The joys of keeping hens

We bought our first hens about seven years ago.  I researched the whole thing busily and selected a breed which was hardy and flighty, the Frisian bantam.  I had the idea that if they were to live free range it would be good if they had the element of self protection offered by being able to fly.  Funny how your priorities change!


This is the cockerel, a fine, shouty fellow.  For a while he and five hens had the run of the garden.  I had not realised we would have to fence the vegetable beds, particularly in the spring, and quite how much soil they could dislodge in the search for a something tasty in the flower beds.  Still they were bantams and could only do so much damage!

The flock grew.  We bought a lovely little white Wyandotte, just because I liked her.


A friend gave us a Welsumer and we liked the rich brown eggs they lay and bought some eggs to raise some more.  We experimented with an old incubator and raised more hens: a Cream Legbar, a very beautiful Barnevelder, three Light Sussex.  The bigger flock now needed more housing and now included some heavier birds.  If the whole flock were out they could easily create mayhem so we tried cutting off the area at the far end of the kitchen garden and restricting them to that.  That was when the idea that we had intentionally bought birds who could fly seemed a bit naive!  The Frisians, and their hybrid Frisian/Welsumer descendants simply flew right over the fencing and went back to their usual haunts.

We lost one or two to our neighbour's dog but when that dog moved on things got quite peaceful.  Every now and then a hen simply turned up her toes and died and we learnt that this is not uncommon.  A hen can look quite healthy and be laying away and then suddenly she will have a day or so where she seems not quite herself, not as feisty, not as active perhaps, and you will open the henhouse to find her laid out on the shavings.  It is always a bit sad but it just seems to be part of the life of a hen keeper from time to time.

And then the fox came.  A couple of months ago when I was in Devon with my father Ian reported a visit in the early evening.   It had gone dark but the hen house had yet to be locked up.  When he went out he found one hen taken and seven more dead in the house, including the little Wyandotte, the Light Sussex and the lovely brown Welsumer.  Over the next couple of days two more hens disappeared, taken out singly by the fox and taken away presumably to his lair for food.  Somehow that is less distressing than what feels like the random slaughter.  We had to keep the remaining hens,  now just five of them, shut up in the henhouse with its attached run.  That is not too bad an area for a small number but not as good a life as scratching under the old apple and plum trees and hopping in and out of the yew hedge.  The remaining hens are young, not old enough yet to be reliably sexed, and are not laying yet.  We have very few of our own eggs in the winter as we do not use electric light in the houses to keep the hens laying.  They will start again naturally when the days lengthen.  But with our bigger flock we would usually find that we got three eggs or so a week.  Now, nothing, and a wider sense that there was not enough life going on down at the end of the garden.

So we decided to get some ex commercial laying hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust, which rehomes hens which would otherwise be destroyed.  Conditions have changed for commercial hens and they are no longer kept in battery conditions, in cages the size of a sheet of A4 paper.  These days lots of commercial operations run a "colony" system where the standards of welfare are considerably higher yet even here hens are commonly destroyed at around twenty months.  They have plenty of laying life left.  We have had hens still laying regularly at four years old.  There is however no doubt that the peak days of production have gone.  So the BHWT finds homes for these still young enough hens in exchange for a donation to help their work.


In the corner of a barn in Lancashire tens of hens are crowded round water and feeders.  They are not in bad condition, not like the featherless shadows which emerged from the battery system.  There are some feathers missing but not many.  The distinctive thing about hens kept in this way is their pale, floppy combs.  The combs are used to help the hen control its temperature and in the warmth of the colony system the combs enlarge keep the hens cool and become paler and more flaccid.  Hens which free range and are kept in natural temperatures have much smaller, redder combs.


We take four hens and make a donation.  The BHWT is extremely efficient and well run and provides all sorts of information and help to new adopters.  We have had a couple of emails since we brought the hens home and it would be tremendously reassuring to new henkeepers to have access to their expertise and support.


This one coming home in the cat basket shows the floppy comb well.

