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Around the cluck care with NI Battery Hen Rescue charity

Saved from slaughter and roaming free, and all thanks to tiny band of volunteers who are urging public to rehome a hen this Christmas

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MAMA HEN: Barbara Mladek at her home-turned-hen sanctuary in Moira

MAMA HEN: Barbara Mladek at her home-turned-hen sanctuary in Moira

MAMA HEN: Barbara Mladek at her home-turned-hen sanctuary in Moira

If you’ve ever wondered how a farmed hen reacts when she makes a nest in fresh straw for the very first time, then Barbara Mladek has the answer.

They actually make a soft purring noise of contentment, like a cat,” laughs Barbara. “It’s those reactions that make everything we do worthwhile.

“When a battery hen that’s lived in a cage or barn all her life is able to make a proper nest to lay her eggs in for the very first time, or walk on grass for the first time, it’s priceless.

“And you should see their excitement when they meet their first butterfly or feel their first drops of rain. Sometimes they jump back a bit in surprise.

“When the new hens first arrive and I’ve made them comfortable on a fresh straw bed in one of my outhouses, they purr so loudly it can even keep me awake at night.”

Barbara from Moira has just marked 10 years of running her charity Northern Ireland Battery Hen Rescue, which offers a second chance to birds that have passed their laying peak and are destined for slaughter.

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DINNER TIME: Barbara feeds the birds at Battery Hen Rescue centre in Moira

DINNER TIME: Barbara feeds the birds at Battery Hen Rescue centre in Moira

DINNER TIME: Barbara feeds the birds at Battery Hen Rescue centre in Moira

Barbara explains that hens farmed for their eggs are typically seen to be past their productivity at just 72 weeks old, even though they could go on to live — and lay — for years.

She has agreements with a number of local farmers to rehome some of their unwanted birds.

Barbara and her small team of volunteers, including fellow directors Patricia Harbinson and Tracy Middleditch, find new homes for around 1,500 hens every year with people across Northern Ireland who want to keep backyard hens.

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AJ Middleditch (13) helps look after the family's rescued hens

AJ Middleditch (13) helps look after the family's rescued hens

AJ Middleditch (13) helps look after the family's rescued hens

Although the birds could be considered semi-retired, many of them continue laying eggs most days.

“Ex-battery hens make the most wonderful companions,” explains Barbara (57). “They’re so inquisitive and they really respond to human company.

“My hens follow me around or hop up onto my knee for a cuddle. It’s like they’re so grateful for the second chance at life they’ve been given.”

Barbara spent her working life in the banking sector and drifted into rescuing hens by accident. She bought a house with a bit of land and decided it would be nice to have a couple of chickens.

After learning about the egg industry, she wanted to offer a home to ex-battery hens, and her vet put her in touch with a farmer who was about to send a truckload for slaughter.

“Before I knew where I was, I was agreeing to adopt 38 of them,” she laughs.

Barbara now runs her home as a charity and has converted a couple of old stables into rehab units for her rescues. She has a cabin that she uses as a “chicken A&E” for sick birds.

Tracy Middleditch from Dundrod, Co Antrim, has around 70 rescue hens at her home.

Her love affair with birds began with a characterful goose called Jack Jack — who remains her “pride and joy” — and often gives a loving home to hens deemed to be too weak or unwell to be rehomed with members of the public.

“I always fall for the really pathetic ones,” she jokes. “I just think they all deserve a bit of happiness.”

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HELPING HAND: Young Henry (3) gets stuck in with mum Tracy Middleditch. She and her family are selling Christmas wreaths and table decorations

HELPING HAND: Young Henry (3) gets stuck in with mum Tracy Middleditch. She and her family are selling Christmas wreaths and table decorations

HELPING HAND: Young Henry (3) gets stuck in with mum Tracy Middleditch. She and her family are selling Christmas wreaths and table decorations

Tracy and her children AJ (13), Amelia (10) and Henry (3), began fundraising for the charity with an honesty box at the front of their house on Knockcairn Road.

“Most of our hens still lay, so we get about 40 eggs a day,” laughs Tracy (38). “That’s a lot of eggs. We decided to stick them in an old cupboard at the top of the drive and see if anyone wanted any in return for a donation.

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Ben Middleditch helps with the 70 rescue hens at their home

Ben Middleditch helps with the 70 rescue hens at their home

Ben Middleditch helps with the 70 rescue hens at their home

“It was really popular, so then we started thinking of other ways to raise money. The kids grew vegetables and put them in the box. People donated crops of berries and apples, and I made jams and chutneys.

“Then a honey producer from Glengormley offered us some jars of honey with a percentage of each sold going towards the hens’ upkeep.”

Now Tracy and her family are selling Christmas wreaths and table decorations, and have worked with a local artist, Rebecca Alexander of Art From Scratch, to make charity Christmas cards featuring some of their rescue hens.

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Amelia Middleditch (10)

Amelia Middleditch (10)

Amelia Middleditch (10)

Meanwhile, Barbara is planning on rescuing another intake of birds in the run-up to Christmas so would love to hear from anyone keen to offer them a home.

“We’re like any other animal rehoming charity; we do background checks to make sure people are suitable,” she explains.

“We ask for photos of their coop set-up and secure runs, and make sure they have the legally-required flock license.

“Most of our rehomers are families, smallholders or people who just want to keep a few backyard chickens.

“We offer a lot of support too — we don’t expect people to know it all. We can help you. I run a 24/7 helpline to give advice to anyone struggling with their chickens or wanting to know how to set up and care for them properly.”

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Barbara feeds her hens and roosters, at the Battery Hen rescue centre

Barbara feeds her hens and roosters, at the Battery Hen rescue centre

Barbara feeds her hens and roosters, at the Battery Hen rescue centre

Barbara currently has around 200 birds at her home in Moira and says that since Covid, she has also been taking in chickens that have been dumped.

“I think during lockdown a lot of people fancied keeping hens at home, liking the idea of the eggs, but not understanding the care they need,” she explains.

“We’ve rescued a lot of birds that just aren’t wanted any more. One night me and Tracy got a call about a load of chickens abandoned on an island in Lough Neagh, and we were running around in the pouring rain, getting stung by nettles, trying to round them all up.”

Barbara really has dedicated her life to helping hens — so much so that a few years ago she even changed her name, by deed poll, to Mama Hen.

“The name change came as a joke at first,” she laughs.

“People started calling me Mother Hen, so one day I looked online and realised how easy it was to change it officially.

“I filled out some forms, paid a fee, and legally changed my name from Barbara to Mama Hen. It’s on all my bank cards, utility bills and even my driving licence.

“Some people still call me Barbara; others use Mama Hen. I don’t really care.

“It always gives me a laugh when someone from a call centre rings me. You can tell they’re struggling to know what to say.”

For more information about rehoming hens, or buying Christmas cards, priced £5 per pack, wreaths or table decorations, search Northern Ireland Battery Hen Rescue on Facebook. For details on Art From Scratch, email: rmpalexander129@gmail.com


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