This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 31st August, & the Gazette & Herald on 29th August 2018
While researching this week’s piece using Dad’s column from 1st September 1978, I came across his very first mention of the Ryedale Hen Watching Society. I wonder how many of you have heard of it, or indeed if any of you ever considered joining it?
Until I read that I had no idea how long it had been going, but had been aware of it growing up as Dad used to mention it occasionally, and always with a chuckle. The ‘society’ came about, so my dad’s article reveals, thanks to a conundrum that had arisen in the valley where we lived.
“In this quiet valley there rages a controversy of tremendous proportions. In the pubs and clubs, homes and tents, people are arguing and discussing a point upon which there seems to be no known answer,” he says.
And the point in question? At the exact moment that a hen lays its egg, is the shell hard or soft? This mystery troubled many a scientific brain over the centuries. Apparently, someone in the village had spent hours watching her hens to ascertain the truth, but to no avail, for whenever she found a suitable observing position, the hen would turn round just at the precious moment, obscuring the view.
I remembered seeing a folder in my dad’s archives entitled ‘Ryedale Hen Watching Society’ and so dug it out. Inside was a large collection of newspaper cuttings and letters, all connected to poultry, starting from the late 1970s, and the latest from 2006. As usual when I start digging around my dad’s stuff, I got sidetracked by all the clippings and articles. Topics included giant prehistoric eggs, a bantam adopting motherless puppies, chicken overtaking beef as the nation’s favourite dish, and even the case of Esmeralda the hen, who survived incarceration in a deep freeze for two whole weeks after having been tossed in there in a sackful of unplucked dead birds. Poor Esmeralda!
One of the most curious cases concerned the community of Anfield, near Liverpool, which was rocked by the discovery of a foetus in a back alley. Police cordoned off the area, and the rumour that a dead baby had been found spread like wildfire. Emotional residents started leaving cards, flowers and teddy bears at the scene. Several days later, they found out they had in fact been mourning a dead baby chicken.
But by far the most numerous cuttings were dated between 1981 and 1983. They concerned the debate over battery hens and protests against this method of farming were at their height. Arguments continued for many years, well into the naughties, with the practice of battery farming continuing in the UK until it was finally banned in 2012 (though not in Europe). Large-scale chicken farms could no longer use the tiny cages of the past, which were around the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Instead they introduced ‘enriched cages’ which could house up to 90 birds with the freedom to move around. They also had to provide perches, a darkened ‘laying’ area and litter on the ground which enabled the birds to enjoy their natural behaviours such as flapping their wings, scratching, stretching and foraging. Although they weren’t perfect, they were a significant improvement.
As for the question about when the egg hardens, after some exhaustive research (a couple of minutes on the internet) I discovered that the hard outer shell of a hen’s egg takes about 20 hours to form, and occurs before it is laid. If only that poor woman had access to the internet in 1978!
If this column has sparked in you an interest in joining the Ryedale Hen Watching Society, I’m afraid I have some bad news. The society was in fact a fabrication of my dad’s creative mind, the like of which can be found in his Constable novels. Well, he always loved to play a good yolk! (Source: British Hen Welfare Trust, bhwt.org.uk)
A quick thank you to Mrs Marie Marsh who, following my piece about Mastiles Lane (Making a Wrong Turner, 1st August) wrote to tell me of many a trip up that very lane, the first time in 1956 in a Standard Vanguard car, and other trips with her family on motorbikes. Her last sentence is a delight: ‘Nowadays we are armchair travellers living on memories.’ Keep on travelling, Marie!
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