A featherless chicken feels the cold, naturally. Amy Leader learnt this one spring day in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire: ‘This girl came into my shop and said, “My gran has a stall in Todmorden to raise money for animals. And she’s been asked for jumpers for battery hens.” Well, I thought she was joking first of all. I mean, you would, wouldn’t you?’
Amy keeps a haberdashery shop called Ribbon Circus. She could also knit for England. ‘Right, OK,’ said Amy to the girl, ‘tell me more. Get me some photos and a poster too.’ But she heard no more about it.
So Amy found a website with a hint or two as to why hens might be bald, and it included a pattern for a chicken’s jumper. ‘It’s brilliant for beginner knitters,’ she says, ‘because you need to be able to start and finish a thing relatively quickly, to feel as though you’ve achieved something. And it’s for chickens!’
She organised a knit-in, a day-long party where needles and fingers flew in relays. ‘I’ve only got a tiny shop,’ she says, ‘so I was turning people away.’ About 20 mixed beginners and old hands joined in. ‘It went really well. We had about 60 jumpers completed on the day, with people finishing them off at home.’ Local press coverage brought more knitters to a second session.
The website Amy found was that of Little Hen Rescue, a few acres of Norfolk fenced in beside a railway line. Hens aren’t the only birds here. Cockerels crow in the quiet between the hoot and whoosh of passing trains. A brace of hefty white turkeys, Ronnie and Reggie, plod and sway in their pen. They were rescued once, and then rescued again when their first rescuer couldn’t cope.
This not-for-profit affair is run by 30-year-old Jo Eglen, who designed the hen jumper. Battery hens need to be rescued because commercial egg producers can afford to keep them for only a year, during which time they lay about 300 eggs. Then they moult and stop laying for between three to six weeks – unproductive but still needing to be fed. Once, they would have been sent for slaughter, and replaced by another flock. But people like Jo realised that once the moult was over, a hen would still be good for another 200 to 250 eggs per year, diminishing year on year until its time was up. A rescued hen can be a productive pet, but sometimes a bald one. About 15% of any batch of rescuees will be all but featherless.
An EU directive comes into force this month, with ‘enriched cages’ aimed at improving the conditions in which individual hens can be housed, but the need will remain.
‘We’re not sure whether they pull the feathers out or whether they shed them, a bit like alopecia. Quite often it’s stress,’ says Jo. ‘Once they’ve lost a few feathers, hens in cages, and on free-range farms, can be literally hen-pecked. Often they are completely naked – no feathers apart from their heads. All we know is, once they come here, they start growing them back again.’
Even fully feathered birds can feel the cold during the early days of their release. Inside the battery units they’re warmed by the proximity of thousands of other hens. Naked birds need help.
Beneath warming lamps in a former stable, a few dozen happy hens peck and strut, clucking and squawking gently. Most are wearing jumpers, little coats of many colours. Isn’t its alien plumage an incitement to attack from others? Not according to Jo. ‘The only colour they might go for is red because they think it might be blood. They peck it and pull on it, but get no taste, so they don’t bother.’
It takes between three to six weeks for the feathers to grow back, after which time most jumpers are discarded, being too stretched or worn to suit a new bird. But new jumpers turn up every day from Australia, the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and nearer home.
‘Schools knit them, and Brownies and old people’s homes. We take photos of the jumpers on the hens and send them to the knitters.’
When Jo’s website was seen in faraway Fife by the ladies of Loving Hands, they voted to knit for Little Hen. ‘It was a really popular challenge,’ says Lou Jaap. ‘The ladies made several hundred “chux tux” to send to the rescue centre.’ In Monmouthshire the members of Chepstow Knitters meet informally, sometimes to make items for charity. ‘We’ve made dog coats, premature baby clothes and, of course, the chicken coats,’ says Margaret Payne. ‘My neighbour and I spent an hour trying coats on some of her hens. We were covered in mud, and then we realised that we’d put them on the wrong way round!’
Sally Cooper lives in London. ‘If I say I’m knitting a hen jumper people usually think I mean a jumper with a hen on it,’ she says. At Northwood Area Women’s Club in Middlesex, Mary Vaughan held up a chicken jumper and asked if anyone knew what it was. ‘They didn’t,’ she says, ‘and when I started to explain there was a great deal of laughter. However, when they learnt the reason they were very sympathetic.’
Jo Eglen’s involvement with chickens got off to an inauspicious start. She was 16 when the six hens that she and her dad bought all turned out to be cocks. ‘We thought they were going cheap,’ says Jo (indifferent to the pun), ‘only 20 pence each, a bargain’. At 4am next day, when all six crowed in concert, they discovered their mistake. ‘So we had to buy hens to go with them.’
Jo now knows rather more about chicken rescue, and emphasises that she has a good relationship with the farmers she deals with. She recalls the first one she encountered, a fellow with a dry sense of humour. ‘He said “I hope you’re going to look after my girls because this one’s very important. This is Henrietta. And this one’s Henrietta, and this one’s Henrietta…” and so on and so on.’
Amy continues to make merry little jumpers. ‘I’ve taught nine-year-olds how to knit with this pattern. If it goes a bit wrong I’ll say, “Look, you’re just practising, it’s fine.” But they try hard because they want to give the jumper to a chicken. It’s a lovely project to be on.’
For more information on re-homing hens, contact Little Hen Rescue (www.littlehenrescue.co.uk) and the British Hen Welfare Trust (01769 580310, www.bhwt.org.uk)
Photograph by Sophie Laslett