“It’s like Fort Knox out there,” says Deborah Ramsay. Her face assumes an expression of steely determination as she describes her efforts to keep her chickens safe from foxes.
Deborah is a volunteer for the British Hen Welfare Trust, which rehomes former battery hens and campaigns to raise awareness of their plight, lobbies Government for more specific labelling of food regarding the origins of eggs used in food products and works with farmers to improve the welfare of hens.
The organisation finds homes for hens that have reached the end of their working lives. At around 18 months old they are no longer economically viable for battery hen farmers to keep and this is where the BHWT steps in. Many farmers get directly in touch with the organisation to let them know when they have some hens they no longer want and so the BHWT goes and collects them and arranges for them to be taken to new homes where they will be kept as pets.
It is a completely new life for the hens who are used to being confined in cages but which then go on to lives where they can roam around, peck at the ground, have a dust bath and generally behave like chickens. The surprising thing is that even hens that have lived their whole lives in a battery farm, revert to all their natural behaviours within a day or so. The organisation re-homes about 65,000 hens this way every year which would otherwise go to slaughter.
Part of the work involves making sure that those who have volunteered to have a hen as a pet, are suitable. The first thing they check is whether the hens can be housed in an environment where foxes can be kept out, but they also need to make sure that the prospective chicken-keepers understand all that is involved in looking after chickens.
Deborah has been a volunteer for the trust for three years and she has six former battery hens or “ex-bats” living happily in a coop at the back of her New Duston home.
The coop is a sturdy structure with a covered roof and aviary wire around the sides and along the ground outside to stop foxes biting, clawing or digging their way in.
She loves to watch them and says they definitely have their own personalities: Magrat, “a bit of a bully”, Grannie, “a bit stand-offish and a bit of a poser”, Rocky “just likes to fight”, Mabel “top hen, she lords around the rest of them”, Ronnie “quite a shy little thing” and Maggie who “loves her food”. Magrat has even been taught to do a trick, pecking a picture of the type of food she is being offered. “Anything for a meal worm,” Deborah said.
Deborah got involved with the organisation simply because she wanted some chickens, but after initially homing four hens she became more interested in the welfare of battery hens and soon changed her shopping habits.
Before getting involved with the trust she bought free-range eggs as a matter of course, but now she makes sure that everything she buys is free from battery eggs. It makes shopping trips longer because she is carefully reading the ingredients lists and she refuses to buy anything that might contain battery eggs.
She always asks when she is eating in a restaurant if the eggs are free-range and if the answer is no she will choose something egg-free and make a point of not going there again.
She said: “I check all the labels. I don’t buy cakes any more, I make my own, I don’t buy pork pies or pasties, I don’t buy from bakeries unless I know they only use free range.”
The issue of the labelling of eggs in food products is one that the organisation is tackling. Deborah said it would be useful to have the country of origin of eggs labelled in food items because in this country farmers have been using enriched cages since the start of this year and if you could check that food contained only British eggs you would know that at least that standard was being met, even if they are not free range.
She believes that whether the egg industry continues widespread battery farming or goes for more free-range care is down to shoppers. She said: “It’s up to consumers. If consumers didn’t buy those eggs there wouldn’t be the need for it, but some people just can’t afford it. You speak to people and they say I can’t afford to buy free range. But the only way we can get farmers to change is to be willing to pay because they can’t afford to change otherwise. The farmers have done really well with the new standards. Farmers are doing something for the local economy, I feel for them. Many of them would love to go free range but can’t afford it.”
To find out more about the British Hen Welfare Trust and about keeping chickens or volunteering to have an ex-battery farm chicken as a pet, visit the website at www.bhwt.org.uk