It is rare to find a genuinely good leader – but that is what Jemima was. Her fluffy white plumage hid a sensible, fair and assertive personality, which won her the place of Mother Hen of the pecking order.
She never became tame in the way Mabel was (always in the hope of titbits) or Florence or Dottie when in the egg laying mood. Even when she laid eggs, she disdained human contact. Saying that, she did make friends with my godson Noah, eight at the time, who, on a visit, often brought her into my house.
She arrived with Dottie and the slightly younger Florence back in September 2017. A white egg arrived the next day. I never knew who laid it, although Dottie claimed credit by proclaiming to all and sundry. But it could have been Jemima. She was a quiet girl, not chatting for the sake of it and never boasting about her achievements, even after laying an egg.
Soon after she arrived, Simon called her wise. She always had that air of knowing more than the others.
Jemima and Dottie became good pals but she was always respected by all the hens.
Jemima took her duties seriously. She was quiet but if she thought there was danger she would alert the others with an alarm call. On these occasions, Mabel was second in command, joining in the chorus. Whether it was a cat, a sparrow hawk or a false alarm, the pair would loudly tell the others to ‘Be safe, be alert. There’s danger about’…
Every summer was broody time, a special occasion she celebrated with Florence and Mabel. Last year, she outgrew it and focused on laying eggs. How angry she was that Mabel was still taking part! She would go over to Mabel and give her an angry peck. I had to step in and make sure it didn’t become bullying. Jemima was mostly fair but you still wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
Recently Jemima became ill and although she apparently got better, she went downhill again before passing away.
That day Dottie looked around her as if to say, “Where’s Jemima?”
I saw a little feathered face peering in at me through the window. It was Jemima, head chicken and spokeshen for the bantams.
“Hello, we would like to come in. It’s rather chilly out here today and I remember that the last time we came in, it was nice and toasty. So, yes, we have had our morning conference and have all agreed we would like to visit your ‘Big House’ and eat mealworms, thank you very much.”
This spring the chickens have had several day trips to Buttercup Meadow, aka my back garden.
Buttercup Meadow’s main arena is fenced off to avoid escapes but that didn’t deter Dottie who kept insisting she wanted to dig for worms outside. The fact that I may not have wanted holes in that part of the lawn didn’t enter her head.
Mabel somehow managed to sneak out, the grass being greener on the other side, being her motto. In particular the goldenrod she spotted en route …
And Little Ava, a former teacher’s pet, usually so quiet and meek, was surprisingly the worst for squeezing through the hole of the fence. She didn’t like Buttercup Meadow. Oh yes, she loved the delicious food it offered, but not the confines. She was, she said, happier to be on the outside, mooching about the flower beds, nibbling away at the grass. She wouldn’t go far, she promised. And Ava being a good girl, I believed her.
Jemima was often the last one to leave despite being leader. It must have irked her to see her usually good flock doing their own thing and not following her, as always, excellent example.
Once they sampled the delights of Buttercup Meadow on lazy hot summer days, they presumed they would be able to enter this chickens’ theme park at any time of their choosing. They would make their way confidently from their garden, through their gate, towards Buttercup Meadow.
“But ladies,” I would explain, “the grass is wet, it’s been raining, you’ll be covered with mud…”
“It’s alright, we will keep ourselves as clean as we can,” Mabel would cluck distractedly as she would veer away from Buttercup Meadow towards Goldenrod Corner, the tall plants beckoning her over each and every time.
I was looking back at this 2017 post, one of my first ones. The plants in the above picture are no more. My dream of a plant-filled chicken garden hasn’t come to fruition because plants and hens don’t go well together! Although I have managed to plant a few fruit trees which are still uneaten! Mabel and Little Ava have joined the group but Florence (my favourite but don’t tell the others) sadly passed away last year in 2020. And I do still want to rescue ex-battery hens one day.
I wanted to be a heroine and save three lives from certain death, and a previous hellish existence.
