Louise Fields and her partner Emma Billington were first on the scene at the recent horrific M62 crash involving a truck full of battery hens
We woke up at about four o’clock in the morning with a bang. I got up and opened the window – and all I could hear was chickens screaming. Our field backs onto the motorway so we went to find out what had happened. There were chickens running all over the road. A lorry–load of chickens in crates had crashed.
We were the first people to arrive. There wasn’t a lot of traffic about – a queue soon built up but nobody got out to help. Our immediate response was to gently pick up the chickens and move them to safety, on the grass verge. It was horrific, some of the crates were mangled and the chickens inside them were injured. We saw things nobody should see.
For about three–and–a–half hours, we just kept moving the birds onto the verge and trying to free them from the wreckage without hurting them. There were thousands – we were surrounded by dead and injured birds, and it was just the two of us, we felt really helpless. The driver of the lorry just stood by, smoking a cigarette. When the Highways Officer arrived he helped us, and then the RSPCA man arrived. He said that the truck had been overloaded and that the crates hadn’t been strapped down as they should have been by law. The chickens that were still in crates were screaming. We wanted to get them out, but the RSPCA man said we couldn’t. He said we could save the ones we had put onto the grass verge so we started moving them into our field. It was so hard to ignore the birds that were trapped but we just had to focus on the ones we had already freed, and move them right away.
At that point, the workers from the poultry farm arrived, and suddenly they were alongside us, grabbing chickens and just ramming them into crates. That’s when we did some filming, because we couldn’t believe how the birds were being treated – it was brutal. People were wrenching the crates out of the lorry and completely ignoring the hens who had stuck their heads out – the birds were being torn to pieces.
Doing the Right Thing
We were really shocked, but we realised that if we caused a fuss we could easily get thrown off the site, and we were scared that the poultry farm workers might try to take back all the chickens we had already moved into our field. We didn’t confront them, we just kept trying to save as many hens as possible. Then, oddly, some of the poultry workers started to help us. I still don’t know if they did it out of kindness, or just because it was the easiest thing to do… but that’s why we ended up with so many chickens. Together, we took down part of our fence and we herded the chickens off the verge and onto our land.
By about 9.30am all the hens were off the road – some had been put back into crates, some were safely in the field and, it turns out, more were wandering further afield – twenty days later we are still finding them.
Then I had a new problem. I was alone with thousands of chickens, many with injuries. I phoned Lucky Hens Rescue (luckyhensrescuenorthwest.weebly.com) and they put the word out on Facebook and texted people to come down and help or take chickens to rehome. I knew it would be a couple of hours before anybody arrived and in the meantime, the hens were getting agitated. Some were crushing each other as they were overcrowded close to the fence, and some were jumping back over the fence and back onto the motorway verge. Thankfully a neighbour arrived to help me move them. In the back of my mind, I was trying to work out how to keep them all safe and where they were all going to sleep – how many could go in my shed?
Ten people arrived from Lucky Hens, and they created a sick bay, where we took the hens that needed help. Then suddenly all sorts of people started arriving and offering to rehome the chickens. There were people with allotments and people from animal organisations who could take a hundred or more. And that’s how the day went on – people came all day long to take birds to rehome. We finally closed the door at 11.30pm, with only about one hundred chickens left. More people came the next day, offering homes, and Little Hen Rescue (littlehenrescue.co.uk) came from Norfolk and took the poorly birds. They will pay all the vet bills to bring those birds back to health, which is pretty amazing. Each life is really important to them. Some individuals were prepared to take sick birds too, knowing that the vets’ bills they were taking on would be massive.
“We are still getting fresh enquiries from people who want to offer homes.”
In retrospect, it was the ideal place for the accident to happen – right by our fence, where we could move the birds out of harm’s way fairly easily – and it was pure luck that I had the number for Lucky Hens. Last year we rescued some battery hens, so I knew how to handle the birds properly too. At the time, it didn’t feel lucky, it felt like torture.
