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Archive for the ‘Chicken Cuddling Wednesday’ Category

It has taken me over a week to try and write a tribute to darling Bella. Our hearts are broken and watching Hettie struggle each day, grieving for the only friend she has ever had, is only compounding our sadness. Bella was a very, very special girl and no words I write can truly capture the gentle spirit that was Bella, but I hope I can try to do our special girl justice with this tribute…

1st February 2011 saw the arrival of four little hens; my B girls. I had planned to collect three Amberlink girls, so naturally came home with two Amberlinks (Brigit and Bertha) and two ginger girls (Bunty Goodchicken and Bella). Of course at that point Bunty Goodchicken was just Bunty and Bella was Psychochicken. Only my second batch of girls, I was unprepared for the feisty little scrap that was to become Bella. She attacked me and Gary, she attacked the other hens, she attacked her reflection and she attacked her coop. I didn’t know what to do with her. Now of course I know I was dealing with a very frightened little hen, who had had to fight for every thing in her caged life. No-one had thought to tell her it was now all going to be OK – at that point I hadn’t learnt how to speak ‘chicken.’ So, on advice of fellow chicken keepers, I separated her whilst the other three girls went to bed. Pyschochicken was put to bed in the cat carrier. Once everyone was asleep I went to take her out of the carrier. I will never forget the look in her eyes. It was one of total resignation and defeat. She was back in a cage. That moment with Bella taught me more than any book could ever have done. The true suffering of caged hens, the depth of emotion they feel and the effects our human idiocy can have on them. From then on, I truly understood her.

Bella on rehoming day

Bella on rehoming day

My friend, Sarah, decided that to make her feel special and loved, she needed a special name and she called her Bella, meaning beautiful. So Bella she became. And over the next (almost) three years as a free range girl and top hen in our flock, beautiful she proved to be. In every way.

Diminutive in stature, Bella was always my smallest hen, but was the girl with the biggest character. Hers were the first wings I ever clipped! Three months after she came to live with us, Bella suddenly became intent on using the logpile as a launchpad for her escape efforts. Despite my attempts at containing her, one morning I looked out of the dining room window to see the little scamp running gleefully up and down the Cornish hedge. Never having clipped wings before I raced round to a work colleague, with Bella tucked tightly under my arm, to show me what to do. Bella came home suitably clipped and proceeded to lay an Egg of Protest in the greenhouse. Her escape attempts were brought on by her pre-eggy frenzy, something I have now realised many hens do just before their first egg after a lull.

Bella's first taste of fresh air

Bella’s first taste of fresh air

You see Bella was a teacher. She knew I had much to learn and consequently took it upon herself to educate me in the ways of All Things Hen. We were good friends Bella and I. Each evening as I sat chatting with the girls, she came and climbed onto my lap and told me about her day. Every time I cleaned out the coop, she came up to make sure I had done it properly, tactfully rearranging my humble human efforts. She even tolerated me cuddling her and occasionally allowed me to hold her long enough for a photograph – her beautiful face has featured in many magazines and websites promoting the plight of her ex-commercial sisters.

But I was not Bella’s only pupil. She had greater plans – she wanted to educate as many humans as possible.

She came to college with me and transformed the views of all the students she met. Previously they had thought of hens as ‘just a chicken’ and were not interested in my futile exbatt witterings. But Bella knew how to change their minds. She breezed into their classroom, preened, bwarked and looked resplendent and then stood obligingly on a piece of A4 paper to show them the space she would have had in her battery cage. She had given a face to factory farming. Suddenly these previously uncaring students understood. Bella had made them see. Then they were feeding her and stroking her as she ate corn of their hands. Bella had performed her role magnificently. To this day they still ask after her.

Sunbathing beauty

Sunbathing beauty

Spreading the word became Bella’s mission. She was one of the lucky ones and she was going to do all she could for her less fortunate sisters. She came with me and Clara to Pets at Home and met the public whilst promoting a hen rehoming for Fresh Start. She was picked up and cuddled and went around the store meeting customers, enchanting them with her beauty. People who had never even touched a hen in their lives were delighted with her, wanting to hold her and asking all sorts of questions about hens and battery farming. Children, especially, were enamoured by her. Because of her efforts, many loving homes were found for more ex-commercial hens.

