The British Hen Welfare Trust believes laying hens deserve to enjoy a natural lifestyle while they lay tasty eggs for us to eat. Here, Jane Howarth of the British Hen Welfare Trust explains what they do, the ethics of the egg industry and how your life too could be enriched by hens.
For the one simple fact the egg is surely nature’s most versatile foodstuff, neatly encased in innovative and effective packaging, it’s no surprise that at any given time in the UK there are around 36 million laying hens popping out eggs for us to enjoy.
Around 45% of those laying hens are hidden, out of sight and out of mind. A quick calculation tells us that, give or take a feather, over 16,000,000 hens are right now sitting in cages with no grass beneath their feet, no breeze gently ruffling their feathers and no sunshine on their backs. They pop out approximately an egg a day for their entire lives on reaching ‘point of lay’, which is between 16-18 weeks old. At just over a year old, egg production rates and eggshell quality often dip, so they are slaughtered and replaced with a fresh flock who are fit and capable of maintaining that high production rate, for just another year. And on it goes.
A second chance at life
For the British Hen Welfare Trust successful campaigning has always been about spreading a positive message, about understanding and respect rather than conflict and reproach. That’s why, in 2005, the charity set out to educate consumers rather than berate farmers, and to demonstrate how individuals could influence farming in the UK through their shopping basket. And from the outset it was clear the best route to effective influence was to use the birds themselves as an educational toolkit.
Since 2005, over 760,000 commercial laying hens have been given a second chance in life, with around 12,000 grateful educational flocks consisting of an average five to six birds flying from their farm cages to back gardens all over the country. More importantly, they’ve immersed themselves in family life, winning hearts and minds wherever they’ve landed. As a result, hens have risen up through the pet popularity ratings, and are now close on the heels of rabbits, guinea pigs and other small furries. There’s no doubt they’re doing at good job at selling themselves, with the additional winning USP under their wing of being the only pet to provide a fresh and tasty breakfast. Children who ordinarily wouldn’t consider dipping a toasted soldier into a boiled egg, suddenly love the daily treasure hunt of bringing home their breakfast from the bottom of the garden.
One of the key objectives of the British Hen Welfare Trust is to encourage those who eat eggs to buy eggs laid by hens that have lived a more natural lifestyle; small flock free-range and/or organic hens being given the opportunity to at least experience those natural behaviours their caged counterparts can never enjoy. Natural behaviours, such as rootling for bugs and slugs, dust bathing to minimise bothersome lice and mites, socialising, stretching and sunbathing. Experiences a caged hen can only dream about.
As a result of the British Hen Welfare Trust’s work, and of the 12,000 adoptions fulfilled each year for 60-65,000 lucky hens, more hen keepers learn the joys of welcoming feathered friends into their family and the pleasure of a fresh poached egg on toast. Their new-found appreciation leads them to consider, too, the relatives of their new pets with the consequence that plenty will stop eating chicken, or at least raise their welfare criteria when shopping. It’s a natural, organic, pragmatic and positive way to promote welfare and raise awareness of the highly under-valued humble laying hen, and their meat counterparts.
Adopting hens comes with a warning however, they’re supremely addictive to most and once bitten, always smitten with their endearing charm and precocious characters; each slightly different. In short, keeping hens as pets is life enriching; the most common comment we receive by far from our 50,000+ supporters. They are adept at scrounging, providing entertainment across all age groups and generally behaving outrageously in a funny kind of way that makes us laugh and feel good about our immediate world. Especially welcome in such troubled times.
Not so bird-brained after all
Hens are relatively easy and cheap to keep, once the initial purchase of a sturdy, predator-proof hen house has been made. They are grateful for the simplest of lives requiring only access to food, water, fresh air and space to make them happy hens. Although a tickle under the wattles (fleshy flaps of skin that hang either side of the throat) and/or wings will always be appreciated. They quickly acclimatise to life outside and luxuriate in the opportunity to nestle into a cosy nest for their less frequent, but regular egg production. Eggs become a welcome gift for friends, neighbours, colleagues and wider family most of whom are nearly always amazed at the freshness, yolk colour and taste; you can’t beat homegrown after all. In turn this provides the perfect opportunity to open-up conversation, to discuss the fact that the birds aren’t bird-brained after all but curious and canny additions to a happy family. Did you know that hens have the ability to distinguish between overhead and ground predators? And to understand when a cockerel is offering a tasty titbit he’s found and to know when you’re entering the coop holding a dish, that it’s highly likely to contain something yummy? Well they can.
For the lucky hens (less than 1% of the national flock) that have found their way into our crates and onto a better life, not only do they provide entertainment, enrichment and eggs but they’re beginning to demonstrate their benefits are far wider reaching. Hens in prisons around the UK are demonstrating their ability to improve resident well-being, teach responsibility, social interaction, numeracy, literacy, and more. Hens in schools are teaching young children that all animals are capable of interaction and fun, and all deserve respect. Hens in residential homes for the elderly are bringing with them nostalgic memories of times long gone, helping to enrich and at same time calm lives as they do for those with mental health issues. In essence, pet hens have a lot more to offer than an egg.
Fancy your own flock?
Anyone interested in adopting can register online www.bhwt.co.uk or call the British Hen Welfare Trust on 01884 860084. We always have a long queue of hens hoping their turn will come, where they will be plucked from their cage and into our crates.
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