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Best hen party ever: A sanctuary for feathered friends

Ivan Little finds out what prompted an animal lover to dedicate her life to a charity that rescues birds

Even the fertile imagination of Northern Irish writer CS Lewis might have been stretched to dream up the remarkable story of Mama Hen, the real-life name of the big-hearted hen rescuer who grew up in his famous east Belfast childhood home where he wrote about the private fantasy world he called Animal Land.

Barbara Mladek, who spent her first 15 years in Little Lea, long after the Lewis family had departed, has transformed her present home of 25 years - dubbed the 'Nut House' - into a sanctuary for nearly 6,000 hens she has saved from being slaughtered after they'd outgrown their usefulness as egg producers.

Barbara, who added Mama Hen to her Christian names by deed poll a few years back, has a virtual animal farm all around her home, which gets its quirky name from its location on Nut Hill Road, near Moira.

On the day I call she is looking after her 'permanent guests' - 180 poultry, including hens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl, plus another 75 rescued birds waiting for new homes.

And that's not to mention her pets - 12 dogs, nine cats, six rabbits, three pot-bellied pigs, one of whom may be pregnant, three piglets and 25 rats. Yes, rats.

But visitors can often hear the Nut House before they see it thanks to the roosters roaming about in the happy hotch-potch of sheds and caravans which would put Noah's Ark to shame, and which have wire defences to keep unwanted intruders out.

Everywhere you look you see contented four-legged and two-legged creatures strutting their stuff, though one of the hens has only one leg, the result of living in horrific conditions before Mama Hen came to its aid.

Another hen called Becky became something of a celebrity two years ago after her story hit the headlines. As is common practice on commercial farms to stop hens pecking each other, her top beak was cut off as a chick but, unlike others, Becky's beak didn't grow back.

So a prosthetic beak was specially made for her, but sadly she died from cancer. "We received sympathy messages from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia because people had followed her story. She was a real character and there were times when she would clamber up on my knee to put her head into the glass of wine I was drinking."

The publicity over Becky was a real feather in the cap for Barbara, who has always had a soft spot for animals, and who used to drive her family crazy, bringing all sorts of waifs and strays to Little Lea including dogs, cats, mice and even rats.

She even turned up on the doorstep one day after school with five horses which she found wandering along the Cairnburn Road near her home.

All through her adult life Barbara had the usual pets like dogs and cats and her passion for chickens took years to hatch but she says she'd always dreamt of having four hens. Not three. Not five. Four.

And when she did finally realise her ambition, that was that. She was hooked.

"Within a month I had 24 hens," she says "And then I got my first five ex-commercial hens from down south after a rescue. They make wonderful pets. They're the most adorable, affectionate, inquisitive and friendly of any of the breeds you will ever find.

"But I didn't know much about hens until one of them called Mary Jo died in my arms. My heart was broken and I decided I needed to learn more and I also discovered there were no hen rescue centres in the north at all."

The word 'rescue' might conjure up images of balaclava-clad fanatics breaking into farms to spirit battery hens away from their cruel surroundings and lifestyles. But in reality Barbara simply telephoned and asked farmers and egg packers if she could have their hens once they had reached the end of their commercial lives.

"One company told me they had a shed of hens which were being de-populated - a pretty word for slaughtered - on the following Saturday and that I could have as many as I wanted."

Barbara, whose ringtone on her mobile phone is, unsurprisingly, a duck quacking, appealed for volunteers to offer the hens a new home and in the end she rescued 34 birds.

But Barbara was inundated with more offers of help and along with a colleague, Sam Moffett, she decided to set up a charity dedicated to saving more hens.

In the first month after The Nut House Hen Rescue and Re-homing Centre (NHHRARC) was established in December 2011, they saved 361 hens in one fell swoop from their coop.

"We got a van and brought out as many as we could," she says. "Some of them were in a really bad way but we had specially made little hen coats to put on them.

"It was a really emotional day for the 20 or 30 volunteers who were here and for the first year we were doing a rescue a month. However, we are a small country and the number of people who were offering the hens a new home went down so we only did our rescues every other month."

Barbara's efforts didn't go unnoticed. In 2013 she won an International Fund for Animal Welfare award, which was presented to her in the House of Lords by former Goodie and fanatical birdwatcher Bill Oddie, who has become a close ally of the Nut House.

The friendship started in a most unconventional way after a friend bet Barbara that she wouldn't pinch his bottom - which she did, during a photo-shoot, and won her wager.

As a passionate believer in what they do to give commercial hens an extended life, Oddie has encouraged the charity and helped them raise money.

At the moment hens are slaughtered after they reach the age of just 18 months when producers reckon they've passed the peak of their laying, which can see them produce over three hundred eggs a year.

