What is a hen’s comb for? Acquiring ‘the knowledge’ with hens@home

Posted on April 8, 2014

It all started on a summer’s day in 2008. There I was, talking to Prince Charles on his visit to Garden Organic to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. I was on hand to discuss composting.  He is a man who knows about such matters. Slightly surprisingly the conversation turned to hens. He is an enthusiast of them too (who knew?) and the idea of promoting hen-keeping as part of the errrr… ‘battery’ of waste reduction techniques was born.

Chas and Muck discuss hens
Chas and Muck discuss hens

Fast forward a year and  Margi Lennartson and I were in Flanders with colleagues from Garden Organic and WCC investigating what they do there – the local councils provides households with two free hens and mentoring support to look after them as part of their waste reduction strategy.

It took several more years, some unsuccessful Lottery bids and encouraging notes in the famous scrawly handwriting  before, in 2013,  success – a small grant to support a Hens@home project. A booklet and a website produced and a series of three training courses for aspiring hen mentors.

It is early April, the road show has arrived in Oxfordshire and I’m on the course at Hill End  Outdoor Centre to learn about how to look after hens and impart ‘the knowledge’ to others as a mentor. Led by GO’s Pauline Pears and Ian Farrar from the British Hen Welfare Trust, the group – all experienced hen keepers, enjoyed an ‘Everything you always wanted to know about hens but were afraid to ask’-style day. Well of course we knew it all. Or did we? After the intros, ‘My hen flock is bigger than your hen flock’, ‘But mine has quails’, ‘ I know someone who has ostriches..’ we got onto the ‘simple multiple choice quiz’. Q1. ‘What is a hen’s comb for? (pretty philosophical for anyone who recalls the Falklands War 30 years ago, memorably described as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’) ‘so it can be seen at a distance’, ‘to help keep it cool in hot weather’ or  as a ‘warning to predators’. I think we all got that one (to keep it cool in hot weather) and the group soon moved on to the true/false session. ‘Hens have warm feet’ (true) ‘ A hen can run at 7mph’ (true) ‘Hens are strict vegetarians’ (false).

Then it was the practical bit, holding a real live hen and discussing their illnesses. Like what to do when they are egg-bound – olive oil has something to do with the answer (not quite sure if it had to be ‘extra virgin’). I’ve never come across such easy to handle hens as the ones Ian brought along. I suppose they were just so grateful that they were now ex-battery, or perhaps they knew that bad behaviour could have consequences.

There was a bit of a division in the group between the ‘utilitarians’ and the ‘hens as pets’ brigades. But we all agreed that the eggs can’t be produced for less than you can buy them for in the shops, so even the utilitarians have to recognise that this isn’t a fast way to riches. It certainly isn’t by the time you’ve got through the legal aspects of hen keeping. No kitchen waste (not even vegetarian – this has nothing to do with BSE. EU regs allegedly) and they aren’t even allowed access to your compost heap. Officially. So  thanks to DEFRA the whole point of GO’s ‘Hens@home’ programme, which was supposed to provide a cheap and simple way of reducing the amount of kitchen waste going to landfill is undermined at a stroke. Don’t tell his Royal Highness or there will be some more of those tricky letters to Ministers landing on Whitehall desks. Strange when one participant (Lord Muck) had been over to Flanders to see for himself just how their programme works and just how successful it is as a waste reduction strategy. Flanders is erm…. in the EU, so ask DEFRA to clarify that one.

To round off the day we had a long discussion on about ‘end of life’ for hens. Just in case you wondered, none of the options are actually legal either. Euthanasia by vet? No, they can only do that to pets, and hens are ‘farm animals’. Ring its neck yourself and bury it in the garden? No, you can only legally bury your pet. Ditto and send it for incineration? Try and find a waste carrier who will come and pick up one hen. The best we could come up with was cook it and then put it in the food waste collection … but you’ll have to remove the feathers first!


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