Rescuing British Battery Hens
A Look at the British Hen Welfare Trust and a Labor of Love
By Susie Kearley – While your backyard chickens probably enjoy a pampered life of luxury, some commercially farmed chickens have a more difficult life. The hen rescue initiative finds chickens new homes with space and freedoms they’ve never known before, so they can enjoy comfort and happiness for the rest of their lives.
In England, the British Hen Welfare Trust was set up in 2005 to give factory-farmed hens a second chance, helping them find loving new homes at the end of their commercial lives. The Trust also educates people about hen welfare, encouraging support for free-range chickens and a better life for hens.
In the past 12 years, the Trust has rehomed 600,000 commercial hens, destined for slaughter. The charity’s founder, Jane Howorth, was moved by a television documentary she saw in the 1970s about the conditions in which hens were kept. It planted the seed of an idea for a hen rescue and the educational work that she does today.
“I was 19 years old when I saw the program.” she explains, “I’m sorry to say at that point I was more interested in finding a handsome boyfriend, moving out from my parent’s home, and getting a job. At this stage I’d not actually seen or stroked a caged hen; had I done so, I’m pretty sure it would not have taken me so long to get on the case. The two main triggers for founding the charity were the loss of my parents, nine months apart in 2001, at a relatively young age; there is nothing like the loss of loved ones to sharpen the focus and make you realize that life is short. I wanted to do something much more meaningful with my life from that moment.”
Jane worked out a plan to rehome factory-farmed hens and save them from slaughter. She opened the hen rescue to give as many chickens as she could, a better life while educating consumers and still supporting the British egg industry.
Why support the industry? Jane explains: “From the moment the charity was founded, The British Hen Welfare Trust has been a staunch supporter of the British egg industry. It’s preferable to see consumers purchasing eggs laid in Britain, which has some of the best welfare conditions in the world, rather than imported eggs from other countries where welfare controls are not as stringent. Battery farms were banned in the UK in 2012 and replaced by colony cages, in which up to 80 birds can live together. These cages offer improved conditions to battery cages, as they provide some enrichment such as nest boxes and scratch pads. However, these hens still do not see the light of day, nor do they get to dust and sunbathe as free range hens do, which is why the charity is working toward a day when all laying hens are kept in small flocks, free range, or organic farming systems.
“We are not in conflict with the industry. Change lies with consumers — the less demand there is for cheap eggs, the fewer hens will be kept in cages.”
Chickens on TV!
The British Hen Welfare Trust appeared on TV in 2008 and the publicity generated a surge in interest, with more volunteers stepping up to help. Jane explains, “The TV documentary, hosted by TV chef Jamie Oliver, was called ‘Jamie’s Fowl Dinners.’ It was a one-off program that focused on intensive poultry farming. At the time, I was running the charity from my house, with only two phone lines. Once the show had aired, my phone started ringing non-stop with people wanting to volunteer for the charity and re-home hens. We received 4,000 calls in a single week!”
The charity grew and was able to undertake more hen rescues and rehome more hens. Then in 2010, another TV show resulted in another surge of hen adoptions and public support. The BBC television program, called ‘The Private Life of Chickens’ was presented by well-known farmer and television presenter, Jimmy Doherty. It looked at the behavior and psychology of chickens, revealing that the birds are not as daft as people thought!
Jane says, “When I appeared in ‘The Private Life of Chickens,’ this raised the charity’s profile even further. A few years later, I took the step of securing a permanent office and moving charity operations away from home. The show went a huge way toward helping people realize what intelligent, sentient animals chickens are. Both Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty went on to become patrons of the charity.”
In 2015, the British Hen Welfare Trust was the British Veterinary Nursing Association’s official charity of the year. Then in 2016, Jane received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. This recognized the value of her charitable work.
Changing Consumer Behavior
So what advice do they give to consumers? Jane says, “The Trust’s slogan is ‘for a free-range future’ and, since its inception, we’ve always emphasized the importance of buying British organic or free-range eggs to ensure the hens that laid them had the best welfare conditions possible. However, this is the easy part; it is less well-known that a large percentage of caged eggs are hidden within processed foods such as cakes, quiches, pasta, and even red wine. Therefore, the charity encourages shoppers to read food ingredients lists carefully if they want to ensure that only free-range eggs were used in the products they are buying. The general rule is that, unless it is stated in the ingredients list that free-range eggs were used, then it is most likely the eggs were from caged hens. Worse still, much of the egg used in processed food comes in powdered form and is imported from countries where welfare conditions for laying hens are considered less important.
“Increased consumer awareness has led to big names switching policy to free-range eggs, such as Hellmann’s® who started using free-range eggs in their mayonnaise. Policy changes such as these have improved the quality of life for tens of thousands of hens. This is consumer clout at its most powerful.
“Over the years, the Trust has continuously campaigned for retailers and supermarkets to make the switch to free-range eggs. We have targeted big name brands such as Aldi, Mr. Kipling, and more recently, McVitie’s. One organization could never solely take credit for encouraging such huge corporations to change tack, but the British Hen Welfare Trust has undoubtedly played a big part in changing hearts and minds.
“Another great example of change within the industry is the percentage of free range egg sales making up just 34% of market share in 2004 compared to 62% in 2017. It’s clear that attitudes are changing, but there is still much more work to be done before we see a day when all laying hens are free ranging.”
Working with Vets
With some hens being kept as pets, and individuals raising chickens for eggs, the Trust has also become involved in training for veterinary surgeons, which has led to better diagnosis and treatments for backyard hens. Jane explains, “The main problem was, and still is to a degree, a lack of knowledge when it comes to treating backyard poultry. Vets will have been taught during their training how to diagnose and treat poultry on a commercial scale, but often struggle when presented with a pet hen. We have a map showing hen-friendly vets all over the country, and there’s a course vets can take provided by Chicken Vet, to gain additional knowledge about common problems. The situation is improving all the time and the charity is currently working with a British university to provide additional training to vets.”
The hens usually arrive at their new home with few feathers, looking shabby and frightened, and turn into beautifully feathered confident chickens, who love life. Prunella, Sibyl, Henrietta, and Gertrude are one example of four happy hens! They were adopted by Debbie Morris-Kirby in Cornwall in 2015, and some might say it’s a match made in heaven. Debbie says, “The hens are so happy in their new environment, with different adventures each day. We have enjoyed watching them progress from shy and nervous creatures into confident, beautiful girls, with amazing personalities. They love any form of interaction with us humans. We can’t imagine life without them now. Thank you to the hen rescue Trust for all the fun we have had with our new extended family.”
For more information on the hen rescue initiative go to British Hen Welfare Trust: www.bhwt.org.uk.