Imagine being locked up in tiny A4-size cages with no natural light, no pecking order companions (not unless you count fellow prisoners crammed next to you), no kindliness, no space, not even to flap your cramped wings. You are, essentially, treated and seen as a machine.
Writing the above, makes me feel a sense of guilt, even now.
You see, I didn’t adopt three ex-battery hens.
Instead, I selected three posh bantams – Jemima (white), Dottie (speckled) and Florence (brown barred).
I dithered for two years, unable to choose between hybrids, bantams and ex-bats. Hybrids were given short shrift as, although I heard they were perfect for beginners, I deemed them too large for my garden. If I was going to have full-size chickens, I would adopt three or four, maybe five, former battery hens.
My heart would plead for me to sign up for one of the various rehoming programmes that would occur on a regular basis. Charities such as The British Hen Welfare Trust would advertise, and I would be thinking, I’m sure the coop would be ready in a month’s time. Yes, I could sign up today for the rehoming date next month…
But my head would impatiently nudge my heart aside and urge me to look at the facts. Despite my rural smallholding fantasies, I had a small garden in the suburbs. The coop outside area was large enough for two or three full-size hens, just about, but the interior – the bedding quarters, nest boxes, perch – may be a tight squeeze for three.
Although they would probably class it as luxury compared to their previous miserable cell.
Perhaps most importantly, my head sternly reminded me I had zero experience of chickens. What if one was ill or died? It was more likely to happen with girls who had a traumatic beginning in life than youngsters who were born and brought up in the best circumstances. So I went for the ‘easier’ option.
I don’t regret getting the genteel pekin ladies, with their flamboyant bustles, flares and bootees.
But I have not turned my back on the battery girls. Some time in the future, three or four will find a home at Cosy Cottage.
In the meantime, sponsoring a hen for £4 a month is always the next best thing… 🐔🐔🐔
Facts of the Day
1. Do you have a home for ex-battery hens? Call the British Hen Welfare Trust on 01884 860084 or visit http://www.bhwt.org.uk for information.
2. JB of boyband JLS fame has three ex-bats on his farm and the 600,000th rescue hen has found a home at Kensington Gardens no less!
3. If you can’t rehome, why not sponsor a hen for £4 a month? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Just over three years on from her arrival at Cosy Cottage, Florence crossed over the Rainbow Bridge following a period of ill health.
Florence’s life and death left a bigger impact on me than I thought possible with a hen. It was Florence who really showed me how complex and lovable chickens really were. And what an impact such tiny creatures can have on their human guardians.
She made me smile and worry and feel protective.
She made me laugh, like the time she was brooding and stubbornly insisted on sitting on a plant pot after I closed the coop door.
She taught me to be more patient and caring during her illness.
And to be less screamish about mealworms!
Flo first arrived with her two sisters Jemima and Dottie in 2017, they were slightly older than her by a couple of weeks. The difference in Florence and her siblings was apparent straight away. While Jemima was quiet and reserved and Dottie was chatty, they were both confident in themselves and about humans. No, they did not want to be picked up, thank you very much, but this was only because it was their personal preference. They were not scared of humans on arrival. Merely tolerated them.
Florence, on the other hand, was terrified. When she saw a human, she flapped her wings and made a big fuss.
“Murder! I’m being murdered!”
It’s hard to believe now but this state of fear was really the case for the first few weeks of Flo’s life here.
She was a real little scaredy chicken.
Was the sky going to fall in? It was, it was!!!
Oh dear, poor Flo.
Dottie would then helpfully peck her on the top of her head to put her back in her place.
Florence changed from a frightened Cinders into a confident and charismatic Cinderella.
She became popular with all. When my godchildren came to visit, she proved a big hit with Noah, five at the time. As she was the only hen laying, she was the most amenable for being picked up. Which she was. A lot. But Flo’s patience shone through.
Dad admitted she was his favourite and Mum described her as the “best hen”.
I think it was because of her personality, but the eggs would have helped too.
Of all the chickens, she was the best layer. During spring and summer (except when brooding), she laid eggs nearly every second day. This year there was no brooding so she broke all records for her egg laying.
