The Company of Hens

It’s a Wednesday morning and the communal lounge at the Wood Green sheltered housing project in Gateshead, north-east England, is a hive of activity. A group of male residents are playing pool. Meanwhile the women chat, place pieces in a giant jigsaw that covers an entire table, or tuck into scones covered with strawberries and cream that have been freshly baked by Lynne Walker, who looks after Wood Green’s 65 bungalows and their elderly inhabitants.

The reason why so many people have gathered together can be found in a plastic incubator in one corner of the room. For Wood Green is the home of HenPower, a project that has revealed the incredible effect that something as simple as keeping chickens can have on the lives of elderly people. And nothing raises their spirits quite like new birds being born.

“Have you seen the chicks?” asks resident Doreen Railton, 90. “There are five now.”

“They’re like babies – aren’t they? – trying to come out,” says her friend Pat Cain, 79. Sure enough, there in the incubator are five fluffy little birds, making their way into the world.

“They started pecking yesterday,” says Owen Turnbull, an 85-year-old retired engineer. “Lynne was up through the night, checking the incubator. She was here at five this morning because the humidity [in the incubator] was going down. I was in at five past seven to see that everything was all right.”

Owen looks after the chickens at Wood Green – there are 41 today, but there have been 60 at times – ably assisted by his pal Albert Hibbert. “I’m Owen’s apprentice,” Albert says, with a smile. “He lets the chickens out every morning and I feed them and get the water. Owen’s a good boss, mind, because he picks up all their droppings!”

As we speak, Owen is setting up a DVD on the lounge’s TV. “We had to give our chickens a dip, as a treatment for lice and mites,” he says, explaining what I’m about to see. “Well, it was a cold day so all the ladies came out with their hairdryers to dry the birds’ feathers.”

Sure enough, the screen is soon filled with Wood Green ladies sitting at tables around the lounge, each drying a damp bird, like stylists and their customers at a fashionable hair salon. The chickens seem to be loving the personal attention.

“I think they liked the warmth,” says Doreen. “Every now and then they’d lift their wings to let you know they wanted some hot air there.”

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