By Heather

Heather

Growing up on a farm among the rolling hills of Tyrone, I acquired an affection for friends of the feathered variety, when my brother and I were charged with the care-taking of a flock of red hens. Headed nervously by Chuck, the fast-footed bantam rooster, they roamed freely in their grassy enclosure and beyond, and were easily won over through the medium of food. The usual suspects making frequent trips to the kitchen door and peering in expectantly. Photographs from childhood featured the latest hen friends balancing on handle bars, or placed in a tree for the purposes of photography. Authentically free range, unlike the term defined by the industry, and unlike other farmed animals, most of them lived out their lives.

With growing media attention in recent years on the welfare of commercial laying hens, we decided to rescue some hens from a nearby battery farm. We were given a date on which to collect our two dozen hens and told owing to their condition, there would be no charge. Uncertain about what to expect yet reluctant to believe extreme cruelty could exist on a local farm so charmingly named, we reasoned animal welfare regulations would be in place.

I was unprepared when I witnessed hundreds of young hens on the eve of their slaughter. In a huge dimly- lit shed, row upon row of little ladies were held captive in conditions so harsh, they could produce eggs for no more than a year. I yearned to rescue every one of them, and could barely look into the wire cages where hens were packed in and almost unrecognisable. The bright red combs I loved, were pale and drooped over beaks, the dark brown feathers, white and malting with some hens almost completely bald.

A local man began throwing our hens into sacks held against the cement floor. When I asked him to be more careful, he erupted into laughter, more concerned with having banter than the welfare of the animals for which he was responsible. Already depleted, the other hens would also be roughly handled and transported to a slaughter house where their short lives would end in terror.

Once home, we carefully put the petrified hens into a pen and noticed how sensitive they were to noise, having only ever heard the sound of industrial ventilation. At first, the eggs of those that were still able to lay broke in our hands, owing to their poor physical state. Watching their first hesitant moments of freedom, we thought of the hens who would never experience the sun on their backs, dust-bathe, scratch the earth, or meander through the grass.

Within a few months it became difficult to tell the difference between the rescued hens and the veterans. Combs were ablaze with colour, feathers grew back rich and glossy, and the well-known characters were making their way boldly to the kitchen door.

For Betty and Bluebell and all battery hens.