In early January this year I fulfilled a life-long dream – we brought home a small flock of chickens. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to keep hens, but nearly ten years living in a series of dusty flats in London made that dream one I had to keep on the back burner.
However, as soon as we had the keys to our new place in hand, C and I knew that we were going to be filling the garden with chickens as soon as possible. It took a bit of time though. We’re both vegan, so we knew we didn’t want them primarily for their eggs (though, more on that later). We also really don’t like the pet ‘industry’, where animals get bred for the purpose of providing more entertainment for humans. Our little house-bear, Gatsby, is a rescue from Battersea. We’ve had him since he was eleven years old, and he’s now a chunky, sprightly sixteen-year-old.
So, we knew we wanted to look out for rescue hens, where we could. The British Hen Welfare Trust is an incredible charity. They’ve been going for fifteen years now, rehoming thousands of ex-battery hens who would otherwise have gone to be slaughtered at the ripe old age of… eighteen months, once they’re deemed no longer ‘productive’ enough.
I found out later that our chickens came from what are called ‘enriched colonies’. These are ‘better’ than battery conditions, because there are only eighty hens to a cage, with four nest boxes between them, and a patch of astroturf the size of a doormat for them to indulge their natural instincts to scratch and explore… When you’ve met hens, you realise how inquisitive, active and energetic they are – I can’t bear the thought of how our girls lived for the first year and a half of their lives, and I’m so glad we were able to give them a home.
We set up our coop and run, and put ourselves on the waiting list for our nearest collection site. We bought lots of books on chicken keeping and I devoured blog posts and YouTube videos obsessively to get more advice and tips on how to keep our girls happy.
Bringing our girls home
The day came: we headed up to one of the rehoming centres in Derbyshire, with space for six girls. The rescued girls had come crammed into tiny cages – that’s how they’d left the farm that morning – but were now spreading out in what looked like a garage or barn. There were volunteers in there with them, and we approached the front of the queue, holding out our box nervously.
Quick as a flash, the volunteers bent down and scooped up one, two, three, four, five… six hens, and we tried to hold them down while we closed the box lid. I sat in the back, peering through the slits we’d cut in the cardboard to see the girls. They would occasionally make little muttery noises, and rustle their feet. One of them kept yawning. At one point I noticed one hen panting – a sign of stress and overheating – so we spent the rest of the journey with the windows open (but not too much!) so that they could keep cool without being stressed out by the loud noise.
We got them home, and tried to gently deposit them in the run. I was expecting them to be nervous but one thing I’ve learned about chickens in the last few months is that while they’ll be concerned about new things at first, they’re little opportunists, and our girls quickly settled into the run, stretching their legs, flapping their wings and exploring.
The best-laid plans…
When we first got the hens, I innocently thought we’d set them up with their run and they’d hang out in there most of the time, popping out for free ranging for a couple of hours each day…
Within a week, we let them out for their first poke around the garden, and by the end of that week the new routine was that we let them free range from eight in the morning until it started getting dark. I’ve heard from other chicken-keepers (and they’re right) that no matter how much space, free range time, and blueberries you give them, your girls will always want more.
I still haven’t given up on my dreams of a well-kept, pretty cottage garden – I just know I’m going to have to spend some time finding ways to work around the chickens in order to get there. Knowing where they came from, I just don’t think I’d be happy leaving them in the run most of the time.
Covid-19 has actually helped with that, as it’s meant that both of us are always at home to keep an eye on the girls while they’re out destroying everything in the garden.
Keeping hens isn’t all plain sailing. They’re prey animals, originally, and that means that they work very hard to hide any symptoms if they’re not well. Plus, most of the symptoms of illness in chickens are the same, regardless of the problem (as far as I can tell). This makes it doubly tricky – by the time your chicken is showing that she’s unwell (through huddling up, becoming lethargic, hiding away, and hunching her head), she’s probably pretty seriously ill. And then if a vet’s trying to investigate it’s really hard to pin down the external symptoms to have a stab at helping her.
This is what we found, anyway. In our vet’s words ‘we could give her an X-ray but the most it would probably tell us is “yup, that’s a chicken”…’
Trixie was our sixth hen, and quickly found herself both at the bottom of the pecking order, and one of our absolute favourites (not that we really have those). She was very gentle, certainly compared to the other girls, and quite tame. I think that might have been because she was possibly pretty ill when she came to us so didn’t have the energy to be as rambunctious as the others.
She was very, very pretty – dark red feathers and a pretty pattern of pale white ones around her shoulders like a necklace.
We noticed she was ill about four or five weeks after we got the girls – she’d started hiding off by herself under a bush, hunching up her feathers and huddling. She wasn’t much interested in food, and didn’t come running the way the others did.
We took her to the vet who suggested a few things that might be an issue, and we tried to treat some of those problems. The first guess was that the issue might be coccidiosis, a parasitic infection that chickens can get. So we treated the whole flock and watched eagerly for any signs of improvement.
Which didn’t happen. The other girls were fine, but Trixie just didn’t respond. We spent ages sitting with her inside, making up meals of mash, warm scrambled egg, mealworms and fruit to try and tempt her to eat (on the vet’s advice), but didn’t get much response. We tried painkillers and she had another two trips to the vet, but just showed no signs of improving.
And in the meantime, she was suffering and struggling. It got to the point that we couldn’t really let things carry on as they were – it wasn’t fair to her. So we had to say goodbye. Making that decision was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do, but I know it was the right choice. Luckily, her last afternoon in the garden was sunny and warm, so she was able to stretch out on the grass and bask a little.
The things I’ve learned about hens…
I’ll do a proper post soon where I introduce each of our girls individually – they’re such characters I want to do them justice. But to close off this piece, I thought I’d note down some of the things that living with hens for nearly six months has taught me.
- They are endlessly inquisitive. Whatever you’re doing in the garden, you’ll be accompanied by at least two eager shadows, keen to get involved. They’re mainly hopeful that whatever you do you might disturb some bugs for them.
- They’re optimists at heart – sure, I’m probably anthropomorphising here, but they only need to catch sight of you in the kitchen before they come running, squawking loudly and gathering in a rabble outside the backdoor on the off-chance that you’re coming outside with treats for them.
- They snore. One night I was a bit later than normal to shut up the coop, and opened the back to check they were all inside. They were absolutely fast asleep, but if I listened carefully I could just hear a gentle, rhythmic snoring. It was the sweetest sound.
- They sunbathe. And they look ridiculous when they do. On a hot day, chickens will find themselves a big patch of sun and flop down in it. They’re not graceful. They sort of unfold themselves sideways and spread out their wings, and they look extremely silly. But they enjoy basking in the warmer weather so who am I to judge? (NOTE: this is only while temperatures are enjoyably warm. When it gets hot, chickens really struggle as it’s hard for them to maintain a steady body temperature, so if you want to keep hens that’s something to be aware of!)
- They purr. Our girls are wonderfully affectionate. As I said they like to be around us (possibly for the possibility they might be able to snaffle some worms…) but if we sit down they will now hop up on our laps. And, if we stay still and relax, the girls will sometimes hunker down and close their eyes for a nap. When that happens, you can sometimes hear them letting out a little bubbling cooing noise – the best description I can think of for it is a purr. It seems to happen when they’re particularly contented and relaxed, and it’s a wonderful complement that they feel so safe in our company.
So those are the things I’ve learned and enjoyed since starting to keep hens. I’m far from an expert in chicken behaviour but I’m really enjoying getting to know them.
Do you keep chickens, or are you interested in doing so? What would you most like to know about hens? Let me know in the comments.