I was born in an enormous warm box with hundreds of other chicks, so I never saw my mummy. When only a few hours old we were shoved hither and thither, put on a moving belt, jostled together, picked up, put down; I didn’t know if I was coming or going! Thankfully it didn’t last for long, and we were soon put into a big brooding area, but there were thousands of us so we didn’t have much space and lots of fights broke out, pecking of feathers and general nastiness. If one of my companions happened to die, we had to suffer the body lying there festering before a human removed it. Humans were around a fair bit, injecting us with drugs, making sure there was food and water. I can’t complain, they did feed us well since they wanted us to grow up as soon as possible, but it was hard living in such confinement with so many other birds. When I was just 7 days old, they chopped off the end of my beak, supposedly so I would not peck other birds, but it didn’t really stop me, I was just like everyone else, looking out for number one. I don’t really want to dwell on that time, it was not a pleasant experience.
Until I was 16 weeks old, I was kept in what was called a growing pen; again we did not have a lot of room each, about 20 of us lived in a square metre of floor space. Imagine 20 small hens standing on something less than the average family dining table, and you will get an idea of how much space we had. More fighting, more feather pulling, it was never a dull moment. We were moved about quite a bit so we did not get to form attachments to any one flock. Eventually, we were moved into a large airy barn, rather nicer than the wire-caged factories we had been kept in. It seemed large at first, but then I realised that there were thousands of hens, all looking strangely like me, on the floor of the barn and perched on the many perches. I never learned to count, so I don’t know how many of us girls were in that barn, but suffice it to say that the floor was a brown heaving mass as far as the eye could see. It was not possible to move about very easily, there were so many hens. There was soft litter on the floor, but this was soon covered in poo, and was so clogged that you couldn’t really dustbathe in it.
I was getting bigger and bigger, and my body started to develop strange urges; I felt the need to go and sit in a dark place each day, dozing and musing on my life, and each day eventually an egg popped out of me! The humans seemed to value the egg and took it away fairly sharpish; I don’t know what I would have done with it anyway, as I had had all of my maternal instincts bred out of me. The barn was large, but there were an awful lot of us – something like 12 hens per square metre. We were supposed to have perch space as well for sleeping at night, but six inches per bird is not enough and it was impossible to get a space most nights when there are so many sharp beaks, so I just slept on the floor with hundreds of others, on top of the droppings that had been spread there during the day. It was very unpleasant and uncomfortable. The humans were supposed to clean the floor frequently, but I guess they were busy doing other things, and it did not get done often enough. If one of my poor fellow hens died her body just lay there for days until it was swept away with all the other debris. I was lucky, I didn’t get ill, although I did get a lot of itchy bitey insects lodged in my feathers; they were impossible to get rid of no matter how much I scratched. This life continued for months. The barn was the same warm temperature all day every day, and the days were all the same length as we had lots of lamps to give us light; the light also meant that we felt we wanted to lay every day; I don’t know how long I was in that barn, the days all merged into one. I would get up from my mucky bed when the lamps were turned on, have some water and food, delivered as a uniform crumb, then scratch about a bit in the filth on the floor; I don’t know what I expected to find in the litter on the floor, it just seemed the right thing to do. After a while, I would get the urge to sit in the dark, so I would trot off to the special area where the dark places were; sometimes there was a queue to find a spot and I had to wait. I think I produced an egg every day, I don’t remember. Fights broke out continually, squabbles over a favoured perching spot, or a place at the feeder, and quickly led to vicious pecking, and sometimes a particular lowly hen would be picked on and murdered in front of the rest of us! It was horrible! I kept well out of the way; keep your beak clean and stay out of trouble, that was my motto! I was quick on my feet, but that didn’t stop me having most of my feathers pecked out, and my tail was wrenched out as soon as it grew back. A hen’s tail should be her pride and joy; mine was bare and stumpy, such a shame.
After months and months of this dismal life, I had got into a routine – eat, drink, lay an egg, eat some more, sleep. But eventually I was doing more eating and drinking and less egg-laying. Soon, I was only laying an egg every three or four days; it wasn’t just me, all of the hens in the barn seemed to be in the same situation. There were fewer and fewer queues for the dark places, and the humans started to mutter.
One day (I must have been about 72 weeks old) we heard strange noises outside the barn, and there were strange humans coming in with lots of boxes! Well, we didn’t know what was happening, but suspected that it was not good! They were picking up hens from the floor and putting them into the boxes, then taking the boxes out of the barn! I tried to get away but I was picked up despite wriggling and pecking, and I was put into a box with a dozen or more others. I couldn’t see what was going on, just felt the box moving at some speed, bouncing along taking us away from the barn. It was warm and dark in the box, and I dozed off. The next thing I remember was being taken out of the box into another barn, only this one was smaller and there were only a few hundred of us here, there was light coming through a window too, strange warm yellow light. We stayed there for a couple of days, eating, drinking, settling down, waiting for something else to happen. Eventually, more strange humans arrived, with smaller boxes. I and five other hens were put into these boxes, and again bounced along, but this time it was not so dark.
After a while the bouncing stopped, the box was carried somewhere and opened, and someone lifted me out and put me down on to something soft and green. There was yellow light all around me. I looked up and instead of the roof of a barn there was blue blue sky that seemed to go on for ever. It was a bit colder than I was used to because I had so few feathers, but it was so good to feel the fresh air on my body and in my lungs. We have a little barn, just big enough for the six of us, and two large dark places. There is plenty of food and water here, and the green stuff outside is delicious – why had I never tasted this before? The humans keep giving us handfuls of extra food too, different food like seeds and grapes and yoghurt! And there are worms! Big fat juicy worms. I can just scratch at the dirt and there is a worm – yummy! Each afternoon we are let out into a bigger field where there are trees and bushes for shelter, lovely dry earth for dustbathing, space to flap our wings whenever we want, and as much green stuff as we can eat.
I still occasionally sit in the dark place and contemplate my life, but my thoughts are now no longer sad. I lay one or two eggs a week, and the humans seem to value them but I no longer hear mutterings about how few eggs I give them.
There is a perch for sleeping in the little barn, but to be honest I was so used to sleeping on the floor that I couldn’t get used to it and I now sleep in the dark place snuggled up with some of the others. The human takes away our poo every morning and gives us fresh straw to lay our eggs and sleep on, so I don’t have to sleep on a layer of muck any more. There are places to scratch, places to dustbathe, places to shelter from the wind and rain. I don’t mind being out in the weather, though, because sometimes I get to lay in the sunshine and spread my wings. Each night, as the light fades from the sky, we go into the little barn to sleep, and each morning the human lets us out again, and we run out of the little barn no matter what the weather is like, because it is just so good to be outside.
I don’t really know what I did to deserve this new life, but I like it here. I wish my tail would grow back though!
[Ginger is just one of the quarter of a million hens rescued by the British Hen Welfare Trust in the last seven years; there are still millions more in similar or even worse conditions than Ginger had been kept in. Even though she was kept in conditions regulated by law it is still not a natural environment for a hen.]