After they are rescued, Barbara, whose father was from Czechoslovakia, says some of the hens don't survive the shock of their new surroundings and others have severe injuries like prolapses and pecking wounds, or damaged wings and legs which have to be amputated by a vet.

"A lot of the problems come from the stress of living in such highly populated densities within the sheds and that takes its toll," says Barbara, who takes pride in the fact that a number of what she calls her 'special needs' hens are still alive nearly four years after their rescues.

Barbara has names for most of the hens who live permanently at the Nut House - like Cruella, Twisty, Stumpy, Hannah and Doreen.

"Cruella was blind in one eye and didn't cope with suddenly being out in a flock in fresh air. She used to run round in circles in a panic all the time so she stayed in my conservatory for a long time.

"However, the fact is that rescued hens survive for only an average of 15 months after they are freed," says Barbara, who honed up on her previously paltry poultry skills by reading a book called Chickens as Pets, by English author Andrew Hinkinson, who himself now donates £3 from each sale of a re-printed edition to the Nut House after Mama Hen wrote a foreword.

It may sound strange but Barbara has built up a good relationship with the farmers and egg producers, even though she abhors the conditions in which hens are usually kept. "I respect the producers' anonymity because I don't want people going to them accusing them of this, that or the other," she says.

"But the conditions are probably worse than anyone can imagine. When you walk into these places the first thing that hits is the smell of ammonia, which cuts at your eyes and your nose. I've been in sheds where there are dead and dying hens just left to rot.

"Certainly a lot of the facilities are better than what they were but they're all overcrowded in cages, barns or free range facilities which aren't always as good as their name suggests. Two of our worst rescues were actually of free range hens.

"You wouldn't put any animal in such horrendous conditions. And if someone finds pigs, cows or sheep which are emaciated and dying by the side of the road they will invariably be identified and their owners can be prosecuted.

"But it's not like that with poultry because you might have a shed with 35,000 hens in it. Under animal welfare legislation hens don't have the protection they should have."

Barbara and her volunteer helpers hate to lose hens they have rescued but it happens. "We always undertake to do everything we can to re-habilitate them but we get some really sick ones and the fairest thing is to have them euthanised. But they die warm and they die held and they do appreciate it."

Barbara needs all the help she can get to run - and fund - her charity. She used to work in a bank but she took redundancy in 2013 to concentrate on the animals, though she says she'll be job hunting again soon because the charity desperately needs money.

It takes £2,000 a month to keep the Nut House going and the charity rely on donations and fundraisers. Barbara sells some eggs from her home and to retail outlets but she also gives many of them away to homeless shelters for animals and humans.

The profile of pet chickens has been raised of late with storylines in Coronation Street and the BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated Belfast-set short movie Boogaloo and Graham.

Barbara hasn't seen either, though the caravan where she runs her hen husbandry courses has DVDs of movies like Chicken Run lying around, plus paintings of chickens, figurines of chickens and even a cock-a-doodle clock with a chicken on the face.

The caravan is also the place where people who want to re-home hens fill in forms undertaking to care for them and not to cull them unless they are really sick or badly hurt.

Beside the caravan, virtually every inch of space in Barbara's outbuildings is turned over to her animals which sometimes form odd alliances like the hen that lays an egg every day in a bed used by a dog that promptly eats the egg. Nearby is the memorial pagoda where hens which have died are remembered.

For Barbara her selfless quest to rescue more and more hens goes on as does her search to find new homes for them.

Signing up is a relatively simple task and Mama Hen has an instinct about who will and who won't give the rescued birds good homes.

The only time she does home-checks is when people apply to take 20 or more hens and she needs to inspect the proposed new surroundings.

"I don't want the hens coming out of hell and going straight back into it," she says.

  •  For details on the Nut House, visit www.nuthousehenrescue.co.uk or www.facebook.com/NutHouseHenRescue

How to get all cooped up

  • It is a common misconception that ex-battery hens are unhealthy, but they will all have received full vaccinations at the chick stage and be laying well
  • The birds will sometimes have few feathers, but they will often start to re-feather within a few weeks
  • To house the hens, a regular shed or outbuilding can be converted, or you can opt for a purpose-built coop. It is crucial, however, that the housing is predator proof, as foxes, badgers and rats will be attracted by the birds, night or day
  • The hens should be kept separate from existing birds for a few weeks, as if they are unfit and have poor self confidence they can be easily bullied by other birds
  • Hens can get along happily with most family pets, but do not leave them unsupervised with dogs until satisfied your animal is hen-friendly.
  • You should worm your hens 3 to 4 times a year and treat your flock for mites and for lice
  • For further information on caring for chickens, visit the British Hen Welfare Trust at www.bhwt.org.uk

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