Gertie, Ida and Flo arrived about a month ago, dragged from a pen of 50 hens, randomly selected from 900 intensively reared birds now surplus to commercial requirements. Contemplating the destiny of the other 897 breaks my heart.
For I have discovered that hens are delightful creatures.
My grandmother kept them, and was largely the inspiration for this foray into poultry keeping. She took a dim view of them, called them ‘silly things’ and 'daft birds’. Not a bit of it. Buff brown feathers and frilly knickers, my hens are full of personality and charm.
I could spend hours watching them: manhandling a large lettuce leaf, flinging it about themselves like someone battling with a pashmina in a high wind; racing each other to the tasty morsels like blousey girls after the bride’s bouquet; hurrying over to me like middle aged ladies running for a bus.
My three were from an intensive egg farm. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of them when they arrived. Scrawny, bald backs and bottoms, wattles and crests bleached almost white, nails like talons where they had never had the chance to scratch the earth.
On their first morning, they were in what we laughingly call our wild-flower garden. They moved slowly, unsure of what to do. They had had a whole a year of life with no access to the outdoors, kept under artificial light.
Apparently, commercial egg producers keep their layers for one year only after which they are replaced by new, young hens. Once they have laid an egg a day for a year, they are considered redundant and are destined to be turned into animal food.
It is a sad reflection on our morals and priorities when an animal is viewed as an automata, not even afforded the dignity of a normal, natural life.
So spare a thought for all the millions of Gerties and Idas and Flos when you buy your eggs. Maybe you can find a local producer where you can see for yourself that the birds are happy, well nourished and allowed access to daylight.
Better still, give a few hens a home.