by Jonathan Morris
BBC News Online South West
Jane Howorth is on a dawn mission fuelled by concern for the humble hen.
Jane Howorth pays farmers to take "spent" battery hens
She and six volunteers are heading to a Devon farm where they will collect hundreds of 'spent' battery hens.
These egg-laying machines would be heading to the slaughterhouse if not for Mrs Howorth, who has collected more than 5,000 chickens for re-homing.
Now she is aiming to launch a network of chicken carers across the UK to fulfil what she considers to be a desperate need.
After a year in the hen house the birds are past their egg-laying prime for commercial purposes.
Hens take their first steps outside the battery farm
Mrs Howorth, 44, who moved to Chulmleigh in north Devon nine years ago with her husband Robin, said: "We always wanted to get a few hens, so off I went to a battery farm to get a few.
"I intended to get only a dozen to begin with, but when I got inside the farm I was appalled at the conditions I saw and came home with three times the amount I went for."
Each time she visits a factory farm, it reminds her why she got involved.
"I never get used to it," she said, scooping chickens from their cages.
"People should not keep any animal like this."
But Mrs Howorth is no misty-eyed bunny-hugger.
Sick hens are cared for at Mrs Howorth's smallholding
She has a pragmatic approach to her hens, which means that those not up to the mark are shot.
Her approach to the job at the farm is methodical and highly organised, as it must be to transfer 1,600 battery hens into cages for transporting to her home.
There they are sorted according to their fitness, with those most sick kept apart from the other hens.
She said: "There is a pecking order in the cages which means that there will always be one at the bottom of the order."
Broken legs and wings are mended and birds are kept in the 'sick bay' for feathers to return.
Many have to be taught how to walk, having spent the last year packed in a cage with four to six other birds.
All have their claws clipped after a year of having no earth to scratch against.
Hens' nails grow long in cages where they cannot scratch
More than 24 million chickens live like this in the UK, something which is to change in 2012 when battery farming is banned by the EU.
In the meantime, Mrs Howorth is fighting calls for a new style of cage which battery farmers are hoping will replace existing cages.
She does not blame the farmers.
She said: "It is the consumer that decides whether to support the industry.
"The farmer is only supplying a demand for cheap eggs."
After careful nurturing, her hens are ready to be re-homed, and there is no shortage of demand from buyers who pay 50p for each hen.
There is no guarantee that hens will be good layers, or even live very long.
"They can live as little as a few weeks or as long as eight years," said Mrs Howorth.
"Most will live one to three years and most will lay, but we do not see them primarily as egg-layers.
"Most people who take them see them as pets.
"Chickens are like little dogs with feathers."