Rescuing animals is an admirable action so we were thrilled to have a chat with Gemma Wilks about her experience with rescuing chickens and how this has changed her life and perspective for the better.
Hi Gemma! Would you mind starting off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
I’m mum of 2, keen cyclist, accountant, actress and film maker – a bit of a mix! I like being active! But I’m also a keen environmentalist having started a campaign a couple of years ago called Ban The Straw New Forest. Not that I was up for destroying it by any stretch, but I’ve certainly changed my outlook on life and how we treat the planet and animals on it over the last few years.
I’d just like to say what an amazing and selfless act it is to be rescuing hens. How did that all begin?
One Saturday a friend posted on Facebook that a load of chickens hadn’t been rescued and were going to have to meet their end if they didn’t find homes. I messaged another friend who wanted a couple. During lockdown we had had to have our beloved family dog put to sleep due to old age, so we were feeling there was a bit of a hole. He was also a rescue, 12 years previously. As a family we’d been thinking about getting hens for a while but were worried they might be a bit of a commitment once life got back to normal post lockdown. However the problem of getting eggs in lockdown highlighted how handy it might be having hens, as well as the fact we didn’t like having to buy eggs from hens we weren’t sure were happy hens.
We had an old falling apart shed at the end of the garden but that was about it. I spoke to the friend rehoming them and she reminded me that current UK guidelines mean these hens have lived their life so far in an area the size of a piece of A4 paper and anything we could offer would likely be a significant improvement. My husband wasn’t sure but I’d set up a back up plan with another friend with chickens incase it really didn’t work out. However they arrived and to be honest he was as smitten as the rest of us. My friend showed me how to trim their wings and lent me some food to see us through until Monday. They laid an egg each the first afternoon and were certainly welcomed into the family.
It must be such a fantastic feeling when you see the hens settling in. Have you noticed any particular personalities or quirks emerging from any of the hens?
Over to the kids for this one!
“They have started laying eggs under our climbing frame and under a plant near our shed. They like snuggly, enclosed areas.
We play with them on the swings, climbing frame and trampoline which they seem to enjoy.
When we get home from school the chickens come and find us when they hear us and they run up and down the garden when they hear the food container!
One of them likes to try and chase birds and it’s funny watching her run after them.
They like trying to get in the house and a couple even made it upstairs in the summer! They are cheeky!
One of them used to jump up at the glass of the patio doors trying to get through it and still pecks the door frame trying to get in.
They love freshly dug soil and dig holes for themselves to have mud baths in.
They like exploring in hedges.
The first two even went in the pool with us once this summer, whilst mummy (who didn’t think hens could swim) was out! But they looked a bit strange after until their feathers dried!
You recently rescued two more hens a couple of weeks ago. How did that go? Are they settling into their new home?
This time we went directly to Fresh Start For Hens and booked them through the website. We sent in pictures of their home plus our other hens. We paid a donation of £2.50 per hen to help cover their costs.
Due to Covid we had a time slot to go and collect them and had to stay in our cars until it was our turn. We used a cat basket to bring two hens home which worked well.
The hens are quite quiet and not very confident with the kids holding them but they are settling in well and getting better. The first two pecked them a bit to start with trying to establish their dominance.
They are smaller than the first two and certainly not in as good condition but hopefully feathers will grow back soon and they will get stronger with so much space to roam around. Seeing the difference makes the rescuing feel so worthwhile. Watching them improve and loving life.
I’ve heard that your children love them and get upset at seeing chickens being sold in the supermarkets. Can you tell me more about the special connection they have with your hens?
They are like pets to the children. They hug them and talk to them as well as playing hide and seek with them in the garden.
Whilst my husband and I don’t eat meat, the kids are a bit more variable, though we encourage meat free options and that is what they eat at home. However they certainly don’t eat chicken anymore and yes it makes them really sad seeing it referred to as a food source. The hens really are pets and they are as affected by this as if they’d seen restaurants or food stores advertising dog or cat to eat. This may seem weird to some people but the hens are so affectionate and happy in our home that eating them just seems wrong now.
Has their experience influenced your thoughts on animal welfare and how humans treat animals?
Definitely. If you’d told me a couple of years ago I wouldn’t eat meat now I’d have laughed at you. I loved the taste of meat. I was fully aware where it came from and that it was a life. I tried to eat decent quality meat hoping it had had a better quality of life. But my husband and I were getting more and more uncomfortable with the thought of what animals went through to just end up on our plate.
I’d stopped eating meat that I didn’t really like the taste of e.g. turkey, just because it was a tradition at Christmas. Plus I saw a video of one showing it’s family safely across the road which just showed a higher level of intelligence than I had ever given them credit for.
Meat consumption reduced and we only ate it at weekends and later only when out of the house at friends/family or restaurants.
Then my husband and I watched a documentary called The Game Changers about meat consumption affecting sporting performance. We were spending a lot of time and money competing in cycling and just cutting the meat seemed easy.
We’ve saved a fortune. We don’t have to worry about meat being under cooked or going off. We have a lot less food packaging waste. And we know animals aren’t suffering so we can eat them. It’s a win win for us.
But yes having the chickens at home has really reiterated to us the importance of making sure animals have a higher standard of living and aren’t just processed for meat or produce just to feed us. We aren’t perfect but we are trying and getting our eggs from our happy hens we feel is certainly a step in the right direction.
How important do you think it is for children to learn to care for animals, particularly rescues?
Having an appreciation of animals is very important for children, and the responsibility of caring for pets is key to their development I feel. In some households it isn’t possible due to space restrictions but education can be done in other ways.
The children have to feed them, put them away, collect the eggs and clean them out. It’s their responsibility. We might remind them, but we don’t do it for them, even if it is raining or cold. They were keen to get chickens and promised they would care for them. They also pushed for the additions to the flock so it’s definitely for them to do the caring. I do buy the food for them though!
A desire to have a pet from when it is tiny seems to be very high for some people. Getting a “cute” kitten or puppy is all very fun but they grow up and get big, and in a lot of cases they then become unwanted. The delight of taking in an unwanted animal and watching it love life under your care is really wonderful. The kids have a sense of achievement when they think back to how the hens looked when they arrived.
I hope their experience of animals as children will give them a greater respect for animals as they grow up.
Finally, what would be your advice to someone who is interested in rescuing hens or any other farm animal?
Do it. It’s an amazing experience and watching them flourish in your care is so satisfactory. There are so many unwanted animals out there be it farm animals or the traditional pets. Rescuing them is so important and not encouraging the breeding cycle to satisfy demand.
A big thank you to Gemma for giving up some of her time to tell us about her story with rescuing chickens. Open Cages is against chickens living in detrimental conditions which is something we fight against every day to change.
If you’d like to be a part of this change, you can start by signing our petition here