Have you ever wanted to keep chickens at home? Imagine the excitement of popping down to the coup each morning in search of freshly laid eggs! As part of the growing movement of people wanting to know more about their food, the desire to keep a few backyard hens is becoming more and more popular.
But exactly how do you adopt a chicken? Where do you go to find ex battery hens? And how do you care for them so they live long and happy lives in your garden?
Keeping chickens used to be quite common, pre-war. Now though, as garden spaces have shrunk, so has our ability to keep livestock.
But hens are small and they don’t need much to stay happy. Keeping chickens is a great way to get delicious, healthy, protein. What could be better than knowing your eggs come from hens with high animal welfare, a stone’s throw from your back door?
Adopting a chicken, and caring for it, is probably easier than you think.
How to Adopt a Chicken
Last year I spotted a Facebook advert from Fresh Start For Hens. They’re a charity that takes ex battery hens and re-homes them once their time is up on the farm.
It’s a little known fact that commercial egg laying hens are only kept for 72 weeks before becoming ‘useless’. They’re then sold off for dog food, pies and baby food when their egg producing ability drops – even just a little. This is the same whether they’re battery hens or organic, free range hens.
It’s not a nice end for girls that are still young with years left to live. But you can help them out by adopting a chicken. I’ve recently done this, and I’m going to share my experience with you.
How to Look After Chickens
I thought looking after chickens would be hard. But it turns out, I was wrong.
All chickens need is the following:
- A fox proof coop
- A fox proof run
- A nest box (most coops have integral nest boxes)
- A free range area
- Layers of pellets or mash
- Wormer (in the form of pellets)
- A sealed bin for their poop
- Occasional treats, universally known in the hen keeping world as ‘nom-noms’
When it comes to looking after hens, there’s actually very little to do!
Hens are happy to scratch about and cluck to themselves all day. They don’t need walks to the park and they don’t shed fur on your carpet.
Once you have their coup in place, the basics of hen keeping are:
- Provide suitable food each day.
- Give them fresh water each day.
- Shut them in securely before the sun starts to go down. (Never underestimate the crafty night time fox.)
- Let them out before it gets hot. If you don’t like getting up early, buy an automatic door opener.
- Check regularly for redmite in the coop. Modern plastic coops are much better at preventing redmite.
- Clean the house and pen regularly.
- Worm them twice a year.
- Collect the eggs.
- Give them names – mine are Beryl, Cindy and Sheila.
How Much Space Do Chickens Need?
There isn’t a set rule, but the small plastic Eglu coop I purchased was suitable for up to three hens.
The more room you can give them the better.
The RSPCA suggest 12 square metres outside for 30 birds. They need to be able to walk about, stretch, flap their wings and behave calmly. Stressed birds without enough room will squabble and hurt one another.
There should be a dry area too, such as a tarpaulin over their run to keep the rain off. You’ll also need to give them enrichment, such as peck toys, shrub cover and perches. Hens aren’t stupid, they need something to keep them occupied and entertained.
Are Chickens Noisy?
This was my number one concern and for the first week I was awake at 5am waiting for squawks.
Cockerels are the issue when it comes to chicken noise as they crow loudly at sunrise, but hens don’t. The most noise I’ve experienced follows egg laying. It’s known as the egg song and goes like this:
‘Bok-bok-bok-bok-BOK’ and repeat. It means ‘behold, I have egged’.
They will sound the alarm if startled too. My neighbour’s cat ran past the pen one evening and Cindy was alarmed to the point that she BOK-BOKed for 20 minutes.
If you have close neighbours, I‘d recommend speaking to them early on to avoid difficulties. But in general, hens aren’t noisy at sensitive times such as early mornings or late evenings.
Do Chickens Smell?
They do if you don’t clean out the coop and free range area regularly!
I won’t lie. Hens poop like nothing on earth. It doesn’t smell as stomach-churning as dog mess, but chicken poop does have a tangy, ammonia-like smell.
Using a sealed bin and picking up poop every day is important if you live in an urban area, and it’ll help keep rats away too.
Which Are the Best Backyard Chickens?
You can buy all breeds of laying chickens from breeders. From little bantams to large West Sussex hens. If fed well and kept free from stress, they will lay plenty of free range eggs, even without a cockerel around.
But brace yourself for my bias: ex battery hens are the best!
If you want to adopt a chicken, these ginger ninjas are some of the happiest, friendliest ladies you can get. It’s a pleasure to watch them turn from featherless, droopy creatures into the shiny, confident and healthy hens they should’ve been all along.
My ex battery hens cost £2.50 each, which was a donation to Fresh Start For Hens. (And incidentally, less than buying a roasting chicken from the chilled aisle.)
In return, I collect two or three eggs a day while I chat to them about the news, the weather and all sorts of other topics. My girls do like a chat. They purr, softly ‘bok’ and chirp away – it’s a lovely soothing noise.
What Should I Know About Ex Battery Hens?
If you’ve ever considered owning hens you’ve probably got loads of questions. Here’s a few that I investigated before bringing my ex battery hens home.
What Temperature Is Too Cold for Chickens?
I’ve always worried about outdoor animals when it’s cold, but birds are hardy and it’s better that they’re cold than too hot. Hens cope very well with UK weather conditions.
Plastic coops are good at keeping a steady temperature and are regularly available on eBay. In very cold weather, you can cover the coop with flat cardboard, blankets or bubble wrap. (Which is also a great recycling tip!)
Lots of straw or wood shavings for bedding will help to keep the temperature in the coop warm. Aim for a 10cm thickness or more. They will perch together for warmth too.
A wet chicken is a cold one, so make sure the girls can stay dry. Cover the run with tarpaulin and put some alongside the run too, to protect them from the cold blasts of wind.
Are Chickens Friendly?
Goodness yes! My three ex battery hens jump onto my lap if I sit down. They’re curious and inquisitive. They like company and are easy to pick up. They make great pets and when my son arrives home from school they hear his voice over the fence and call out to him.
Is It Safe to Eat Backyard Chicken Eggs?
Yes. My ex battery hens lay the eggs that were being sold in Tesco a month before I brought them home.
Using some worming pellets and treatments means that you have to take a week’s break from eating the eggs. But otherwise you’re good to eat them.
If You Have Space – Adopt a Chicken
If you’d like to adopt a chicken, then picking up some ex battery hens is a good way to save a life. And own some hilarious, friendly new pets in the process!
I’ve done my bit to help these girls, who would otherwise go to slaughter. What could be better for eating and living sustainably than producing your own eggs?