Each hen is an individual with her own perceptible character, habits and preferences. This is something I’ve come to appreciate afresh by living with our four adopted hens, Hetty, Henna, Honey and Hope. Hetty rules the roost. She is larger than the rest and more richly resplendent with the reds, browns and rusty hues of her breed. She is unsurprisingly the most independent of the flock; self-assured but not too deferential or attentive to her human carers.
Hope, the second of the original three hens, has a face that seems older than her physical years. Her eyes are lined by the hen equivalent of bags and the feathers atop her head are sparser, making her look a bit bald. She is the most timid and often the first to take herself off to roost at night. Her interest in the tasty kitchen scraps we offer is much less magnetic than her fellows. Whilst the other hens can be easily lured to the coop with bread or lettuce, Hope will often watch from the safety of the Rhododendrons; needing further coaxing; gentle guiding by ‘Basil’, our trusty broom.
Henna and Honey are the two more newly adopted hens. Both have been debeaked; their beaks cut back with a hot blade or infra-red beam when they were chicks. It’s a mutilation carried out to prevent crowded hens pecking and injuring each other. It’s largely unnecessary with good husbandry. Henna, so-called because of her hair-dye dark colouration, has a beak that has regrown unevenly, crossing toward the tip. Both birds are inquisitive and, despite the brutality of their early days, are attentive and quick to sprint the length of the garden as soon as my wife, Helen, or I appear at the back door. A similar greeting now awaits our neighbours when they come through the back gate. Yes, it’s cupboard love! But when the scraps are all pecked up, Henna and Honey will often stay with us, gently pecking at our shoes and clothing. They seem intently interested by our presence. This is the time when I sometimes lift Henna up and hold her in my arms. She’ll make quiet, contented noises, and snuggle down with eyes gently closed, tugging at my jumper as if rearranging her nest.
Honey has big eyes and the shortest finch-like beak. Combined with her light yellow plumage, she has an alert, naive, slightly surprised expression. Honey is perhaps the fondest of bread. She needs no second bidding to peck furiously at slices or chunks held within her reach. One day after Helen had been particularly busy cleaning the house top to bottom, she came down stairs to find Honey in the kitchen, no doubt looking for bread or other enticing treats. She had been dust-bathing before coming into the house and shook like a wet dog, showering the only-just-cleaned floor with a thin layer of compost!
Watching their individual characteristics and behaviours has helped me gain a greater understanding of their needs and the sentience of animals; that they can feel pain and suffer and, if we let them, experience a sense of well-being. It has deepened my commitment to speak up for their welfare. To make sure that animal welfare really does get recognised as a key issue of social justice as well as to a fair and sustainable society. The way we treat farm animals on our factory farms is a travesty of our time. My determined aim is to see an end to factory farming, typified by the cruel icon of hens crammed for life into tiny cages. I want to see an end to the unimaginable suffering of factory farming, and soon. It is not only cruel, but also threatens our environment, public health and the ability of future generations to feed themselves. A huge thank you to all those supporters of Compassion’s campaigns; together, we will end factory farming and leave a better world for future generations.