At home they go into a henhouse of their own with an outdoor run attached.  We shall let them get properly settled in together before we give them the opportunity to mix with the other hens.  They need to get used to coming and going in and out of the henhouse by themselves when night falls, to laying in the nesting box and perching at night.


They are not beautiful, yet, but they will certainly look better in time and they are already laying here.  I can't wait to see them properly outside, scratching and pecking in the grass.  I had fresh poached egg again for breakfast this morning.  It was very good.  Taking rescue hens was such a positive experience.  I would certainly do it again and if you are thinking of it, I would say "Give it a go".  Hens are a great addition to a garden!

Comments

  1. I am seriously thinking about hens and it would feel so good to give birds like these the chance of a less stressful life. Let us know how you get on with them Elizabeth. Will the comb 'perk up'?

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    1. I simply would not be without hens now. They are great, not a lot of trouble and add so much to life. The comb should perk up as the hens adjust to the colder temperature. I will let you know!

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  2. I didn't know that about Chicken's combs.. that is really interesting. and I am really sorry about the loss of your dear chickens. I always got quite attached to my chickens.
    I absolutely love chickens! They are so much more intelligent than most people give them credit.. I figure when us humans are all gone extinct from the earth, the chickens will still be here, scratching out a living.
    I used to keep hens for years but I don't have any at the moment. I miss them.
    I hope your new chickens do well and that the fox stays away.

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    1. I love the idea of the chickens scratching away when humans are long gone!

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  3. Oh those new hens will certainly be happy in the des res that you will be providing for them Elizabeth. Several of my fellow allotment plot holders keep chickens on their plots and I've been the recipient of some most tasty eggs :)

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    1. The eggs do taste quite different even from free range shop bought ones. I am not quite sure why and have wondered if it is to do with the freshness.

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  4. What a horrible shock to find so many of your hens killed by the fox. We lost one last year and Cheep the cockerel had a very narrow escape!
    Your new hens will soon become individuals now they are in a smaller group - and you have lovely eggs to enjoy.

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    1. The new hens still seem much less characterful than our older ones but that could be because they are so very similar to look at. They seem happy enough!

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  5. I wouldn't be without my hens either Elizabeth and I like to see them roaming about the fields pecking in the grass. We do have foxes but as yet no bother with them - they are indiscriminate killers and seem to kill for pleasure.
    I too had a little white hen like yours. One of my geese almost killed her so I got rid of the geese and gently nursed her better. She laid eggs, hatched them and had a few chicks and she was a lovely mother - she died of old age a few years ago.

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    1. Hens living a natural life and dying of old age sounds good to me!

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  6. Every Girl should have a hen or two ... it kinda makes life complete.
    x

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    1. I agree. The garden feels quite different with hens in it!

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  7. We re-homed 3 ex batts in October and they are such a delight. Their combs have firmed up but are still quite large. 2 of them lay but their eggs aren't the best quality - very runny whites which apparently will never improve - they are fine for general use but perhaps not for poaching.

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    1. I was wondering how long it would take for the combs to firm up and colour. Ours still look pretty floppy compared to the hens which have always lived outside but it is early days yet I suppose.

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  8. I miss our hens - our coop sits empty and our nursery-coop needs a coat of paint. After the slaughter by the mink or otter I didn't have the heart to keep hens........but perhaps it's now been long enough..........

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    1. It is so disheartening when you lose them like that. We are really hoping that the new electric fence is the answer.

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  9. I am so tempted....but we do have a lot of foxes around us in the New Forest.

    Your new hens are very fortunate to have found you!

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    1. Foxes are the real threat. I think we were lucky for quite a long time as our neighbours' dogs are probably a deterrent. Good luck if you decide to have a go.

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  10. I wouldn't be without my girls for anything! We only have two at the moment but I'm looking forward to being able to find some young birds in the spring.

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    1. I don't know if the BHWT operate in your area but might be worth a look?

