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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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On 1st February 2011, four special little chickens arrived to help us celebrate Imbolc, marking the beginnings of spring and to start their new free range lives with us. Two beautiful Amberlinks, Bertha and Brigit (named after Imbolc or St Brigit’s Day) and two lovely ginger girls, Bella and Bunty.

Sadly my two blonde bombshells passed away last spring after celebrating a year’s free ranging but Bella and Bunty have both reached this marvellous milestone.

Miss Bella Chicken enjoying her birthday cake!

Miss Bella Chicken enjoying her birthday cake!

When Bella arrived she was a frightened and aggressive little hen and attacked everyone and everything. However, after a night tucked up in the coop with her new sisters she established herself as top hen and the attacks stopped and after a few days of plenty of food and tlc she learnt that us humans were OK as well. Her transformation from psychochicken to Top Girl was also aided by the insistence of my friend Sarah that she be given a beautiful name to make her feel like a special lady. So Bella she became. She has always remained top chicken, usually just a look is sufficient to remind the other girls of this should they be foolish enough to forget it and she hasn’t had a day sick in the two years she has been here. She sailed through her moult at the end of last year and is now resplendent in her new feathers complete with showgirl tail feathers!

Miss Bunty Goodchicken enjoying her birthday cake!

Miss Bunty Goodchicken enjoying her birthday cake!

When Bunty arrived, she was quiet and timid, but cleverly she was also best friends with Bella and so has never had any need to become involved with the pecking order or squabbles. She has sat at Bella’s shoulder, a calming influence and rather splendid right hand hen. Because of her gentle nature, never throwing a peck in anger, she was bestowed the much coveted Goodchicken name, a title only ever given to those chickens whose gentle spirit and forgiving soul is a shining example to her sisters. Whereas Bella has been a picture of health Bunty Goodchicken has had to be a very brave girl – enduring illness – a prolapse and subsequent operation, suprelorin implant and now she is battling (successfully I am thrilled to say) the dreaded egg peritonitis. The vet recognised her extreme bravery by awarding her a Braveheart Award (medal and certificate) for being “a very brave chicken.” She has also been a magazine covergirl as well as having her story appear in Sophie Mccoy’s wonderful book, Tales from the Coop.

The party in full swing!

The party in full swing!

Our Henniversary celebrations started with a warm porridgey breakfast and a quick game of fatball football and then at lunch time we had the cakes and photoshoot. We lit a candle each for Bertha and Brigit and laid flowers at their gravestones. We finished off the day with a rousing chorus of Happy Henniversary to You…complete with ropey singing, and bwarking harmonies.

The cakes!

The cakes!

Miss Bella Chicken and Miss Bunty Goodchicken have approved a photo each to become their Official Henniversary Shot and they would like to thank their public for all their good wishes and presents.

They are also very proud to announce that their Henniversary celebrations appear in the March edition of Your Chickens magazine.Their human has been given a regular column and they are very excited to grace the first one!

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Recently this blog has been about such sad events, that to lift our spirits and coincide with spring introducing new life I am celebrating some wonderful and positive news about my girls! Health, friendship, a new coop and a Smallholder magazine covergirl!

My ten girls are all healthy and happy and enjoying the spring sunshine. Seeing them stretching out those newly feathered wings in glorious delight to catch the sun’s springtime warmth makes you truly appreciate that every day free ranging is a blessing and we must cherish every moment, just as our girls do.

Eliza

Flavia and Eliza are now pretty much fully integrated with the Big Girls – Bunty Goodchicken was even cleaning Flavia’s beak tonight, bless her gentle soul. All eight girls are spending their first night together in Henderlay this evening and are currently tucked up together in perfect harmony! An early start in the morning to check on them though!

Flavia

Effie and Eleanor are having a new deluxe, ex-batt-specific prototype coop delivered next week. We are all terribly excited. The lovely people at Oakdene Coops have developed a recycled plastic coop especially for ex-batts and have asked us to give them our thoughts on it. Effie and Eleanor are looking forward to trying it out and giving me their opinions! Personally I think if anyone cares enough to develop a coop especially for these precious girls then it is going to be a stunner. Watch this space…

Effie and Eleanor freeranging

People who have chickens are truly amazing and by the power of the internet and social media we are able to ‘speak’ to and connect with fellow chicken lovers across the globe. These people become friends and confidantes as they are privy to our thoughts and feelings, often much more so than people we interact with daily in the real world. Sometimes we are lucky enough to encounter our online friends in the flesh so it was wonderful to meet the lovely Jan and her family today. Meeting people you have talked to online is always like catching up with old friends – you have already shared so much – and like any proud parent I am always delighted to show off my girls. Jan was kind enough to bring me two beautiful cards with chickens on – as a fellow chicken lover she knew how much I would appreciate them! Next week, another online chicken chum, Paula, is heading down to Cornwall and I am looking forward to more chicken chat and yes…showing off my girls again!!

