If you are thinking of keeping chickens then this article is a must read and will give you an insight into rehoming ex-battery farmed hens. Avid enthusiast Jo Barlow offers this comprehensive step by step guide on how to get started with these wonderful pets.
As countless recent media reports will inform us Britain is now a nation of chicken keepers, with some 700,000 of us enjoying the many delights that chicken keeping brings. And it is easy to see why keeping hens is so popular. Not only do you get delicious free-range eggs but you have some wonderful characters to share your garden with. Ex-battery hens, in particular, have quirky, inquisitive natures that make them a delight to be around and re-homing these victims of the intensive farming system is quite simply one of the most rewarding things you can do.
Even for a chicken-keeping novice, ex-batts are easy to look after. All they require is a secure, comfortable coop and run, some garden to free range in, food, water and a little time and love.
How Do You Re-home an Ex-batt Hen?
Of the 16 million battery hens in the UK each year, only a fraction of them are lucky enough to be re-homed. However with the recent surge in interest in keeping chickens, hopefully the amount of girls saved from the slaughterhouse will increase. There are a number of wonderful hen re-homing charities in the UK (See my Battery Hens For Sale article), who buy hens destined for slaughter directly from the farmer and find new homes for them.
Once you have made the, quite frankly marvellous decision that ex-batts are for you, locate the nearest hen re-homing charity, contact them via their website giving them your details (all hens need to be traceable in case of a disease outbreak) and the number of hens you require. Since they are flock animals, the minimum recommended number of hens to keep is three but four, maybe five, is a better number, if you have the room. Then all you have to do is to get ready for your girls whilst you wait to hear details of the rescue day!
Start of a New Free Range Life
So your girls are on their way to their new lives, what do you need to have ready and waiting for them?
Coop and Run
Both need to be completely predator proof so be cautious with cheap chicken coops (the link takes you to some that were reviewed). Before your girls arrive check locks (which can be flimsy, so replace them with something a little sturdier) and check the run and coop for any weak points where a hungry fox may try his luck. In my view a coop can never be too secure!
Your new chickens will have very tender legs from standing in a cage 24 hours a day. Even the larger sized cages that came into force in 2012 are still far from ideal.
If you can, make the ramp of your chicken coop less steep, and if needs be help them into bed the first few nights. They will have no idea of night or day but will quickly learn as they revert to natural chicken behaviours and will soon be putting themselves to bed around dusk.
Another way to help their legs at first is to remove the perch. They will have no knowledge of perching and it can get in the way in those first few days. Once their legs are stronger and they start to become more confident, pop the perch back in to give them the opportunity to perch, something chickens would naturally do. Although not all, my ex-batts still tuck up in their nest box at night and many are happy on the floor.
Whilst ventilation is important to prevent damp, make sure the coop is warm and dry and ensure bedding is kept clean and changed regularly. The girls will have endured a temperature-controlled environment in the cage so also make sure their run has protection from sun and rain.
Whilst the temptation is to let them free range straight away the chickens will need to stay in their coop and run for a little while until their new home is imprinted on them.
Food and water
Smallholder Ex-batt range is a marvellous feed that provides all the nutrients the girls need to recover from their ordeal. I also add poultry spice to the food as well as a little garlic powder. For the first few days the ex-batts will eat constantly. This is because they had to fight for every scrap of food in the cage. Once they realise food is plentiful, their consumption will slow down.
Also provide grit for them to help them digest their food and oyster shells for extra calcium as ex-batts can be prone to laying soft shelled eggs. Adding apple cider vinegar to the water can prove really beneficial to the hens and is a cheap and easy way to boost their immune system.
Make sure there are plenty of feeders and drinkers available (at least two of each for four hens) so even the lowest hen on the pecking order has plenty of opportunity to eat and drink.
If you are new to chicken keeping (link goes to a good ‘beginners’ site), you will be excited but nervous on Rescue Day. But for your girls, for whom life has consisted of a barren cage with no natural light, it will be even more frightening. Hens don’t like change (who does?) so preparation is the key to keeping the day as stress free as possible for all concerned.
The easiest and safest way of transporting your new girls is in cardboard box with ventilation holes cut in the side, or a cat or dog carrier, lined with newspaper and bedding. Two hens can usually fit snugly into one carrier. If you can, take along a spare pair of hands in the form of an enthusiastic family member or friend – utilise every opportunity to spread the word about ex-batts!
And finally, don’t forget to take along money or a chequebook! Your donation (I would say £5 per hen is a fair price) covers vet and transport costs and the money paid to the farmer. The hens you will receive will have been vaccinated during their life in the cage and will have been checked over once they have arrived at the charity’s rescue centre.
There will also be essential items such as food available to buy on the day.
Finding poultry vets with experience before your girls arrive is a good idea but there are a few things you can have in the medicine cabinet should the need arise.
- Red mite powder and diatom powder for regular dusting of hens and coop
- Anti-peck spray
- Arnica gel to help sore legs
- Hibiscrub for washing minor wounds
- Iodine spray for disinfecting minor wounds
- Flubenvet to worm them (about 3 months after rescuing)
Your girls are strangers and consequently need to establish a pecking order, which can appear a brutal process to us humans. However it is only advisable to break up the squabbles if blood is drawn as human intervention can prolong the process. There are a few things though that you can do to help it along:
- When they are asleep put them in the coop so they wake up together. Be awake early to supervise any squabbles.
- Hang up some tasty greens for them to peck at and keep them interested.
- Make sure there are plenty of feeders and drinkers around.
- Use the anti-peck spray if needed!
If you do have one hen who is really bullying another, you can isolate the bully in sight of the others for a while – cornering off part of a run or using a dog crate is the usual approach. This gives the bullied hen a chance to be seen, heard and makes it easier when she is re-introduced to establish herself in the flock.
Ex-batts and other pets, including children!
Ex-batts are tough little souls and can easily see off a family cat. We even have feral cats on the farm that are chased away by the girls. Dogs however are a different story so I would take much more time introducing your dog to the girls and keep them on their lead in the garden until you are completely sure of their reaction.
Ex-battery chickens are the most amazing educator for children as they start to appreciate where their food comes from and they highlight intensive farming to them.
I would heartily recommend offering a home to some ex-batts, it is a truly wonderful experience. No-one can prepare you for how these beautiful girls will capture your heart and I am certain your first batch of rescue hens will not be your last!
This article has been written for Vital Pet Health by Jo Barlow who has been rescuing ex battery hens for a number of years. She lives in the West of Cornwall and regularly writes on her passion for keeping hens for many websites and magazines.
For more information on keeping poultry – visit the expert website poultrykeeper.com
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