Ask anyone who already re-homes ex-battery hens or 'ex-batts' about their ‘girls’ and you will be receive an enthusiastic, and probably very long, animated response extolling the virtues of their ladies.
Whether you are new to keeping chickens or already have a flock of the more ‘normal’ birds, offering a home to some ex-batts is certainly a rewarding and life enhancing experience.
Whilst ex-battery hens are just as easy to care for as any other chickens, these very special ladies do require some special consideration and treatment after the ordeal they have been through.
There are a number of battery hen rescue charities in the UK (see the list at the bottom of the article). The largest is the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), which rescues some 60,000 hens a year, and have just re-homed their 250,000th hen. They have 25 regional co-ordinators across the country who liase with local farmers to buy the battery chickens who would otherwise be destined to become cat meat. Once you have made the splendid decision to re-home some girls, contact the co- ordinator with your details (all hens need to be traceable in the event of a disease outbreak) and the number of hens you require. The minimum is three, but personally I would go for four or five. Hens are sociable creatures and should anything happen to one, even two doesn’t really seem enough. The co-ordinator will then contact you with dates, times and details of the next rescue day!
Remember that whilst it is a big day for you, it is an even bigger one for your girls. Up until that day, their lives will have consisted of a cramped wire cage with no natural sunlight or fresh air. Absolutely everything they encounter from now on will be new and scary! I have found cat boxes lined with newspaper and straw are a secure, easy way to transport your new girls. Two hens fit into one cat box snugly, but are not too cramped. The BHWT ask for approximately £5 per bird, although any donation is welcome, and covers vet and transport costs and the money paid to the farmer. Smaller rescue charities can sometimes ask for money up front. Personally I have found taking an extra person along is very helpful as they can sit in the back of the car with the new chickens and keep an eye on them. This stops me casting furtive glances round every few minutes to check on them. Also, newly freed ex-batts have a dreadful smell, bless them, so open the driver’s window!
Preparation is the key to making the transition as stress free for your girls as possible. Caring for ex-batts can seem a little daunting at first but all they really require is a secure, warm, dry coop, secure run, good food and space to stretch their wings and exhibit all the natural behaviours they have been unable to enjoy up till now. I am most certainly not an expert just an ex-batt obsessed keeper who adores her hens but I have picked up quite a few tips on caring for them so far.
It goes without saying that both have to be predator proof, there would be nothing worse than letting your girls get a first whiff of freedom only for the fox to get them. If you are like me, you will go down the route of more rather than less when it comes to safety. I have found the catches on bought coops tend to be far too flimsy, so replace them with more sturdy locks and bolts. Newly freed ex-batts will have no fear and may wander off so they need to stay in their coop and run until their home is imprinted on them. They have no knowledge of light and day having been exposed to 18 hours artificial light so will need encouragement to go into their coop at dusk. Another reason to keep them confined to their run at first! Our newest batch had their coop inside our large greenhouse (as it was a chilly February when they were re-homed) and were still dancing round the greenhouse long after dark. Their legs will be very weak from lack of use so try and make the ramp less steep by making it longer. Use another piece of wood or even prop it on a sturdy stone if it appears too steep. Or physically put them in the coop each night until they are steadier on their legs. They have no experience of perching and at first it can actually get in the way, so remove it from the coop until their legs are stronger. Once they are hopping in and out of the coop and nest box, pop it back in as chickens naturally want to perch. That said, none of mine have ever mastered it and tuck up snugly in the nest box together at night! Your girls will have come from a temperature controlled environment so will need to be kept warm or cool as necessary. Make sure the coop is draught free and bedding is extra soft, as sore pecked skin needs extra care. Straw can cause irritation and one bedding I have found, Easibed, seems to have stopped little Brigit’s sneezes. Cover part of the run so they have shelter from the sun and rain. They will obviously be unaware of weather and will stand out in the rain, oblivious, at first if not protected. Also that naked skin is very delicate and will burn easily, so shade from the sun is just as important.
