Barbara Young meets Amanda O’Brien, one of Lincolnshire’s local regional co-ordinators at Fresh Start for Hens, which helps find new pet homes for commercial hens.
While pets of all shapes and sizes have proved a lifeline for many of us over the past year providing much needed companionship and entertainment, according to statistics chickens are increasingly proving a popular choice.
A recent survey by ChickenGuard revealed that the number of households with chickens has jumped by more than 200,000 since 2018 to 1.03 million and the trend continues to grow.
Amanda O’Brien, a lifelong animal lover who lives in Tealby, near Market Rasen, has been working as a volunteer local co-ordinator at Fresh Start for Hens, a non-profit organisation which rehomes commercial chickens, since last year.
She points out that not only are chickens affectionate and have big personalities, but they also lay eggs, so it’s no surprise that rehoming commercial hens that have come to the end of their ‘laying life’ is fast becoming more and more appealing.
Amanda – who has three dogs, including two Basset Hounds, Daisy and Willow, and Saint Bernard Wilma, two feral cats, Sid and Gracie, and two peahens, Chickpea and Peanut – admits that since first acquiring her first three bantam hens in June 2019, swiftly followed by a further seven a couple of months later, as well Bob the cockerel, she has become passionate about spreading the word about the joys of keeping hens.
“I had always intended on rescuing some but initially, as a new chicken owner, I was anxious about them having lots of health problems,” says Amanda, who set up a hedgehog rescue in her twenties and has also previously done voluntary work for the RSPCA.
“After reading up and researching ex-commercial hens, I finally put my name down for four and collected them in March 2020, just before lockdown.
“When I first got my rescue ‘ladies’, they were bald and tatty with red bottoms. I kept them separate from mine for about a month which allowed them to get to know each other and form a group. They had so much personality, you could see they were loving life and within a few weeks, new feathers started coming through.”
Amanda explains that she started letting Bob out free ranging with them so that “when I did put them with the others, he would protect them, which worked well.”
She adds: “Chickens always have a natural pecking order, which they have to sort out when new birds are introduced. However, if you have a cockerel, it usually removes that fight that hens constantly have about top hen, as the cockerel is always up for the job.”
Founded in 2008, Fresh Start for Hens, which is run entirely by volunteers, is a non-profit organisation which supports British farmers in England and Wales by rehoming commercial chickens which would otherwise be sent to slaughter at around 72 weeks of age. It also aims to raise awareness of caged hens and educate people about the value of free range eggs. Last year the group, which has 115 collection points, of which 30-60 are open at any one time, rehomed more than 67,000 hens (as well as around 2,500 ducks, 250 cockerels and 200 drakes).
Collection points can be found from Durham, Darlington and Newcastle to Newton Abbot and St Austell, while in Lincolnshire there are six, including Spalding, Boston, Wisbech, Scunthorpe, Mablethorpe and Market Rasen.
Funds are raised solely through rehoming, with a charge of £2.50 per hen (ducks £5) which goes towards a nominal payment to the farmer, PayPal fees, transport, insurance, crates, vet and admin fees.
“So much work goes on behind the scenes to get everything and everyone ready for the rehome,” explains Amanda. “Opening your doors as a collection point is only half of it as we also have to advertise and do admin for our collection point too. A rehome starts by contacting all rehomers to confirm collection times and details, as everyone will have a designated time slot. This is all the more important now as we have been open all through the pandemic and are running strict social distancing at all of our collection points.”
A typical collection day starts with the FSFH farm teams meeting up at a commercial farm at around 5am.
“We will clear the barns of hens and load them into chicken crates, which will then be put on vans driven by volunteers and taken to multiple collection points across the country,” says Amanda.
“Once unloaded, the hens can eat, drink and stretch their legs. For caged hens, this will be the first time they have ever experienced anything under foot other than metal cages and we will watch them for a while to make sure we don’t have any sick or injured ones. Any that we think may need some treatment or TLC are separated and they won’t go to a rehomer until I’m 100% sure they are well enough. All treatment or vet care will be paid by FSFH.
“Once rehomers start arriving, we will load their cat carriers or dog crates with the allocated hens and off they go to their new homes. I also offer follow up help and advice for all of my rehomers in case they need anything.”
Amanda points out that keeping chickens can easily become addictive: “Many people start with three and come back time and again for more hens. We limit it to 25 per address as they are rehomed strictly as pets and not for any commercial purposes. Hens will settle very quickly – give them a few short weeks and it will feel as if they have been there all of their lives each with their own characters!”
While it is well recognised that stroking pets is good for stress, Amanda says many owners soon discover that chickens also enjoy human contact and attention.
“Many enjoy being held and stroked and rehomers are surprised how soft the hens are to touch. An ex-commercial hen will soon get very tame if you are with them each day and they get used to you. I tell my rehomers that ‘you’ll never eat an apple alone outside ever again’. If you’re sitting down they may get brave and jump on your knee, especially if they think there’s food around!
“I love having them. They are so entertaining and funny to watch. I enjoy giving them the best life possible and they’re also a stress relief for me.”
To ensure the welfare of their rehomed chickens, FSFH always do a home check and encourage novice owners to join their Facebook group where they seek advice. Amanda explains that hens require a secure coop, with each hen having at least 30cm of perch space and one nest box per three hens, with as much space as possible for the run.
“Hens in confined spaces can get stressed and may turn on each other causing wounds, so as much space as possible is best. They need to be safe from predators (urban foxes may be around in the daytime) and unless free ranging they require a minimum of 1-2 square metres per hen. As flock animals, having three is a good number as if anything happens to one, the other one is not then left on her own.”
For those considering adopting a trio of chickens or even a small flock, Amanda recommends doing your research, starting with a manageable number and taking advice from people who have been through it themselves.
“Take the time to get your setup just right,” she says. “Fresh Start for Hens’ volunteers are so friendly and approachable and will take the time to talk you through anything you’d like to know. We have all been there ourselves and always offer lifetime support for our rehomers.
“I know what it felt like as a first-time hen-keeper and as long as you are willing to learn from others you will be fine. We have a great Facebook group with more than 30,000 members with huge experience between them, so joining this is a great starting point for your research.
“Chickens really are easy to look after and are no higher maintenance than say a few rabbits or guinea pigs. The idea of taking on rescues may seem daunting at first, but it is likely to be the best thing you ever do. Be warned though, chickens are addictive and however many chickens you get, it will never be enough!”
For more information visit the Fresh Start For Hens Facebook page at facebook.com/freshstartforhens