Pam Ayres

 

“I love the ex-bat ladies I adopted from the British Hen Welfare Trust; they make such rewarding pets and still lay like good ‘uns. Jane and her brilliant team all do so much to help these feathered creatures, but we need to play our part by helping too: I’d ask anyone who likes hens to make sure they tell their friends and family to buy free range if they possibly can – free range is best for us, best for the hens and best for the farmer too ‘cause he gets a bit more for keeping his hens in a more natural environment.”

National treasure, Pam Ayres, became a patron of the British Hen Welfare Trust in 2006, and this article was published in Issue 8 of Chicken & Egg magazine in Summer 2014.

 

1. Your wonderful poem ‘Battery Hen’ is perhaps one of your most poignant.  What inspired it?

We always had hens at home when I was a child. In addition to layers mash and wheat, they ate up the table scraps (now deeply illegal…) and rewarded our family of eight with much-needed eggs. It was a good exchange.  I was shocked when I found out about battery farms. I found the idea detestable because I had always seen our hens enjoying dust-baths and scratching about in their run. The idea of these affable, enquiring birds crammed into mean little cages horrified me, so I wrote The Battery Hen. I think it made people smile but also carried the message across.

2. Favourite breed – posh bird or ex-bat?

I currently have eleven hens. Four are left from my last group of rehomed battery girls, then from a local company I bought six young Warren- type hens bound for battery farms. I also have a dear old duck of a bantam and fifteen free range guinea fowl. I like cooking and must have eggs from a humane source. I would never buy any of the fancy old breeds for egg production. For eggs, I always rehome ex-battery girls or buy the Warren type for their fantastic output and docility. For something beautiful and characterful to admire, I would choose the old breeds and regard any eggs they laid as a bonus.

3. Keeping hens – mid-life crisis or childhood passion?!

Our family and all families in our row of houses kept hens. Nobody bought eggs. I had a little group of bantams of my own from the age of nine.

4. Naming hens – sensible or silly?

My first bantam cockerel was very splendid and was called Bartholomew. I don’t name my laying girls but my old bantam who has reared countless clutches of eggs for me is called…. Mummy.

5. The weekend coop clean – yours truly or him indoors?

All our family love to see hens scratching around the place, and big baskets of fresh eggs in the kitchen. As I travel quite a lot and also have cattle, sheep and dogs, I have to have help at home. I fob the job of cleaning the henhouse off on someone else if I can, but I am perfectly capable of taking up the hoe.

6. Your garden – hen-free or hen-pecked?

I feel very sceptical when people say “The fox keeps taking my chickens.” All that means to me is that the poor birds weren’t properly protected. Here the fox comes by day, so my hens are enclosed in a massive run made of moveable panels which is regularly shifted on to fresh ground. Inside is a big, warm house on steel runners. It was quite expensive but it will last a lifetime. This set-up travels up and down a particular field with woodland in it. They love it, the land benefits and the birds are safe.

7. The British Hen Welfare Trust— mother hen or cock of the roost?

I would like all animals to have a decent life. I love the fact that although these birds have had a nightmare factory-farming period, at the end of it they are in a lovely environment with people who make a fuss of them. They have a happy ending. It is very touching to receive the poor, bald, yellow-combed battery hens and see them change into confident, curious, luxuriantly-feathered and highly productive girls-about-the-place.

8. British farmers – good eggs or bad eggs?

Good eggs of course. And if I was feeding my family on a budget I would be first in the queue to buy battery eggs. I wouldn’t like it, but the family would have to come first.

9. Guilty pleasure – Creme egg or fried egg?

A bit of both really. I like scrambled eggs on toast and I also make crème caramel which is good for using up a surplus and is a nice, cold, refreshing pud.

10. Free range fanatic or free for all?

I always ask if the eggs are free-range and I find most hotels and restaurants are keen to state if their eggs are free range anyway. I wouldn’t knowingly eat battery eggs if I could afford to buy free range.

11. What would be your top tip for someone considering keeping their own hens?

Protect your hens. Invest in a decent house. The design of some henhouses is awful and impossible to clean. Imagine yourself on a rainy day faced with cleaning out the dirty bedding. Are there awkward little steps and stages? Or can you get a clean sweep. I like slide-out panels under the perches, you can just take them out and scrape the old bedding into a wheelbarrow for the compost heap. Look for a cosy house that closes up securely and keeps the fox out. Get one with dark, private nestboxes where your hens will want to lay. Feed your hens properly. (I knew a hotelier who just flung his hens buckets of bread.) Give them a few treats, pulled-up Brussels sprouts plants from the vegetable garden, a corn-on-the-cob or two. Enjoy the fact that you’ve done a kind, humane thing by taking them on and giving them a better life.

12. And finally – You are renowned for your humorous poetry and observations of life. What do your hens get up to that makes you laugh?

I love to see them having a dust-bath, fluffing up their feathers with one leg stuck out in abandon and the head thrown ecstatically backwards amid clouds of choking dust. Nobody could see them and not smile.

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