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!