No mean feat for a little Pekin bantam.
And the eggs were absolutely delicious.
She knew it too. How Flo boasted about her eggs after she laid them! Her egg song proclaimed her eggs were the best of all the world! Not just the world, the universe!
But she also had her broody moments, where she proved very stubborn indeed. She was going to have chicks and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Flo was very independent, often seen doing her own thing, digging away for worms. Worms was her favourite food. Whenever I held a bag of mealworms, she would be jumping, trying to grab them from my hand. When I started digging, she would be first there, eagerly anticipating tasty creepy crawlies.
She was also demanding. Especially first thing in the morning when she would insist that it was time to be let out of the coop.
Did I say she was popular with everyone?
Hmm, maybe not the neighbours.
There’s a reason why the girls have longer lie-ins these days.
I used to have to run to let them out during the early mornings before a squawking Florence would fly and jump angrily at the coop door.
“Let me out! For **** sake, I’ll be missing the worms!” I could imagine her screeching.
Florence had her ups and downs with her friends. She never had any ‘besties’ and was often on her own, digging away. Although when it was brooding time, she was often seen cuddling up to Jemima, her fellow brooder.
Dottie always seemed to patronise her, pecking her in a “I’m bigger and older than you” sort of way. But it was Mabel who she had a real feud with. A feud that started a year ago when Florence was brooding – in what Mabel perceived as her nesting space.
This summer, Florence had a welcome break from Mabel when her enemy was stuck indoors.
‘Staying at Home’ like a good girl during lockdown? No, she was brooding, waiting for imaginary eggs to hatch. Sometimes – the irony – she would be in what Flo would think was her nesting space and Flo would fuss and grumble until I took Mabel out and left Flo to do her hard work in peace. Eventually Flo realised that there were other levels and other corners in the coop, which could also be used to lay eggs in.
But when Flo was out enjoying herself and saw her broody foe come out of the coop, she would give a loud screech.
And sometimes she would ‘swear’ for no known reason.
Flo always came across as a sweet girl so her reaction to the new kids on the block, Mabel and Ava, was very surprising. The pair came to Cosy Cottage a year after Flo, Dottie and Jemima. Of course, I had heard that chickens could be hostile to newbies to the pecking order but somehow I expected more of Florence.
But no, instead of acting like a good neighbour, when she saw the new ladies, she flew at their coop in a fit of anger.
Towards the end, when I looked after Flo in my house, she proved to be a determined girl as she battled illness. A scratch on her eye developed into an infection. She went to the vet on two occasions, receiving antibiotics, an injection and painkiller. But despite a brief recovery, she took a downturn and never recovered.
On her last day, I thought she had gone but then she half opened her eye … as if to say “goodbye”.
Goodbye Flo, a golden girl in colour and personality, the garden and coop feel a lot quieter without you.
* For those who don’t know, Rainbow Bridge is a poetic term for the afterlife for animals.
I had been feeling hopeful and optimistic. Florence’s eye seemed to be less painful, she was opening it much more. She was also moving around more and showing natural behaviour such as wiping her beak across the floor (later on I realised this was to keep her beak short and trim). She was grooming herself and feeding and drinking by herself too.
But then she had what I decided was an ‘off day’; an euphemism indeed as it turned out.
The next Monday morning she did not jump out of her box. So I took her out and noticed she had a cloudy eye. I tried to give her cabbage, something that only a day ago she had been trying to grab off my fingers. But this time, when I tried to hand feed her cabbage, she kept missing where the cabbage was.
I hoped it was a temporary blip and she would feel better the following day. But she was just the same.
Florence went back to the vet who told us (I had gone with Mum) she had an infection. He gave her an injection and gave us antibiotics to take with water.
So this time instead of eye drops, Flo had antibiotic mixed with water via a syringe. There was still painkiller from the last vet visit, so she continued to have that too.
Simon came over for a week and together we looked after our poorly patient.