Bella had many, many wonderful characteristics; she was clever and funny, dignified and brave, but most of all she was a kind and fair top hen. She ruled her flock with a firm but gentle wing. No hen was allowed to be left out or picked on. She kept neighbourhood thugs Eliza and Grace Kelly in check. When Flavia arrived, dumped at the vets after being attacked, it was Bella who welcomed her into the flock. When Flavia was afraid to go to bed as Eliza lurked menacingly by the coop door, it was Bella who would escort her safely into the coop every night. When terrified little Hettie arrived, Bella understood her fears and immediately extended the wing of friendship to her. Bella had recently lost her beloved Bunty Goodchicken and Clara in close succession and this new friendship helped both hens heal their emotional scars. Every evening Hettie went to bed early to get her favourite nestbox and every evening Gracie Thug came in and turfed her out. So every evening Bella offered Hettie the prime Top Hen nestbox and slept by her side. A true leader, she knew she had to care for the weakest in the flock.

Bella celebrating her two year Henniversary

Bella celebrating her two year Henniversary

Apart from two soft egg incidents (cured by a warm bath and a very lovely cuddle) Bella had never had an ill day in her free range life. She breezed through her first moult and was the picture of good health. However, about a month ago, at the start of October, Bella started to slow down. She was having a small moult and struggling to regrow her new feathers. I found her looking a little unwell at times, occasionally her comb was slightly tinged with blue. Fearing her intensive laying life was finally catching up with her and suspecting a tumour, and with Uncle Jason’s advice, we treated her as best we could and each time she rallied. But both Bella and I knew her days were now numbered.

Bella took her Top Hen responsibilities very seriously and I know she struggled with the thought of leaving her girls, so she fought her illness with all the stoicism of a true Maggie Smithesque grande dame…….Bella was always a proud and dignified girl and I knew without her having to tell me that she would not want to be seen to be weak in front of her girls. She needed not to suffer and she needed to have her dignity to the end. Sometimes words are not needed between friends, they understand implicitly what is needed, and one bleak morning, she told me that she had had enough. It was time. Her best friend Hettie had been by her side the whole time she had been ill and on Bella’s last day Hettie stayed with her all day, never venturing from her guardian angel’s side. Darling Bella knew it was time but I don’t think poor Hettie understood.

After a very weak Bella had seen her girls safely to bed for the final time, we visited Uncle Jason. Bella and I sat together in a quiet room, she was cradled in my arms and, as she passed on, I told her that I loved her, that she was a good chicken and I promised her that I would look after her girls, especially Hettie, and that she could now rest in peace. Once I had told her this, she passed very quickly and peacefully. Her final gift to me was one of her moulting feathers that fluttered away from her beautiful, precious body. A treasure.

Bella needed dignity in death and I hope I was able to give her that; the last wish of my most special girl.

She was cremated on Saturday, a golden marigold for my golden girl tucked under her wing for her final journey. Her spirit is now flying forever free at the Rainbow Bridge with her beloved Bunty Goodchicken and Clara by her side, as my darling Bella takes gentle charge of her heavenly flock.

My darling Bella with her beautiful heart-shaped pupil

My darling Bella with her beautiful heart-shaped pupil

Us mere mortals left behind will uphold our final promise to her. Hettie will be cared for, loved and protected and Bella’s flock will slowly adjust to the loss of their beloved leader. For a while they will have a human Top Hen who will muddle through until a new gentle chicken leader emerges. She will however have very big claws to fill – in fact she probably never will. There will only ever be one Bella Top Chicken.

After almost three years as a free girl, our hens and our hearts are mourning the loss of Bella. Nothing will ever be the same again.

