Spent Batteries Included

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On a wet and cold day a while ago now, I found myself waiting outside a stable. Something very wonderful had arrived inside and I was waiting for the moment when I could go in and behold. Others were waiting too and the damp air was filled with excited chatter as we queued in the mud in an orderly and very British manner.

Some of those waiting were grand types, arriving in large 4 X 4’s and carrying the air of the wealthy about them, in their voices or their designer waxed jackets or their affinity with ponies. Others came in more humble, barely road-worthy contraptions which now sat apologetically on the muddy field, looking sheepish next to the latest ox-like off-road vehicles.

We all bore gifts. At least, we all carried boxes of sorts, but the gift was not in the box, but in what it represented. The box was just a means to an end, or perhaps more accurately, the means to a beginning.

Waiting for HensFor this stable scene of great hope and expectation was being played out not in Bethlehem but in rural Hertfordshire, as part of a bigger, pan-British and regularly occurring movement of freedom and re-birth. Up and down the country, for most weekends of the year, you can find tireless individuals carrying out the unsung task of taking used-up battery hens out of their tiny cages in vast sheds, and letting them fly off to a new life.

Well, not fly, exactly. Nothing that has spent the past year sitting in a space the size of an A4 sheet of paper is going to be able to fly off, but maybe they can limp or belly flop or just stand there and stretch a leg.

In the queue, I noticed that we all had different sized carry boxes, some so small I had not realised a hen could fit in, and some so large I expected the owners to be re-homing an entire flock! We had borrowed a cat box from my mother, just the right size for a hen. Or two. Numbers can be a bit elastic to re-homers, who set out to get three, and “find” an extra one has slipped in somehow and they have “accidentally” come home with four.  Long-suffering spouses will know what I mean! After all, it’s so difficult to choose  when they all look the same!

As we nudged up the queue I had to stop myself from appearing too keen; I really wanted to shuffle everyone forward so I could get my neck over the stable door and peer at the tiny occupants within. Would there be enough left by the time I got to the stable? How would I choose my hen(s)? Eventually, after what seemed like the expectant wait of an X-factor contender, it was our turn and I went in whilst my husband waited outside. This was good – I got to choose.

As I already had two hens at home, I  decided to play safe and get the better-feathered specimens,  so that they could more easily hold their own. First into the box was a real beauty, thick,  glossy orange feathers, a big, wobbly red comb, and a straight and rather scary gaze. I spotted her at once, she really looked like she owned the place. I had already chosen the name – Sumo. It was intended to be ironic, as there is not much less like a sumo wrestler than a battery hen, however, my Sumo did look a bit too fit for the irony.

The Battery HensThe next choice was much harder, and I didn’t make it myself. “How about that one?” said the nice lady on catching-and-boxing duty. “She looks like she could do with a bit of tlc”. I followed her gaze to where a scrawny mainly-white-as-so-pecked little hen was pottering along a plank that had been put in to entertain them. I had deep reservations. I wanted feathers! But as I really didn’t know how to say no, I said yes, and Sushi was scooped up and put into the box.

The rest is history, or maybe “her story”…..Sushi has become the most loved of hens. She has charmed me every day since arriving 18 months ago, and has spent her whole life here in the happy pursuit of food. Eventually her feathers re-grew – no thanks to Sumo who for months kept pecking them out – and with the help of about two million dried mealworms and some grated cheese as protein, Sushi finally looked just like a “normal” hen. She now enjoys sunbathing and gardening, and with the addition to our little flock of two new hens she has risen through the ranks from bottom chicken to third-from-bottom-chicken – a real promotion.

She still insists on standing in the food plate wherever possible, so the food is usually a flattened mess as in true grape-treading mode, Sushi squashes it to death. But at least she gets to be entirely surrounded by food, a thing she would never have known in the battery, where I am sure she was hungry for her entire containment.

SushiI understand that such hens are described as “spent” by the farming industry, when their economic value is not considered worth the cost of their mash.

I would like to say that to compensate for this apparent lack of worth, I have greatly enjoyed the fact that I have “spent” quite a lot on Sushi and Sumo – lovely tasty treats like mealworms are not cheap but my hens are worth it.  In return, the lovely Sumo and Sushi have “spent” many happy hours pottering about the garden doing chickeny things like ambushing earwigs and making up their own tasting menu out of my choicest plants. And always, they keep an ear cocked towards Back Door which often emanates food preparation noises, especially if the top half is open.  Don’t even think about chopping anything unless you want five hens, led by two “spent” ginger ones, to hear lunch calling to them and hurry into pole position…..

…..A pleasant, orderly,  very British henny queue outside their own hopeful, homely  stable door.

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One Comment on “Spent Batteries Included”

  1. you’re very good with words, I can see how they are and the way you describe them, my hens all run to the fence when I open my back door cos that invariably means food, it’s all cupboard lovce, I know.
    I know what you mean about mealworms, I buy mine at wilkinsons now, only £1.49 a bag as opposed to £4,40 at pets at home. I even buy mine maggots from the fishing tackle shop, £2.40 for half a pint, I have 4 hens and those maggots didnt stand a chance, inside ten minutes they were all gone…thank goodness. so glad I ent a hen!