Curiously she often made a purring sound when Simon or I held her. I had not noticed this before and wondered if she was in any discomfort, but when we looked at YouTube videos of hens purring, it was believed that these were contented chickens.
Maybe Florence was aware she was in a safe place with people who wanted to help her?
Flo had stopped exploring and tended to sit in one place. I thought this was because of her eye and being ill but when I saw her trying to move and wobbling instead of walking normally, I realised that she needed rehab. So each day we gently lifted her up and down in an attempt to strengthen her legs.
As well as antibiotics, we had to make sure Florence had enough water and food. Whereas before she was capable of drinking and eating by herself (as long as the grain was spread in front of her so she could pick at it), this week she needed to be hand fed. So we would put grain and corn onto our hands so she would eat off them. If we dipped her head towards the water bowl she would sip it. We would get a general idea of whether she had enough to eat or drink by feeling her crop (at the front of a bird, it should have a bulge before bedtime) and her poos.
That week she was very weak but still had an appetite. I truly believed that if I continued with the ‘rehab’ of gently trying to strengthen her legs, finished the course of antibiotics, handfed and made sure she had enough water, with a matter of time she would get better, even if it would be as a pampered house chicken.
One thing was that when she had a poo, she always moved away from it. But the following week I found poo stuck to her feathers. Her personal hygiene had gone downhill. She was no longer preening herself as she had done in her early stages of illness. She was no longer wiping her beak on the floor. Simon had noticed her beak seemed to be growing. We tried to carefully file it slightly with an enamel board. I hadn’t realised that hens wiped their beaks on surfaces because they were filing them down.
Her mobility kept decreasing, despite my rehab attempts. A few weeks ago I had increased the number of tea towels for her to walk around on. Now I was increasing my usage of them to support Flo. She was hardly able to stand or sit unaided, falling to one side.
By the end of the week, Florence’s attempts to eat by herself off the floor or tea towel had decreased. I had placed a brick (like a table) with grain spread across it to help her, so she wouldn’t have to reach for the floor. But towards the end, I would find her pecking in mid air, brick or no brick. So my attempts to hand feed her increased. There were days when Flo received water via a syringe and her grain was mashed up with water and again, this was given via a syringe.
I contemplated taking her to a vet again. Except this time, there was nothing a vet could do, in my opinion. It would be for one thing and one thing only. But it felt like it would be the right thing for Florence. I mused, deciding I would ring later that day and make an appointment the following morning.
That afternoon, as I worked from home, I gazed towards Florence, who was wrapped up in her tea towels. She didn’t look like she was moving. I went over to check and she half opened an eye.
Over the next few days, Flo started to have a routine. She would wake up, I would take her out of the box and place her on the tea towel. Her bowls of food and water would be put in front of her. As she couldn’t see very well out of one eye, I spread her grain on the floor in front of her and she pecked away.
At first it was one tea towel that was placed on the floor as she didn’t go far. Then it was two…
Then I noticed her exploring even further afield; she started heading away from her tea towels and towards the rug. A softer surface, it made sense. It was great to see her using her common sense and it was even better to watch her moving more.
I started putting her tea towels on top of the rug, along with her grain and water. I treated her to mealworms and little pieces of kale and cabbage which she loved. Apart from the greens, which I mostly gave her by hand and which she started looking for, I knew I could leave Flo to her own devices. She pecked the rug for the grain. Sometimes she missed, but often she finished the grain which had been put there.
Flo was pottering about more in my living room. She no longer felt tied down by the tea towels or rug.
One Monday afternoon, two weeks on from the start of her illness, I noticed her walking around, before settling down on top of some small boxes. It was getting dark and Florence was ready for bed. It was the first time I had seen her do this and it was a joyful moment as it was such a natural, healthy hen behaviour. Saying that, I did take her down from her makeshift ‘roosting spot’ and put her back into bed aka her box, laid with towels.
The following morning I got a fright when I heard a noise coming from her box bed. It was Flo, flapping her wings and jumping on top of the box!
And for the next few days Flo jumped/flew out of the box herself.