RIP my darling, beautiful, brave, big-hearted, generous Bella. Fly high my precious Top Hen xxx

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Can two humbugs and a lemon drop mend a broken heart? Well, if they are eight-week-old bundles of feathers and mischief maybe…

Two humbugs and a lemon drop!

Two humbugs and a lemon drop!

With Effie suffering two sad losses recently, her little spirit was flagging. She was becoming very clingy, spending more and more time in the humans’ coop and she had taken to standing by the gate looking into the big girls’ garden. At night time, instead of being the top tier of a two hen pyramid, she discovered that being a one hen pyramid was a very lonely place to be.

We had decided that Effie needed small hens as company. Young hens, so that she did not feel threatened or frightened. Seeing how calm she had been with little Izzy, it was certainly the right thing for her.

And then I heard that three little bantam chicks were ready for a new home. They had been hatched in the animal care unit at work and I had seen them at only a few hours old. My friend who had originally reserved three was unable to have them, so they were needing a home.

It was a sign.

On Friday afternoon these three bundles of mischief came to live in Effie’s Garden. India Lemon Drop is a lemon pekin bantam and the two little humbugs are Inca and Iona, partridge pekin bantams. India Lemon Drop is the naughty one but also the girl who does not quite trust me yet, Inca is the darker of the humbugs and is brave and inquisitive and loves cuddles (well, tolerates them) and little Iona is the humbug with the reddier, more Celtic colouring. She is sweet and gentle and also tolerates my cuddles!

Two humbugs Iona (left) and Inca

Two humbugs Iona (left) and Inca

India Lemon Drop

India Lemon Drop

They have their own coop and run for the moment and Gary, Effie and I spent the weekend building them a bantam-chick-proof run with a top on as we discovered very quickly that bantam chicks can easily clear a four foot fence! The cats were also quite intrigued so security was essential! In between her cuddles with Gary, Effie tried out the babies’ dustbath (it used to be hers in the ICU) and deemed it most suitable.

Gary and Effie take time out from run building for a cuddle and a snooze

Gary and Effie take time out from run building for a cuddle and a snooze

Effie is now rather taken with her new babies, although I am not sure she knows quite what they are. When India Lemon Drop did her Houdini act over the fence, she landed right at Effie’s feet. Effie just stared (in shock no doubt!) and made no attempt to attack her. And yesterday there was even some beak cleaning going on through the fence!

Meeting big sister Effie

Meeting big sister Effie

I am hoping that by the time these babies are big enough to meet the big wide world that is Effie’s Garden, Effie will have accepted them and she will have friends and company once more. No-one will ever replace her beloved Miss Basket in her eyes, or in ours, but our little humbugs and lemon drop may just provide the comfort our darling Effie needs.

Thank you Quolanta Arnold for the brilliant title to this blog xx

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Saturday evening saw the grand launch of Uncooped, an online exhibition curated by the National Museum of Animals in Society in Los Angeles.

As well as celebrating the beautiful creatures that are chickens, the exhibition highlights the plight of the millions of commercial hens across the world and features pictures and stories of people’s pet hens – showing just what wonderful characters chickens are!

We found out about it when my very talented artist friend, Lesley Ann Cooper, was approached by the museum’s curator for paintings and stories. She sent them some of her beautiful ex-batt portraits and then very kindly put them in touch with me for some stories.

Naturally one of two of my girls were very keen to ‘crack the American market’, most notably a certain Miss Effie Chicken. Graciously she let Miss Basket appear in her photograph and story and the two girls now think of themselves as international celebrities. No doubt we will soon have demands for a red carpet, champagne breakfasts and mealworm fountains…

California Dreamin'...

California Dreamin’…

All joking aside I am enormously proud of my girls for being chosen to appear in the exhibition and I am also enormously proud of the lovely Lesley, whose wonderful artwork makes quite a few appearances.

And poignantly a certain Miss Bunty Goodchicken also features in the exhibition. Her story was written as she was slowly losing her fight against the scars her caged life had left on her body. As we still mourn the loss of this most precious of hens, it is reassuring to know that her story is being told in another country; so that more people will read of her brave battle to enjoy a free range life and be inspired by the little hen who blessed our lives for two years.

