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Meet the woman doing her bit to ensure around 40 turkey dinners become turkey winners by dodging the slaughterman

Animal lover and vegetarian Barbara Mladek, who has added 'Mama Hen' to her name by deed poll, runs a Moira rescue centre where dozens of birds are actually looking forward to Christmas as they are kept off the yuletide menu

By Ivan Little

Meet the plucky Ulster turkeys who ARE looking forward to Christmas. For they're the 'breathe-again' birds which have been spared from the festive oven by an animal rescue group in Co Down that is calling fowl on the Christmas Day tradition of serving up turkey with all the trimmings.

The Nut House Battery Hen Rescue and Rehoming centre has gobbled up 40 turkeys from farmers to keep them alive and off the yuletide luncheon plates.

And one of them has already been dubbed 'Boris' - after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

The woman behind the rescues, Barbara Mladek - who has added 'Mama Hen' to her name by deed poll - says she's delighted to have saved so many birds.

Barbara, who won a coveted International Fund for Animal Welfare award in 2013, added: "My original idea was to buy a few turkeys from the farmers and to bring them here to our rescue centre, as we've done in the past on a small scale.

"I put up a note on our Facebook page urging people who were planning to get a turkey from a farm this Christmas to purchase a second one, a live one, and let us look after it here."

Barbara, who runs the rescue centre at her home on the Nut Hill Road near Moira, found farmers who were willing to sell her turkeys at roughly £30 a time, but she was expecting no more than three or four people to sign up to her novel sponsorship scheme.

However, she was inundated with pledges of cash - enough to ensure that 40 birds which should have been turkey dinners actually ended up as turkey winners.

Talking turkey to the Belfast Telegraph, Barbara said: "I was taking phone calls into the wee small hours at the weekend. But it's been well worth it."

Barbara is readying a stable to house her new guests, who will join the Nut House's other rescued residents - 150 hens and roosters, nine geese and 30 ducks.

Barbara says Christmas isn't usually a particularly happy time for her, adding. "I get very down at the thought of all these animals getting slaughtered.

"I don't eat any meat at all and I'll be too busy on Christmas Day to have any special meals."

Barbara was brought up in east Belfast, living for 15 years of her early life in Little Lea, the home of renowned novelist CS Lewis.

The writer had long departed the house on Circular Road by the time Barbara's family moved in, but from an early age she was a fervent animal lover who would regularly bring stray dogs, cats and even horses back to her home.

After leaving her job in a bank she set up her charity with the aim of saving battery hens from an early death.

Her methods were direct. She telephoned farmers and egg packers to ask them if they would give her their birds after they'd reached the end of their commercial "usefulness".

In the first month after establishing her Nut House rescue centre 361 hens were saved and upwards of 30 volunteers were recruited to help the organisation. Hundreds of other people offered new homes to the birds which had been saved.

Within four years the number of hens rescued had soared to more than 6,000.

But last year Barbara was almost forced to close her centre after a dip in the level of donations she was relying on to keep the charity going.

A social media campaign was launched to help save the charity, and former Goodies star Bill Oddie, who is a keen ornithologist and supporter of the Nut House, donated signed photographs for auction.

Not that all the people who are sponsoring a turkey this year are vegetarians.

Said Barbara: "A lot of them will definitely be having turkey for Christmas. But they obviously thought it would be a nice idea to save another bird. It's maybe their way of giving something back."

Farmers didn't tell the rescue centre to get stuffed after they were invited to sell their turkeys to it. Barbara added: "Obviously, they were happy enough. After all they were getting the same money for a live bird as they were for a dead one.

"And it meant they didn't have to do the slaughtering - and everything else - that they normally have to do."

The big-hearted folk who are sponsoring the turkeys have already been given the chance to pick their birds' names, which are being added to rings on their legs.

The appellations they have chosen so far have ranged from turkey-inspired ones like Cranberry and Sir Gobbles to the more mundane Trevor, Nigel and Derek, presumably after husbands who could be said to be, er, hen-pecked. More romantic sponsors have called their turkeys Casanova and Darcy, after the hero of Pride And Prejudice, while female monikers have included Mrs Doyle from Father Ted and Holly Berry, which is a nod to the Oscar winner Halle Berry.

Another turkey has been "crowned" Duncan, but it's not clear if he's been bought by a fan of the BBC presenter and country singer Hugo Duncan, or, indeed, if there is any resemblance to the Strabane man.

The rescue centre said it was welcoming the turkeys' sponsors to visit their birds as often as they can and it's also planning to hold open weekends as well.

"They can help us in any way they want and become part of their lives," added Barbara.

"They can even do a bit of cleaning out - if they feel like it."

She says the turkeys could live for up to 10 years at the Nut House rescue centre.

Trotting out all of a turkey's good points, Barbara said: "They're really lovely birds. They are so, so friendly - and they're extremely sociable.

"And they sing, you know. They chirp away merrily all day long. They're not hard to look after at all."

A few pet names...

Other names bestowed on the saved turkeys include Tom; Dotty; Darragh; Annie; Olly; Noelle; Jasper; Jeremiah; Oscar; Josephine; Dolly; Julisa; Angelica; Ariadne; Singer; Alice; Buddha; Bella, Theodore and Bongo.

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