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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 10:51 GMT
The chicken rescuer
Martin Hudspeth
Martin Hudspeth saves ex-battery hens and puts them out to pasture - where the chickens rediscover lost skills such as eating, drinking and voluntary laying.

I started rescuing chickens as a hobby about three years ago.

I'd been laid off from my job as a master woodturner due to arthritis, and I was looking around for cheap food.


The foot-and-mouth crisis has affected my trade because everybody is trying to keep out of the countryside

I saw an ad selling ex-battery hens for 50p each, so I bought four to supply me with eggs for breakfast.

The hens were in really bad shape - beakless, featherless, anaemic, scared of their own shadows. It took three months to get an egg.

Eventually, I got a bit sick of eating nothing but eggs so I decided to sell them.

As soon as my friends heard they were free-range eggs from ex-battery chickens, I had to buy more hens to keep up with demand.

Ex-battery hens
In a flap: Ex-battery hens have to learn to be birds
By the middle of 1999, I had so many hens that I applied for a grant from the Prince's Trust to start an egg farm and chicken rescue centre.

I've now got about 500 ex-battery hens, 125 abandoned pet hens from the RSPCA, and 26 cockerels.

Ordinarily, I sell about 90% of the eggs at the farm gate. But the foot-and-mouth crisis has affected my trade, because everybody is trying to keep out of the countryside and away from fields.

I've gone from making 150 a week - which covers my running costs - to about 4.

Plucky cluckers

Teaching a battery hen to fend for itself takes 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for about three weeks.

Rocky and the Chicken Run hens
Chicken Run: Battery hens dreaming of freedom
The first thing I have to do is teach them how to drink and how to feed themselves - and that water and feed don't come on a conveyor belt.

I dip their beaks in water until they realise that the metal dish is where they can get a drink, and I do the same thing with the food hopper.

Slowly, they go back to their basic instincts - taking dust baths, building nests, all the things they'd never done before.

Come spring, I normally get 10 or 15 hens that go broody on me, including ex-battery hens that are bred not to get broody.

Square eggs

I'm not registered to supply eggs commercially because most would be rejects under EC regulations - they're the wrong colour, the wrong shape, the wrong size.


Most people think of chickens as either egg machines or food

Yet that's what my customers are looking for - something different from the average brown egg you find in the shop. I've always got people waiting for eggs, no matter how many the hens lay.

The eggs range in colour from a deep coffee brown through to a greeny-blue, and weigh from one ounce up to four ounces. Some are the size of a penny, others are as long as a five-pound note.

I've even had a bird lay a square egg - I think she got a scare from a low-flying plane while the egg was being formed inside her.

'Do chickens need rescuing?'

Selling eggs is the only way I can make money at the moment, but I'm trying to raise enough money to turn the rescue centre into a visitor centre.

Martin Hudspeth
Teaching institutionalised hens to be birds
Most people think of chickens as either egg machines or food. You ask some kids where eggs come from and they'll say, 'the supermarket'.

If I can get people to come in and interact with the chickens, understand where their food comes from, then the animal welfare side of it will improve.

But most of the people I call for sponsorship aren't sure if I'm genuine.

'A chicken rescue centre? We've never heard of such a thing,' they say, and that's usually the end of the conversation. The other comment I get is, 'Do chickens really need rescuing?'

But if I wasn't here, the battery hens would be sent to the processors and turned into chicken soup, dog food, cat food, chicken pies, things like that.

I like to feel I give some a chance to become a real hen.


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14 Mar 01 | UK Politics
28 Feb 01 | Europe
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