen. There were eighty of them and they were terrified. Taken from the windowless warehouse in which they had spent their entire lives. In one day they had been captured, caged and driven for hours to Norfolk where they were seeing the outdoors for the first time.
I’ve seen chickens look up and see the expansive blue sky for the first time and rush for cover at the sight of a blackbird flying overhead. I’ve seen them tentatively take a step onto grass and begin pecking for worms and dust bathing in the first patch of soil they find. Natural behaviours they have yearned to enact since they hatched cause them to make high pitched purring ‘squee’ sounds that can only be translated as delight.
79 hens (and one secret cockerel!) were rescued that day whilst hundreds more continued on to the slaughter house. 6 of those 79 came back with me to spend the rest of their lives in my garden along with Princess Leia the ex-battery hen, the last of a small flock that came from Little Hen Rescue two years prior. Their eggs will be fed back to them so that they can regain the nutrients that have been stolen from them for so long and they will feast to their heart’s content on broccoli, sweetcorn, cabbage and fruit.
We may not have changed the world that day, but the world was changed for those eighty that were saved.