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Ex-caged Cheshire hens

Ex-cage hens find free-range freedom in Cheshire

Looking back at some of this year’s achievements, we’ve connected with the Bernard family who rehomed an amazing 80 hens last year in the hopes of giving those girls a free-range retirement at their family farm in Cheshire.

Bernard’s farm is a family of first-generation farmers based in Cheshire. They aim to create new ethical ways of farming and strive to educate people on where their produce comes from as well as looking after rare breeds of sheep and pigs. 12 months ago they came to the BHWT in the hopes of giving 80 ex-caged hens the chance to live out their retirement on their land. They have even been able to supply the locals with the surplus of eggs that they receive from the hens.

Sarah and her family are not from a farming background, in fact, she used to work in child protection services, before she and her husband left it all behind. After recovering from a challenging illness, the two decided they couldn’t wait for the lottery to give them their farm, and so they said “live and let live” and began renting. They had five young children and starting in the farming industry is no easy job. Sarah tells us that she gave up her weekends to get some hands-on experience by volunteering on a dairy farm, learning how to drive a tractor as well as learning how to milk cows. She now has a diploma in agriculture and in March 2019 they were able to buy their smallholding.

Sarah tells us “We learnt a lot, and made even more mistakes, however it’s been the best–and most exhausting–decision we have ever made for our family. We aim to farm compassionately and to leave as little harm to the natural environment as possible. We try to consider the impact of the way we rear and grow our food”

Sarah is passionate about where her food comes from as well as rearing animals on the farm with dignity and respect. They prioritise animal welfare on the farm and make sure that their animals get a good quality of life, and that is why they wanted to adopt so many ex-battery hens, to give them a second chance.

Talking with Sarah she told us “I love these hens, they’ve bought such joy, and to have had the BHWT backing us, and allowing us to rehome that many hens, and then set up an egg club we will always be grateful.” The hens live on the farm, freely ranging where ever they want. Check out some of the beautiful photos of the Bernard’s hens on their Facebook page.

Last July, Sarah and the family were able to build a dream home for the hens, providing them with an environment as close to a hen’s native forest environment, by housing them in a purpose-built poultry house in a woodland! There is fencing around the woodland to keep the hens in and off the road, however, they don’t really wander too far from the family.

This wonderful project was only possible due to crowdfunding last year, and re-investing the lockdown egg club sales money into new housing. What an amazing way to give back to the hens!

We asked whether there was a reason for rehoming with the BHWT. Sarah shared that her personal recovery from her illness was helped by being around animals like the dairy cows on the farm. By being outside with them, she learnt that it can really help to recover.

She tells us “If you don’t think it’s possible to get to know individual cows’ personality then I urge you to spend time with them! I recovered from mental illness by being outside and around animals, and during lockdown I completed an animal-assisted therapy course, as my long-term goal is that the farm is also a place of healing and enjoyment for others too. Our hens are super friendly and funny characters and I think therapy hens is another plan I have for the girls.”

If you haven’t guessed already, Sarah and the family keep a lot of hens! Over 100 in fact. The Bernard’s also felt that the Egg Club would be a great idea to make the hens self-sufficient. Sarah explicitly said that they didn’t want point of lay hens as they really wanted to offer the home to animals that needed it, to fit in with their priority of animal welfare and compassion.

Sarah tells us “the hens will live out their retirement with us as they are considered our pets. Not all of them lay, which doesn’t matter as they provide us with enough for what we require. Our egg club community know we don’t use artificial lighting or feed layers pellets over winter and so we likely won’t have eggs in the deep dark depths of winter but it really isn’t the end of the world for us. I enjoy eating seasonal and local, I find it helps to keep that link to the countryside and really appreciate and enjoy our food”.

As many of the hens had never been outside, the family takes great joy in watching them almost stumble whilst looking up at the sun for the first time. “When it first rained, the hens didn’t know where to go!” Sarah recounts, “It’s a good job we have five children as it makes it lighter work carrying 80 hens inside to shelter by hand!”

“The hens have had a wonderful summer exploring the woodland area, and with the children off school for lockdown and summer holidays, they are so friendly now! It’s really humbling how friendly the hens become, after a life that probably didn’t feature sunshine, space to run and a cuddle from a child.” It’s always heart-warming to hear of the transformation that these hens go through!

Sarah then told us about how they were able to set up their egg club for the local community. Many of our fundraisers start with an egg club, and it’s a great way to get involved with the BHWT. “We [The Bernard’s] originally started selling the surplus eggs in an honesty box at the farm gate, however, it was stolen so we decided to make it more hands-on.” Selling the eggs was important to Sarah as it allowed the Bernard’s to keep reinvesting in the hens and the other animals. They set up the egg club in the spring and every Friday Sarah would deliver the eggs to the locals. Of course, over lockdown, the egg club was vital to the community and so they were very popular for those few months when supermarkets had run out of eggs!

Sarah tells us “the door was knocking morning, noon, and night. Lockdown for us was about hens and eggs! It was really wonderful to serve our local community and it gave us a purpose as a family to keep busy. In fact, some of the neighbours’ daily exercise was to walk to our farm and buy eggs. Some even danced and waved at the kids over the farm gate! I hope it made their day as much as it made our ours!”

And lastly, we always ask our keepers what they have learnt from rehoming hens and what advice they would give. Sarah was confident in advising,

“If anyone is interested in hen keeping, I would absolutely recommend rehoming ex-battery hens. Hens make brilliant pets for young children as they can easily pick them up and hug them! Plus, they get to learn where food comes from too. We started our hen keeping journey with two in the back garden and have never looked back. One thing to consider is that hens can be noisy around laying time and checking with neighbours first would probably be a good idea, however, you could get around this by offering to share the eggs. There’s something very special when the kids go out to collect the eggs and bring back lovely, warm, super fresh eggs for breakfast.

We take our hens off layers pellets over winter to provide them with the opportunity to stop laying if they need to, or lay less and use this time to get back into condition for the next season’s laying. I’m still getting enough eggs to run a smaller egg club, and to feed us, and the feedback from our community is that the eggs are fresher than the supermarkets and they enjoy them, even more, knowing the hens are naturally roaming and living a high-quality life”.

Being able to talk to someone who is an advocate for hen welfare has been a joy, and Sarah’s contribution to the BHWT is inspiring. If you would like to get involved, whether that be rehoming, volunteering or creating your own egg club, please get in touch and spread the word!