You can tell the ex-battery hens when you watch the birdie. Sarah Holden’s “rescue” birds tend to stand right at the back of the large airy hen shed. Some balance on one leg, adopting the position that afforded some comfort, when there was barely standing room only, and no escape from the beaks of the others birds.
Others look like chicken licken, a tad confused by the fact they can actually explore their terrain. But the sky is no longer falling on their world – in a matter of days they will be free range hens, able to roam the big wide world at will. Or rather this particular patch of paradise for birds off Pilling Lane, Preesall.
It’s hard to reconcile the difference that just a matter of weeks can make to ex-battery hens. But Sarah is able to single out birds by the state of their feathers, or lack of them, and general demeanour. While her beloved goslings are quick to imprint upon her as a surrogate mother, the “ex-bats,” as she calls the rescued hens, get “downright cheeky” once they realise they are no longer confined to a narrow box, about the size of an A4 piece of paper.
One hen looks particularly hard done to. She has fewer feathers than most, indeed so few it looks as if she’s being prepared for dinner, a ready plucked Easter feast. In some cases the birds are even supplied with protective jackets.
If you revisit in two, three weeks, this bird will be among the many in finer feather, strutting her stuff, pecking away happily at whatever or whoever (and right now it’s my foot for many of these hens...) takes their fancy, and ready to go to a new home.
Small wonder they call this place Happy Chicks. There are happy chicks and affable older fowl everywhere. The Easter favourites, the day-old chicks, are tweeting in warmer confines, but most are out and very definitely about, and if a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush just watch out for the two turkeys! Looking uncannily like the old guys in the Muppets, avoiding the amorous attentions of the resident peacock, who has unrequited love for Noel, the turkey saved from Santa’s excesses by the intervention of celebrities such as Jeremy Clarkson. These turkeys prefer a cuddle with Sarah. She admits it’s getting tougher to give them the caresses they crave. Talk about getting the bird.
Easter is Happy Chicks owner Sarah’s busiest time of year. Now husband Richard has joined her full-time in the business, too, turning his back on his old financial adviser role, selling the business to inject cash into a labour of love that has become a living.
Sarah, a former graphic designer, started five years ago with three hens. Within days she had 17. And then more, and more, until she stopped counting chickens, before and after they were hatched, and realised that home had started to resemble a happier version of an Hitchcock set.
The ex-battery birds are her first love, although she adores the goslings who see her as a stepmum, but there are ducks, turkeys, peacock, geese, pigs, goats – another pygmy goat was born the morning I visited. There’s also a llama on fox watch. Seriously. While geese make great watch birds, a llama’s more of a match for a fox on the loose – deterring the would be predator with a particularly distinctive pong. He’s on gosling duty, unflappable as baby birds flap around him.
The important thing to note is this is not an attraction but a proper farm. It’s in the business of breeding and selling or supplying predominantly hens, including “ex-bats”. “They are the most rewarding really because they are just so loveable,” adds Sarah.
There’s a great stock of fancy hens, all the kit required to keep them, meticulously handmade by the company’s joiner, and built to last longer than the flimsy stuff you’ll often find elsewhere. Fox proof too. Hen houses for three tend to be the best seller, but buyers soon come back for more. “Hens hook you,” says Sarah, who kissed goodbye to annual holidays when she gave up the rat race for the chicken run.
It may not be an attraction but it’s on the map, having also become licensed to supply meds to hens, too. It’s a bio-secure environment so the emphasis is on safety at all times.
There’s a shop on site, and plans to develop a cafe there, too, to cater for the growing number of visitors. On a recent open day more than 700 people showed up from as far afield as the Isle of Skye and Kent.
Sarah is also starting Farmer for a Day workshops, giving children hands-on experience of their feathered friends, with the help of former Anchorsholme teaching assistant Ros Dacre, and Ros’s 14-year-old daughter Tash, a would be vet who helps out there. Sarah wants to do more school visits. “I’d love to make kids as quackers about this as we are!”