I started making up plans in my head on how to reintegrate her with the other hens.
One of the days I put her into a see-through cage for half a minute and put her into the chickens’ enclosure. They looked at her; she looked at them with her good eye. And then I brought her back into my house.
One step at a time. I had high hopes though. At worst, if they didn’t accept her or if she never regained the sight in her left eye, she may have to become a house chicken. This was possible with regular cleaning, and a proper pet bed/indoor hen house of some kind rather than a cardboard box.
At best, she would rejoin the other hens and become part of the pecking order again.
It started with a sore eye. How Florence got a scratch or an abrasion in her left eye, I don’t know. Only that one weekend when Simon was here, he noticed she was sitting down in the chickens’ garden with her eye closed. Usually she’d be digging for worms or pottering about. But she didn’t look herself at all.
We took her into the house, placing her on the settee, on top of a tea towel. We couldn’t decide whether it was a general lethargy/health issue or a specific eye problem. So I thought I would keep her in a cardboard box overnight in my living room and see how she was in the morning.
The following morning, Florence was the same. I rang the vet and made an appointment for 5.50pm that same day. During that time, Florence didn’t move much (I had placed her on a tea towel in the living room next to grain and water).
The vet looked at her eyes carefully, coming to the conclusion that it was an abrasion, a scratch of some kind. He gave me Metacam (painkiller) and Exocin eye drops for Florence to take over the next five days. It was with a sense of relief when I left the vet. Okay, there was a problem with her eye but surely if these eye drops are given, she will recover her eyesight? Not that I was looking forward to giving these eye drops. I’m not the most practical of people and Simon had left by then.
Thankfully my parents came to the rescue, helped by the fact that my mum is a retired NHS worker. For the next five days, they came to mine to help out. It was a two-person job to hold Florence’s beak open so the syringe with the painkiller would go in. It required two people to adminster the eye drops. Early on I tried just by myself but it was difficult.
So much for my childhood dreams of becoming a vet…
On the fifth day of Flo’s rest and recovery at mine, I decided it was time for a visitor. Partly to boost Flo’s spirits (having visitors worked for Dottie when she was ill) and partly so the other hens would not forget her.
How could anyone forget Flo? True, but chickens are fickle creatures and I wanted them to think of Flo as still being one of them, one of the flock, one of the pecking order.
So ‘top dog’ Jemima was a guest to Flo’s temporary hospital bed. Florence had been looking very sorry for herself up to that point, her eye closed most of the time, but when she saw Jemima she woke up and chatted or, more to the point, chirruped. It was a one-hen dialogue, a soliloquy. Jemima just looked around her until suddenly she flew at Florence. Thankfully, my parents and I had been watching closely and we managed to get the pair separated quickly.
Curiously, Florence looked like she had been defending herself just before Jemima was taken away. And interestingly, that same afternoon she seemed more awake and hungry.
Perhaps the visit had stimulated her after all?
Jemima was now barred from ‘the hospital’ but Florence received a couple more visits from guests Ava and Dottie.
Both were closely watched to prevent any more arguments. They were better behaved than Jemima although Ava did help herself to Flo’s mealworms, ignoring Flo, while Dottie’s visits seemed to send Florence to sleep! Florence’s other eye always seem to close as well when Dottie came to visit.
Hope springs eternal as they say, and with the passing days I hoped that there was a subtle improvement even if I couldn’t see it right then.
This is an earlier post I wrote, back in September 2017. I feel like I have learnt a lot about chickens since then!
By August 2017, Cosy Cottage’s garden was as chicken-ready as it was ever going to be. Drainage (whether it works or not, we will have to wait and see this winter) set in place; a proper compost heap permanently sited, ready for that delightful manure which would work wonders for the plants; a pond dug, planted (finally) and decorated with cobbles; stone borders transformed into flower beds; the side garden becoming home to a potted floral arena… And of course, the notorious coop taking centre place, proudly standing, no longer an eyesore but a prestigious abode, ready for its lady lodgers.