Miss Bunty Goodchicken, BHAW

Miss Bunty Goodchicken, BHAW

Uncooped

To see Effie, Miss Basket and Bunty Goodchicken go to Get To Know, then Portrait Gallery. Bunty is on line 2 and California Girls Effie and Miss Basket are on line 13.

To see Lesley Anne’s artwork click on Advocacy , then Chicken Advocates and scroll down to Battery Hen Rehoming Organisations.

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My chickens have changed my life in so many wonderful ways! They have made me laugh, they have filled my life with joy, they have saved me from the brink of despair and highlighting their plight has given my life a real meaning. At last I can make a difference, albeit a tiny one, in the lives of some of the beautiful creatures we share this planet with.

Another, and completely unexpected, way was to let me finally realise my dream of becoming a writer. Writing to me is the best, and sometimes only, way I can express myself. As a lifelong stutterer I have never been able to say the things I wanted to. Anyone who stutters knows you become a self-editing machine and sometimes it is easier just to say nothing at all.

But by writing I finally have a loud, clear, eloquent voice that people listen to. Ever since I was a little girl I have wanted to write a book; I used to write long, rambly (rather rubbish I am afraid) stories, and send them to publishers. Unsurprisingly I never got a reply! As an adult I continued to try and write novels but eventually realised that I had the imagination of a peanut.

‘Write about what you know,’ they say, but until my girls came along I didn’t really ‘know’ that much about anything! I had, however, been lucky enough to spend some time writing for and editing a newsletter for my friend Brigit’s wonderful charity, The Big Green Idea, which gave me that first little confidence boost. The thrill of having someone read and comment on what you have written is indescribable! I was ‘speaking’ and someone was actually listening!

Then my first three A girls arrived and suddenly everything just slotted into place! My girls became my life; changing their lives became my mission. Audrey, Agatha and Aurora taught me so much about hen keeping and I was a willing (although possibly not too competent) pupil. Working in a library I had access to numerous wonderful books on hen keeping and I soaked up all that information. Suddenly, writing about them was as easy as loving and caring for them; it combined my two great passions and it felt completely natural, almost as if it was meant to be.

I was lucky enough to start writing for poultrykeeper.com and then branched out into magazines. Miss Bunty Goodchicken being a Smallholder covergirl is one of the proudest moments of my life. She looked magnificent!

As I learnt more and more about ex-batts, people started to contact me for advice and help with their hens. It struck me that, with all the plethora of hen keeping books available, there was not one on ex-batts. And they are special girls who deserve their own special book. Whilst their needs are similar to ‘normal’ chickens, they can sometimes require a little extra care and attention.

The book cover featuring Miss Audrey Chicken!

The book cover featuring Miss Audrey Chicken!

Publishers, however, were not interested in the book so, bravely or foolishly, I went ahead and published it myself. It seemed more important to get the book ‘out there’ to help new ex-batt owners than it did to continue to plead with publishers.

The book covers all the basics of ex-batt keeping and I have woven tales and pictures of my girls throughout the book. I hope my love for them comes across in these stories, and prospective or new ex-batt owners understand what precious girls they have in their care. A picture of every girl I have cared for appears in the book, it seemed very important that they all had their stories told; they are all individual and special girls after all.

Back cover featuring Miss Bunty Goodchicken!

Back cover featuring Miss Bunty Goodchicken!

My hope is that, firstly, the book encourages more people to rehome some ex-batts and save a few more girls from slaughter and, secondly, that it helps new ex-batt keepers have the confidence to give their girls the best care possible and experience the joy that is ex-batt keeping! Each copy sold will raise money for the smaller hen rehoming charities and even if just one more little ex-batt is rehomed or helped then it has done its job.

Jo xxx

PS Effie says she is happy to sign any copies – with her special muddy footprint!