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  11. I was fascinated to read about your own experience of keeping chickens. I'm sorry you lost so many to the fox; we've been fortunate that in fourteen years we've only lost one to a fox (I'm touching wood here) and it was distressing.
    But it is a such a worthwhile thing to do to rehome chickens from more intensive rearing conditions. Even if the terrible battery system is no longer used, giving these birds a better and longer life, letting them see the sky and scratch around with room for dust baths etc - is wonderful.

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    1. Keeping hens does give you a very strong sense of how they live naturally. We have even felt a bit guilty about the length of time ours have spent in a run before we installed the electric fencing, even though it does give them access to the outside.

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  12. Whilst an avid Welsh follower of your blog over the last year, this is the first time I have commented - Congrats on your new hens - I agree, we wouldn't be without our little characters - We got our our first set of 6 ex-batts in 2011 and added to our flock with a further 6 in 2012. They have been an amazing addition to our family. I follow you & Rusty Duck & am new to this so not sure how to post photos yet, but be assured, our hens look amazing following their introduction to a free range (& if truth be told, thoroughly spoilt! new life) and if able, I will send you the pics - truly life affirming to see the difference ( and not just to them :-) )

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    1. Thanks for commenting and good to meet you! And how great to hear a story of other hen rescue adopters. I would hate to be without our rare breeds altogether because they are so very beautiful but I think we will always have a few hybrids too now.

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  13. Totally agree. We've re-homed amazing to see how quickly these birds recover to become free range, feisty girls. We'll done you and cheers [waving eggy solidier]

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    1. My breakfasts alternate between boiled eggs and toast soldiers (this morning!) and poached egg on toast. Totally addicted to eggs.

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  14. What an interesting post. Very sad though to hear of your dramas with Mr Fox, always the bane of hen keeper's, and such a pity that this is restricting their freedom and your enjoyment of your hens. Lovely to have lots of fresh eggs though and well worth adopting your ex-battery hens - they are lucky hens indeed!

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    1. When we were without eggs for a few weeks I really missed them. The supermarket ones were just not the same!

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  15. I'd love to keep chickens and I will definitely rehome some if I ever do.

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    1. They don't combine well with living in two places though! You would have to settle for one...

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  16. How wretched that the fox slaughtered so many, but I love the response of buying from the trust. I'd love to try keeping hens some time, but I think TNG might take more than a little convincing. Maybe next year, when we are more organised.

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    1. You need to tell TNG that hens are really easy! They don't need much looking after. You can go away and leave them for a couple of days far more easily than you can leave a dog or even a cat. Not much work, all that life and all those eggs (but they do play havoc with the garden if you give them total free range).

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  17. Hi Elizabeth,
    I'm glad your chicken story has a happy ending! It's a very kind thing to take on the older birds. Really, how many eggs does anyone need? When our girls were small, the neighbors gave them 4 old hens. They named them and they were sweet pets. It's a good memory for us. I haven't ventured into chickens yet, for the very reason that has troubled you, predators! You pretty much have to build a concrete fortress for them here because bears consider them a delicacy.

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    1. Well when I am feeling cross with foxes I will remember that some people have to contend with bears! Gulp.

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  18. Such a sweet story! At the beginning, I was afraid the fox was going to discourage you and put you out of business. Love the idea of the rescue birds discovering the lovely world out there!

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    1. I hope that as the spring comes and the grass grows the rescue hens will feather up a bit more and look more sleek. They still have a rather ragged look to them!

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  19. Bit late, but I didn't know quite what to say. I love fresh eggs but was traumatised by being the family hen-keeper as a child. Not only did they peck through the holes in my start-rite sandals, and then over the top of my wellies, we also had a fox incident. I wish you all the best of luck with your new ladies, and congratulate you on your poached egg!

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    1. We have never had any problem with hens pecking us (although I was attacked repeatedly by the Scots Dumpy cockerel!). I think I might feel differently about them if they had a go at my new wellies!

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  20. Hello Elizabeth what a lovely blog you have... Smiles Cass x

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