While generations of children have been captivated by witnessing new life born next to their desks, Stephanie Williams wants teachers to look beyond that wide-eyed wonder and consider what can happen to the fledglings once they leave the care of the kids.
She says that her Bolton-based Every Feather and Wildlife Rescue is being contacted by an increasing number of schools every year - in places including Chorley and Preston - because of concern that the male birds might not have much of a future after they are returned to the firms that supply the everything-you-need hatching service of eggs, incubator and collection of the fluffy offspring once they are a couple of weeks old.
“These kinds of projects are recommended on some of the [school] syllabuses, but the problem is that…the cockerels tend to be killed almost instantly at a few days old, just because nobody wants them.
“Some companies dispatch them straight away, although some will give them to bird centres. But there has been an increase in awareness amongst teachers [about what might happen] and so they are asking us to take them in.
“We always want to say yes, but we struggle rehoming them, because people don't want cockerels in a residential area.
“Also, when we agree to take them, we are actually making it easier for the schools to do it again next year because they don't see any repercussions - and, of course, it’s a big relief for the companies because they don't have to deal with them either,” Stephanie added.
She has so far accepted around a dozen cockerels from schools this year, with more on the way.
Although hens are more easily rehomed - for egg-laying or breeding purposes - Stephanie is encouraging teachers to think about alternatives to classroom-based hatching projects, which “may not be as cute and cuddly”, but will allow children to learn the same lessons.
Every Feather trailed a live nesting webcam in 2020 to enable children to see chicks hatching in the wild.
Stephanie says that such a set-up would also protect the newborn birds from over-exuberant handling by children, which has resulted in her taking in birds that have been left accidentally injured or disbaled.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service attempted to contact two Lancashire-based firms offering school hatching kits in order to see how they handled the problem of unwanted cockerels.
One did not respond, while another - previously based in Pilling - advised that it had stopped providing hatching and similar services to schools, both because of the pandemic and also as a result of schools having less money to spend on such projects.
However, Paul Murphy, who had run the company, said that it would be unfair to tar all hatching ventures with the same brush.
“When we did it, we were quite fortunate in that a lot of the parents - because we are quite a rural area - took all the hens and the cockerels home as a job lot.
“We always offered them to the parents first, rather than the schools giving them back to us. But when we did take them back, I had a friend who reared them and took them to auction later in life.
“And the kids did get plenty out of the projects - it was fantastic for some of the inner city children, in particular, who had never seen anything like [an animal being born],” Paul said.
A company not based in Lancashire - and which provides hatching services across much of the country - notes on its website that the fact that many male birds are “destined ‘for the pot’” makes a good discussion topic in the classroom. It also stresses that cockerels deserve to live rich lives until that point.
However, for Stephanie, the fear is that such life is too often snuffed out within days of it having begun.
“Children are getting attached to these cute little yellow chicks - but then they have no idea what happens to them afterwards.
“I have a cockerel of my own and I absolutely love it, because they have such personalities.
“They are really good to have with a flock of chickens, because they are very protective - and a lot of the reason they crow is to warn of a threat. But if you have neighbours, then a 6am wake-up call is not what they want.”