Standing there, in the sudden dark of an autumn evening, chilled through from the north westerly gale, I was stopped in my tracks by the silence.
I stood and looked into the back of the horsebox, at the exhausted girl who had voluntarily driven it for 7 hours that day, at the handful of people gathered with me in the cold, dark car park.
I suppose I had expected a healthy amount of noise, once the tailgate was let down.
|Katja, Ronya and Fionnghuala - still smiling at 2am after an endless day. Little Oisin had fallen asleep in the car|
I hadn't expected towering stacks of cardboard boxes.
I don't know what I had expected, I hadn't really thought that one through, but when I heard the silence and saw the piles, some collapsed at angles that boded nothing but ill, I knew time was of the essence.
I think everyone felt the same, because without a word, we all set-to with grim determination to help unload as fast as possible.
The cartons, as we lifted them down, were hot in my hands. Too hot.
'I didn't know what to do,' Katja said. She was distraught. Exhausted and distraught. It was her second Great Escape run in a week, bless her. 'I wanted to stop half-way to check on them, but I couldn't have re-stacked them on my own - I thought I'd just better get here.'
'You did the right thing,' I said, but the tension in the car park had gone up a notch at the sight of so many faceless boxes, everyone silently wondering what we would find inside.
Involuntarily I thought of those desperate transports that had fled as many Jewish children out of Germany before the last war as possible. It was perhaps an inappropriate analogy - these were not children - but in animal terms, it was a similar situation.
In this case, 7000 one-year-old hens about to be slaughtered for no reason other than their age.
I was in the car park that evening because a friend of mine had posted a picture on the Internet of the birds she had adopted several days earlier. From her I learned that LittleHill Animal Rescue & Sanctuary, hearing of the hens' impending doom, had frantically rallied volunteers and support wherever possible to try and save as many as they could.
3500 had already been homed (my mind boggles at the amount of work that must have been), and now they were doing it all over again in an attempt to snatch the rest from the inevitable. They had been given a few extra days grace.
|Even her wing feathers are bare|
Everyone pitched in, even Katja's small children who had endured an endless day shut in the car, poor loves.
Inside the boxes, hens were crammed together, sometimes two in a box that I wouldn't have put one hen in for half an hour, let alone a day. Needs must, they say, when the devil drives, and the Sanctuary hadn't packed the cartons, the farm had.
In the half-collapsed pile we found a sorry mass of feathers at a train-crash angle, and gently, carefully lifted them out one by one. The poor little creature at the bottom was dead. The hen the box had caved onto was dead too, another - unable to move - lay gaping silently. But sad as it was, it was only two fatalities against so many saved.
Everyone was shocked beyond words at the condition the birds were in. Not from their long, unavoidable drive to freedom, but from their brief year spent entirely in caged captivity.
No daylight. No space. No dignity.
I'd fondly thought that caged egg production was now illegal in Ireland. But it seems that's only on paper. It still exists, they've just changed the parameters. It's legal because they are now 'Enriched cages'. Enriched with what, I wonder? Extra birds?
By law, laying hens now have 750 sq cm of space each. EACH - oh joy! All that room to spend their entire lives in. It used to be 550 sq cm each, less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
So now it's a page and a half - nearly.
But it's not just Ireland. In much of the world - and large parts of Europe (France, Spain and Poland included) nothing has changed at all.
There was no conversation in the car park after that. It was just: 'There are two in this one,'
'Six in here,'
'I'll move these four.'
The children collected up the sad little eggs that, despite all, had been laid in some of the boxes.
Nature's unstoppable process adding an unavoidable stress to the day. Most birds like to sit quietly and calmly to lay their eggs.
|Was she supposed to be an oven-ready chicken, or a laying hen?|
I don't know how long it took us to unload all the hens, to distribute them as gently as possible into the various cages and pet carriers that people had brought with them, counting them out between the vehicles - 48 for this van, 25 for another.
'Please take some more,' Katja begged. She sounded close to tears.
Nearly 300 birds had been brought up in the horsebox that day.
They were the lucky ones. It was only possible to rescue birds if people had offered them them sanctuary amongst their own small flocks, and three and a half thousand had already been homed the previous week.
I took an extra 10, anxious that the temporary pens at home wouldn't be big enough.
'Don't worry,' the In-Charge said gruffly. 'It'll be The Shelbourne after what they're used to.'
Driving home in the cold, windy darkness, rain skirling against the windscreen, we were still silent.