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A year ago today, we had a phone call from the vets. They had had a chicken abandoned at the surgery who had been attacked by a dog. They had patched her up and she was fine but none of them could take her home. Would we have her?

It took me all of two seconds to say yes and within the hour the little hen had arrived at her new home.

A bit of research showed her to be a Black Rock, our first non-exbatt hen but a rescue girl none the less. Her name had to begin with F but my initial thoughts of Freda or Florence did not suit her. She was an exotic beauty and needed a suitably exotic name. As fans of Strictly, only one name would do; so Flavia she became!

Exotic Beauty Miss Flavia Chicken

Exotic Beauty Miss Flavia Chicken

As there was no room at the Inn, she spent her first few nights in the cat carrier in the greenhouse and her days in the human’s garden, eyeing her new sisters through the fence. Within the week though she decided she wanted to be with the other hens and just walked through the gate that had been left open and that was that. No fuss, no fisticuffs, no handbags at dawn. We were used to the traumas of integrating feisty ex-batts, so it was a dream merge!!

Little Flavia, lays an egg every day, without fail, and is a sweet and gentle girl. A flighty hen, she loves human company but hates being picked up!! As bottom hen of the flock she stayed out of everybody’s way to start with – I think at first the other girls thought she was a giant blackbird! However, with the arrival of Greta and Grace Kelly, she was very keen to establish that she was no longer bottom hen!

Henniversary Girl Flavia, Official Birthday Shot!

Henniversary Girl Flavia, Official Birthday Shot!

Her Henniversary dawned with a rousing chorus of Happy Henniversary to You…then a game of Spring Green Swingball and later in the day, special mealworm cupcakes complete with live yoghurt and sweetcorn topping! The hen party was in full swing when a gatecrasher emerged, helping himself to some cake, so a game of Chase the Kitten swiftly followed!

The Hen Party in Full Swing! Note the Gatecrasher!

The Hen Party in Full Swing! Note the Gatecrasher!

The celebrations were widespread. Italy (Flavia’s adopted country) kindly won their rugby match and to finish the day off in true glamourpuss style, Flavia’s namesake, Miss Cacace herself, sent our Flavia a happy birthday tweet!

From One Gorgeous Lady to Another...

From One Gorgeous Lady to Another…

A special day for a special girl!!! Happy Henniversary darling Flav xxxx

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Our phantom egg stealer nearly struck again yesterday!! Like a fool, I had forgotten a certain chicken’s penchant for the odd eggy, and left the bowl of freshly collected eggs on the ground whilst I checked the third and last coop.

A tap, tap, tap! alerted me to her presence and I hurriedly turned round to find a certain Miss Basket pecking away at one of the egg shells in her bid for yolky delights!

Butter wouldn't melt...

Butter wouldn’t melt…

Last year I had to put my detective skills to the test when I found someone was eating the eggs in the little coop. Admittedly I didn’t have to be Poirot – only two hens lived in that coop, Effie and Miss Basket. They did manage to foil me for quite a while though until one morning I managed to catch Miss Basket red-clawed, sitting in the coop and happily munchinq away on her newly laid egg.

Whilst my initial reaction was to try and stop her eating eggs, upon reflection I came to a decision. It was, after all, her egg so why should she not enjoy it? You may have noticed I spoil my girls a tad but I do agree with the idea that the chicken owns the egg she lays. Whilst it would have made a nice addition to my supper, I didn’t need it. Miss Basket however laid me a beautiful egg every day, despite her weighing almost nothing. I came to the conclusion that her need was greater than mine. My girls are pets, eggs are just a bonus after all.

My other laying girls (of which there are admittedly not that many that bother themselves with this laying malarky) quite happily leave their eggs after a short post-laying contemplate so we still had plenty of eggs. Well, usually.

There is an egg hierarchy in our house that goes: poorly chicken, any chicken that wants it, humans. This led to an egg drought at the end of last year when poorly Gina was having an egg a day and only Flavia was laying and that was every other day. I refuse to buy commercial eggs of any sort so had to sneak down to the animal care unit where they have rehomed some of my girls from the last rescue and…buy some! Oh the shame!!