It was pretty traumatic for us and I’m not sure we have had time to deal with the emotional impact of it all yet. The state that the birds were in was shocking and the way they were handled was unbelievable. Also, although they helped to start with, once the poultry workers arrived, the people from the RSPCA, the police and the Highways Agency just stood aside and watched, and that was quite upsetting. I think their hands were tied, they couldn’t really be seen to help us because the hens didn’t belong to us… but they could see how badly the poultry farm workers were treating the hens. I think they wanted to help but didn’t dare. It was disappointing to see how, when things get official, people can’t go with their hearts, they have to stick to the rules.
It turned out that there were 6,800 birds on that truck – I think we saved at least half of them. And the level of response we have had would have enabled us to rehome thousands more – we are still getting fresh enquiries from people who want to offer homes. So we have decided to start our own hen rescue service – we will buy hens that will otherwise be slaughtered, and we’ll have an online booking system so people can say how many hens they want. Obviously it will be far more organised than that day was, and we’ll be able to vet the people who take the hens to try to make sure that they aren’t planning to eat them. We thought it would be a lovely thing to do in memory of the hens that we weren’t able to rescue, and if there are people out there who are willing to offer good homes, we want to accept the offer and rescue as many birds as we can.
A lot of people have been really shocked by how the hens looked when we rescued them – they were battery hens whose productive lives were considered to be over, on their way to be slaughtered. Some of them were quite bald. They would probably have ended up as pet food.
The photos and footage we took have attracted a lot of interest – and some complaints – the truth is that most people just don’t want to see the reality of how battery hens are treated. We’re hoping that by publicising what happened on that one specific day, people will start to take more of an interest in the wider issues. Some people might want to campaign for animals to be transported shorter distances before they are slaughtered, or to be slaughtered on the farm and not transported at all. Personally, I don’t want any animals to be slaughtered at all, but coming right out with that might alienate people who could do something positive to help animals.
The whole thing has raised a lot of questions and that’s one of the reasons we decided to start Justice for Hens. Technically, perhaps taking the hens was theft – but if it was, why were we allowed to rescue any of them? And if it was OK to save some of them, why not all of them? Who had the right to play god and decide which chickens would die?
The hens that were put back onto the truck were mixed together, dead, injured and alive, it must have been so traumatic for them. Through Justice for Hens, we’ve learned more about the law. For example, according to EU legislation the birds should have been assessed to see if they were fit to travel, and they should not have been caused undue suffering – so picking injured birds up by their feet should never have happened. Through the Facebook page we have created a petition and we’ll soon have enough signatures to send it to parliament.
Dealing with the Media
It was pure co–incidence that the media got involved so quickly. We had planned a meeting at our house with representatives from a gas fracking company, and when they arrived they had a PR woman with them. I spoke to her and said I was worried about the poultry company trying to take back the chickens and she advised me to try to get the media involved as soon as possible. She said that if the public knew what was going on, there was no way they would stand by and let those hens be taken back – it would just look intolerably cruel. The PR woman actually contacted the TV and radio people and got them to come down and I think it was their presence that helped us save so many of the birds.
Dealing with the media was hard at first, but thankfully, when you feel really passionate about something, it just flows. The TV people were here for five hours the next day, filming all sorts of things. In the end, hardly any of it was shown, but at least they allowed us to talk a little bit about the issues we wanted to raise. One of the first radio interviews I did was with Alan Beswick, he’s well known for being quite tough and playing devil’s advocate. He was quite critical, saying things like, well, weren’t those hens going to be slaughtered anyway? On the positive side, it allowed me to argue my point – and after that experience, I was ready for anything!
It’s been quite a strain, keeping up with media enquiries, checking for more stray hens, updating the Facebook page and replying to people, but I feel it has a purpose. Looking back, I feel as if this has happened to us for a reason – and that in a way, we were lucky that it happened to us, because it has given us the shock we needed to try to change things. I think when things settle, we will start to think more about what we saw that day and there might be some emotional issues to handle, but I am hoping that setting up our own hen rescue service will help us to get over it all, because a lot of good will come out of that tragedy.
Find out more at facebook.com/Justiceforhens