And finally but most certainly not least, Bunty Goodchicken’s fame is spreading far and wide. Never was there a more deserving chicken – the kindest, sweetest, bravest girl I have ever encountered. She is the May covergirl for Smallholder magazine, an exciting event for us both. Her picture graces the front cover and my article – on how amazing ex-batts are and why everyone should have them – is featured. It is almost impossible to explain how important this is to us all. Promoting ex-batts has become a life mission for me; helping these victims of the intensive farming system is the most important thing I have ever done. Writing has also been a lifelong passion of mine and to have an article published in Smallholder magazine is totally thrilling. Smallholder is my favourite magazine, it has a fabulous poultry section and I read it from cover to cover each month; it is chock full of useful and informative articles and I am honoured to have written something for them. The article is also illustrated with many photos of my girls, including the adorable Effie, as well as Bunty’s covergirl shot:

Bunty Goodchicken in her covergirl shot

So just as day follows night and spring follows winter, from the ashes of sadness and loss, new, tender joyful beginnings emerge. We are celebrating all that is new, alive and exciting whilst still holding those dear departed close to our hearts.

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Little Brigit Chicken was always going to be a Special Girl. Her rescue day, 1st February is St Brigit’s Day, or Imbolc, a pagan festival symbolised by all things white. My beautiful, white Brigit was also named after my dear friend Brigit, who tragically never had the chance to meet her namesake.

Brigit, a fragile, featherless girl, with quilly stumps for a tail, was rehomed with three other Imbolc girls – ginger girls Bella and Bunty Goodchicken and fellow blondie Bertha. Like attracts like and Brigit and Bertha became instant and lifelong friends. Brigit was bottom chicken of the four but her friendship with second hen Bertha meant she was always looked after and protected. Life is always better when you have a friend.

Brigit soon after rescue

Brigit and Bertha became like a pair of endearingly, cranky, Victor Meldew-esque old women. They were content in their new life as a free ranging foursome, although they did deign to share it with original girl Audrey. But they liked things to stay the same and did not take kindly to any new sisters, in particular the poor limpy Clara, who they decided to take agin and terrorise. They took it in turns to have Time Outs in the Naughty Coop – Brigit was once so naughty, jumping on disabled Clara’s back and pinning her to the floor, she spent the whole day in the Naughty Coop composing a note of apology to poor Clara. And then one day out of the blue they both obviously forgot the reason they had taken agin Clara and became firm friends with her!!

Brigit’s featherless state was soon replaced by a set of the most beautiful white feathers. Her knickers and petticoats were magnificent, resembling a frothy taffeta ball gown, she was truly beautiful. Apart from the time she took a mudbath and became piebald that is…

Brigit the piebald chicken!

Brigit was a ‘racing across the garden into my arms’ sort of girl but she drew the line at being picked up and cuddled. That was not for her – too demeaning. But one day she was very ill. She had always had a ‘snick’ and we monitored it very closely, but this particular morning, she had rattling breathing and a blue comb. A dash to the vets diagnosed an upper respiratory infection and she was given medicine and an intensive treatment plan. She spent the next three days tucked up in towels in the pink laundry basket, having steam inhalations and coupage. In the evenings she sat on my lap and I cuddled her to sleep – a rare and wonderful treat! But after three days Brigit decided she had had enough of this cuddling lark and insisted on going back outside to cause mayhem. We had successfully got her through it!!

She did however have the occasional off day, so when she and Bertha spent a couple of days standing around together looking grumpy, muttering like a pair of conspiratorial old women, I thought nothing of it. Par for the course. However Bertha then became very ill alarmingly quickly. Brigit stayed by her side throughout. But, after Bertha’s tragic death, Brigit’s health also deteriorated and we discovered she had sour crop. I knew about and dreaded this disease but was forearmed with Diana’s brilliant instructions. I followed them to the letter, draining her crop and flushing her out, feeding her probiotic yoghurt and garlic. I had help and support as well from my wonderful twitter chicken experts who suggested various treatments and ways to help her. I had the vet track me down some Nystatin and spent an afternoon racing round West Cornwall to collect it. It didn’t work. She deteriorated even more. We were really keeping her alive on critical care formula and hope.

Beautiful Brigit Chicken!

On Friday, the same day Dolly died, I came home at lunch time to see Brigit. She was in the coop and jerking her head. Looking into her tired eyes she spoke to me and I knew she had had enough. That evening we went to the vets. And agreeing we had little, if no, options left open to us, we decided to have her put to sleep. It is the worst decision to make – would she survive if we tried a bit harder? Could I really play god and end her life? But cradling her fragile and almost weightless body in my arms I knew it was time for her to go. It was heartbreakingly sad to watch, and Gary and I were both in floods of tears, but holding her as she went to sleep and her life ebbed away I was strangely comforted. I was seeing her safely out of this world and into the next where I knew her beloved Bertha would be waiting there for her.

Inseparable in life and now it would seem death, I wonder how much of Brigit’s illness was down to her grief at losing her soulmate. She was never the same after Bertha died, and I find a little consolation in the fact they are now together again. Their ashes lie intermingled in their flower-strewn grave and their spirits are now free to soar together for always.

Fly high little hen, fly together with your Bertha and feel the sun on your beautiful blonde feathers.

RIP angel xxxx

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