So back to Miss Basket and yesterday’s egg ambush…

Did I let her finish off the spoils?

Of course I did!!

Gorgeous Miss Basket

Gorgeous Miss Basket

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Some very special things happen during a hen rehoming: precious lives are saved; hens are cuddled for the first time in their lives; wonderful, kind chicken-lovers from all over the county appear to offer a loving home to some girls and you get to meet some truly amazing people.

But there is nothing better than meeting a new rehomer for the first time and watching as they discover the unadulterated joys of keeping exbatts.

Two days before the rehoming a lady called Angie contacted me. Her mum was treating her to some chickens for her birthday and they had planned to buy some point of lay hens on the weekend of the rehoming. However, after seeing an article in the West Briton about the rehoming they changed their plans at the last minute and reserved four hens from me.

Fate they called it. And I agree!

Here are Angies replies to some of our standard rehoming questions:

Hen experience – It has been my dream for many years to have hens, our neighbours have hens that we look after when they are away, I have read many books on hens to gain knowledge and my friend also is an experienced hen keeper so I can pick her brains if I need to!

Hen accommodation – My husband has custom built our coop and run, it is plenty big enough for many more but want to keep numbers small and give them the best. We have all they need ready and waiting, all we need now are some girls!

Home for life– Yes! Absolutely, we have rescued dogs too (hence the need for a run for the chooks) Our animals are a huge part of our life and part of our family, the hens will be no different.

You just know those girls will be spoilt!!

Exploring their new luxury accommodation!

Angie sent me some pictures of the beautiful, palatial coop and run they had built for their hens and so touched was I by this lovely home some of my girls would be living in I made a note to give her some of the more vulnerable, baldy girls. I knew they would be going to a good home. It is people like Angie that make the hard work of rehomings so very worth it.

Lovely free range fresh air!

I have tried to put into my own words all the updates that Angie has emailed to me but I think it is better in her own words. The way her enthusiasm, happiness and newly found love of her hens is captured in her emails puts it far more eloquently than anything I could have written.

Happiness is green green grass…

Two days after the rehoming I received the following email:

Dear Jo, Our new girls are called Violet, Daisy, Wendy and Beaker (my fellas choice that one!) They are settling in very well, we have had four eggs since their arrival so have thanked them all! Violet is the bravest and is always first out and last in, Beaker needs to catch up a bit but I am sure she will.
The sun came out (very) briefly here today and Daisy looked up to the sky, thought for a moment and lay down and spread her wings for a sunbathe, lovely to see natural behaviours are
there. We are so thrilled and could just watch them for hours, don’t get much else done though. They aren’t at all worried about being close to us and milled around the run today while Pete tweaked some areas, not so keen on the rain though!
Angie xx

Warming her quills in the sunshine!

Reading this lovely email truly lifted my spirits and then another update came. The girls hated the rain so a roof was put on the run:

Dear Jo, they are all doing well, personalities are appearing now! The grass however has almost disappeared, as we expected! They so enjoyed rooting around in their quest though. Their new feathers have started to sprout, Wendy in particular looks hedgehog like with them growing on her back. I bought them an old baby bath and filled with dry soil and play sand, so far Daisy (who is the most inquisitive) is the only one to venture in, the others will follow her lead I am sure.
We have put up a “roof” over their run (clear tarpaulin) as it has done nothing but rain pretty much for the last week and a half, much more practical, I think they are a tad spoilt!
We have had some lovely eggs, three at the most in a day, sometimes one or two, they are a lovely bonus.
Angie xx

Daisy in her deluxe dustbath. Note the new tarpaulin roof!

I feel blessed to be able to watch as Angie’s hens blossom under her love and devotion into the beautiful, happy, confident free range girls I know they will become. And just as the girls blossom, so will Angie’s love of her hens. Finding out what an absolute joy and wonderful, quirky, amazing pets chickens are was a discovery that changed my life.

I think it has already changed Angie’s.

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