BHWT founder Jane Howorth

BHWT founder Jane Howorth - Credit: Archant

A profile of the founder of the British Hen Welfare Trust, Jane Howorth

When did your interest in chicken-keeping (as opposed to your welfare concerns after seeing the BBC Panorama Down on the Factory Farm programme) actually begin?

It really did start with that programme; there was no previous event or experience. I had never even touched a live chicken and had no particular affinity to them, but like many people I’ve always felt drawn to the underdog in life. When I watched Down on the Factory Farm I saw that battery hens really were the ultimate underdogs in the farming industry.

What pure breeds have you kept – and would you recommend them as being suitable for first-time chicken keepers?

When I first moved to Devon in 1995, as well as my ex-bats, I bought a few Plymouth Rocks and was given an adorable little Pekin bantam cockerel. He used to stand on my hand and chatter politely to me. I also had a magnificent Buff Orpington who was found injured by the roadside. I don’t have pure breeds now, but would love to again. I have a wish list… partridge Pekins’ being at the top. I’m not sure I’d recommend Plymouth Rocks for first-timers, but, based on my very limited experience, Pekins’ definitely - they’re delightful!

What advantages do hybrids have over pure breeds when it comes to back garden chicken keeping?

The hybrids we home are perfect for back garden chicken keeping; the birds are ‘genetically designed’ to be productive and docile, and, whilst some people look for fancy feathers, we find most re-homers prioritise affability and fresh eggs. They really do top the pecking order in suitability in my view.

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What three basic essentials do you think chickens need?

Speaking for ex-commercial hens, I would say these include shelter from the elements as they are unfamiliar with the vagaries of the British weather and, much like us, don’t like the wind and the rain. They need stimulation, easily achieved by giving them access to space; foraging nourishes the natural behaviour most ex-commercial hens have been denied. Security is another key factor; once let loose, ex-commercial hens can get carried away with the thrill of exploration; ensuring they are in before dark is absolutely vital.

Ex-intensive hens often lose feathers due to the conditions in which they’ve been kept. How do you help them through the moult and re-grow their plumage?

Typically, ex-commercial hens will take from 4-8 weeks to re-feather and, as the weather gets cooler, the process speeds up. We advise re-homers to protect the birds from any wind-chill and rain, and, in severe cases, offer the birds’ overnight protection with heat lamps, although these should be used only in bitter cold. A tonic with a combination of vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and amino acids will help the moult process.

As the founder of BHWT, your original aims, intentions and ideals are well documented. With the introduction of ‘enriched’ cages etc in the commercial sector in 2012, do you think you’ve achieved all that you wanted?

I am obviously delighted that we have played a part in getting rid of battery cages, but there is much more to be done. For such a simple product, the egg industry is quite complex. I want to see more support for British egg producers, investment in the small flock free range where range enrichment is the norm. I also want to see the wider public better informed on how they can influence hen welfare simply through everyday food purchases.

Generally, do you think enough is being done to educate youngsters as to where their food comes from?

I hear too often that children have no idea where food comes from, and who can blame them when everything is so sanitised in Clingfilm-wrapped plastic trays at the supermarket. As the charity develops we want to do more to educate young people and have recently teamed up with the Morrisons’ ‘Let’s Grow’ campaign.

What do you think it is about BHWT that has meant you can so easily get high profile celebrity patrons and supporters?

Without doubt, our pragmatic approach has made a big difference in winning the hearts of minds of our Patrons. Some have childhood memories of hen keeping. Jamie Oliver adopted hens from the BHWT and then went on to make his Channel 4 documentary Jamie’s Fowl Dinners which helped the charity’s profile enormously. Jimmy Doherty has an appreciation of the economics of commercial hen keeping, whilst Antony Worrall Thompson uses only the best free range in his menus. And we mustn’t forget the wonderful Pam Ayres, whose first poem to be read out on radio was, of course, The Battery Hen!

Find out about the work of the BHWT at www.bhwt.co.uk