There was one thing bugging me though.
I didn’t have any practical experience of hens. I didn’t think I was scared of them, but I had never been in close proximity with chickens. What if they pecked? Or drew blood? Attacked me in my bright red dressing gown (apparently they are attracted to the colour red)? What if I, for some bizarre reason, was unable to lift and hold them? Was nervous of them?
This line of thinking was preposterous. I loved my family’s Jack Russells Molly and Teddy, had zero fear of rodents, and was more concerned of accidentally hurting a spider’s leg (although I do hate touching slugs, which I have done by mistake. Sorry slugs).
I had tried to enrol on a course but didn’t get very far. I must have read all the chicken books available but what I really wanted was some practical experience… Then a colleague came to the rescue.
J got chickens a year before, six months after he first started working on a coop. In fact, I modelled my coop roughly on his. Except he had a proper plan and I didn’t. Anyway, it took him months to build – which should have warned me that if someone says on a website it takes a ‘weekend’ they are, ever so slightly, exaggerating (unless Superman or Wonder Woman is building it).
Eventually, his hard work paid off and he had a fine looking coop – waiting for some inhabitants to fill it. Luckily for J, a fellow allotment-holder had four hens he no longer wanted and, once J had his coop up and running, the ladies moved into their new home.
So it was by good fortune that, when J went away, he asked if I could look after them for a week.
Sure, I said, it would be great experience.
And I would get free eggs!
Sweet Caroline, Lucy Muffin, Britney Starr and Lily Sparkles were a bluebell, marans and a white Sussex. Someone unkindly said they had names like strippers – actually it was J, but don’t blame him, it was his daughters who named them!
(The hens were moulting around the bottom area so calling them strippers wasn’t too far off the mark, wear some more feathers in public, girls please!) 🐔🐔🐔
To say I had a hundred fears (again!) is an understatement. What if they escaped? What if they died (J said to put them in a bin bag and into a bin if this occurred as they weren’t allowed to bury them on the allotment)? A fellow colleague said, how could he say that? How morbid!
But I was glad it was addressed. You know, just in case.
Thank the heavens, it was straightforward. The ladies enjoyed going out into the run when I opened the door (and no one escaped!) And were happy to wander back in when they realised I had lettuce or cabbage, or, a naughty, very seldom treat, a slice of bread. Britney and Co were hard working and supplied three eggs each day (one wasn’t pulling their weight, I’m not pointing any fingers, Lucy… Just joking, Lucy!)
No one died or got ill. Thank you very much girls.
The coop was fox-proof, so I didn’t need to visit twice a day. It was merely a case of checking they had enough food and water each day.
Of all my fears, finding a hen dead, the four running free and wild over the allotments…
There were actually three real concerns and none really related to the hens.
J showed me the hens one lunchtime at work. The next time me and my parents visited. But could we find the right allotment? Traipsing through other allotments, attracting vegetable growers’ raised eyebrows and suspicious attention, eventually I spotted the landmark sunflower at the front of the coop. Phew!
Second, the keys which appeared to go on strike when it came to opening the shed door for the hens’ feed and corn. I visualised having to go to the Superpet Warehouse for chicken feed. Thankfully my dad came with me the next time and figured out which key to use first. (There were two keys).
My last concern was leaving the keys in a safe but clear place for the next helper. I worried I had placed them somewhere too obvious for thieves or conversely, somewhere too obscure for the hen carer.
But when I went back to work a week on Monday, my fears were relieved. I had done a great job, J said, and yes the next helper had found the keys. Everything and everyone was well.
I passed the practical test. Now I could get my own hens. 🐤🐤🐤
Facts of the Day
1. Hybrids are commercial crossbreeds, developed for the battery egg industry in the 1950s.
2. Hybrids include black rock, white star, bluebelle, calder ranger, warrens, isa browns and hy-lines.
3. Popular pure breeds – which are light or heavy, bantam or full-size – include the Buff Orpington (the Queen Mum’s favourite), Sussex and Rhode Island Red.