Smallholder Ex-batt range is recommended by the BHWT, and even more importantly, by my girls! It provides all the nutrients the girls need (bar a little teatime treat of course) and comes in crumbs for newly released hens and also pellets for when they become more acclimatised to life on the outside. I add poultry spice to the food as well as a little garlic powder, just to give them every chance of optimum health. Chickens don’t have teeth so grit in a bowl (or on the floor if yours kick the bowl over like mine do) will help them digest their food. Oyster shells provide extra calcium as ex-batts can be prone to laying soft shelled eggs. I have read great things about putting apple cider vinegar in the water on this site and agree wholeheartedly with them! It boosts the immune system, which helps the chickens from falling foul of any diseases, it keeps worms at bay (although does not prevent them) and my girls seem to like the taste!
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Your little chickens have had a hellish ride through life so far and the odds are that the less feathers they have, the more hellish that ride was. So introducing them all to each other will be quite a trauma for them. They will naturally establish a pecking order but this can seem quite a brutal process and human intervention can sometimes prolong it. There are a few things though that you can do to help it along: Pop them all in the coop together when they are asleep, so that they wake up together. We had one chicken, Bella, who was the very devil that first night. She had to be separated from the others, went to sleep in a cat box and we put her in the coop once they were all asleep. The next day there were minor skuffles but nothing too dramatic. Bella is now top chicken and very protective of her ‘girls.’ Put Vaseline on the combs of all the hens so the dominant hen can’t get a grip. Chickens are attracted by blood so you want to avoid that if at all possible. Make sure there are plenty of feeders and drinkers around so the dominant hen doesn’t hog them. Hand up some tasty greens for them to peck at. Sometimes a human finger tapped (gently but firmly) on the back of the bossier hen can establish you as top chicken. This isn’t 100% successful, but worth a shot! Invest in some anti-peck spray!
To me, the reason for re-homing ex-batts is not for the eggs, but to provide a happy retirement to some hard working ladies. The burning question though is how far do we let them roam?Half of me wants them to be in the run and completely safe from predators, whilst the other half thinks they have spent long enough in a confined space, they need freedom to roam! Foxes are everywhere and no matter how hard you try, I don’t think anything is 100% fox proof. So I made the decision to let my girls free range in my secure garden during daylight hours. I introduced it gradually as a big garden can seem quite daunting to a little hen. Now, they have breakfast in their run, trash my garden during the day and then are locked up again well before dusk.
Don’t be fooled by their frail stature, ex-batts are very capable of looking after themselves when faced with a family cat. My five cats are all terrified of the chickens and slink past them, Audrey chicken thoroughly enjoys a game of ‘chase the cat!’ I would however, take much more time introducing a family dog to the chickens and never have him/her off lead in the garden until you are completely sure of their reactions. I have included children in this section as well! Ex-battery chickens are the most amazing educator for children (and adults). Children become aware of where their food comes from – collecting eggs is a great treat - and they feel the benefits of caring for another creature. It also highlights the evils of intensive farming in their minds, children are the future after all. My two teenagers haven’t touched a KFC or Macdonalds since seeing our first girls on rescue day.
Contrary to appearance, ex-batts are not unhealthy, they are merely unfit. They have had the full quota of injections whilst in the battery farm (the farmer would hardly spend money feeding a sick hen now would he…) and have been checked over by a vet on rescue day. However, standing in a wire cage 24/7 means their legs are weak and they are unused to exercise, so introduce it gradually. Occasionally, however, a hen cannot cope with the transition from cage to coop, it is simply too traumatic for her. This is a desperate shame for the little hen who will only know life in a cage and never be aware of the free range happiness you had waiting for her. The BHWT careline (01362 822904) is a wonderful help line for the anxious chicken owner and offers great advice on all aspects, no matter how small. Finding a good vet, who has experience with chickens as pets and not just livestock, is also essential. Offering a home to ex-battery hens has been one of the best things I have ever done. Sometimes I think it is not me that has done the rescuing, the little chickens have rescued me. I can guarantee, that if you do re-home some ex-batts, within days it will be you giving that enthusiastic, animated response extolling their virtues!