I - a wordsmith by trade - devoid of words to exorcise my horror.
I was grateful beyond expression that the In-Charge - without needing to be asked - had driven me there, was driving us back, as slowly as possible through the narrow, winding roads while still trying to hurry our pathetic cargo to a safe haven.
|My birds don't even look like this when they're moulting|
At home, we carried the cages up into the hens' paddock. The tail-end of some far-away tropical storm was lashing gusts of 80kph at us, and the rain was horizontal, but they weren't out in it for long. Carefully we placed each bird into the freshly-strawed pens I had prepared earlier, cuddling them up together in the low stone sheds that have stood, backs braced against the north west wind for nigh on two hundred years.
31 traumatized, many featherless, sad and hopeless little creatures.
I went back an hour or two later, before falling into my own bed, to check that all was well.
They were exactly where I'd placed them, huddled together, heads under their scratchy, frayed, tattered wings. Sleep was doing it's magic, and what they didn't know was that tomorrow would be the start of a whole new life.
A life! Up until now they'd only had an existence.
I went to bed warmed by the knowledge that up and down the country, thousands of hens had been similarly welcomed into homes where they would be treated as hens, not egg-laying machines with a sell-by date.
In the days since then, I've spent a lot of time moving in slow motion.
They are easily alarmed, and aren't used to people, even people scattering food.
They aren't used to food for that matter, unless it is delivered in pellet form, under their noses. They looked at the lettuce I put into their pens as if it might attack them. Green is not a colour they recognise. How sad is that for a hen?
I've taught them how to drink out of water bowls. They have only ever pecked at a drinker to get water, never had the pleasure of dipping their wattles into a full bowl of fresh water, never gone from puddle to puddle in the rain to see which one tasted best. Jil, my lovely wwoofer, and I spent an hour that first morning, gently holding each one and dipping its beak into the bowl to show them how - to try and overcome the inevitable dehydration of the day before.
They have started to scratch about in their pens to see what lies beneath the straw - with claws that are far, far too long because they've never been worn down by normal living.
They've started to realise that there is space to move about in.
And when the rain ever stops, they will discover that there is a whole world beyond their window - a world that contains grass and small beetles, flies to chase, dogs and cats to stare at, sunshine to bask in, dust for delicious baths, morning and night to shape their days, and shelters to rush under when it rains.
|Wondering if the lettuce will attack|
In the days that they've been here, I've spent a fair amount of time in tears too.
Some of the hens - none of mine by the luck of the draw - have had to be destroyed because their skeletons were so deformed from living in a cage that they couldn't stand or walk. Some because their rear ends were torn open, possibly by the hens squashed into the cage with them.
Some because the rescue was just too late.
But the little hen that got squashed on the journey is slowly making a recovery, it seems. She doesn't plan to miss out on her new, gift-wrapped life!
There is hope everywhere.
|The emergency refugee tents have a slightly Heath-Robinson appearance|
For me, there are few things as upsetting as the eyes of an animal or bird that has no reason to live.
Those were the eyes that greeted me that first morning as Jil and I set out to help them learn what are, after all, only the basics of survival. But already, just a few days later, their eyes are different - eager, anticipating, anxious sometimes too, but interested - alive.
|Life begins at 15 months!|
Their new lives will soon envelop them and, being hens, they will probably forget how they spent their first year. With luck they might live to be nine or ten. We don't cull our birds because they no longer produce eggs - I believe in retirement for the animals on this property at least, even if the owners haven't a hope in hell of getting there! We've had hens who'd no longer recognise an egg if it hatched in front of her and danced the hokey-cokey.
But I will not forget. I will find myself constantly wondering how it's possible to call ourselves civilized when we allow our food to be produced in this way.
Wondering how many more battery hens there are, living their miserable existence, in this country alone? There shouldn't be a need for the LittleHill Sanctuaries, the Bryonys and Katjas of this world to spend their days and nights helping hens escape. They should be at home with their kids.
I never have to buy eggs, but if you do, next time - please question where it came from.
And inform yourself what some of the terminology means. 'Barn Eggs' for example sounds so nice - but is it? Barn eggs means industrial sized sheds in which the birds - not in cages, admittedly - are packed in 9 to the square metre. Space? Daylight? Fresh air? What are those?
Act. Do something. Vote. For God's sake, vote in the way that really counts. With your decisions, with your wallet, with your feet.
|What a difference a day makes|