If you are taking on ex-battery rescue hens they will have lived in hot, cramped conditions. Many will have lost a lot of feathers and their combs will be pale and flaccid (in order to help lose heat) They will have had artificial light for at least 18 hours a day, will never have seen grass or outside, and will only have ever eaten layers crumb.
1 – A suitable Home – firstly, you will need to provide a home for your hens. If you hope to have just a coop, with them free ranging in the garden, you will still need a run to keep them safe for the first couple of weeks and so they can learn where ‘home’ is.
2 – Collection Day – Your rescue hens are likely to have had a very stressful 24 hours. They may have already travelled a long distance from farm to rehoming centre, before travelling from centre to their new home with you. They will have had little, if anything to drink or eat and the stress of the situation may have led them to become quite feisty and even aggresive. If you have very young children, it may be best to keep them away until your hens have had time to settle. Being pecked on day one isn’t a great start to their relationship!
3 – Once you are home – Make sure you see them all drinking and eating. If it is late, it is especially important to make sure they eat before going to bed. Food in their crops will provide energy and help keep them warm through the night. Your hens will have only ever eaten crumb. The rescue centre will probably advice you to continue with crumb until they settle, but I have never had a problem with them going straight onto pellets – they are usually just grateful to have food they don’t have to fight over!
4 – Expect to have to lift your girls to bed for the first few nights. They won’t understand that there is a nice warm coop waiting up the ladder, and will probably just huddle down together in the corner. Once you have lifted them in they usually get the hang of going to bed by themselves within a week.
5 – Day 1 – It is wonderful to watch your girls explore your garden for the very fist time. Watching them instinctively scratch at the grass and flap and stretch their wings is hugely heart warming! You will probably find some eggs too! Keep a close eye on them for a few days as the great outdoors is completely alien to them, and the more often they see you, the quicker they will learn that you are friend not threat.
6 – Will your hens be warm enough? The BHWT advise that even hens with very few hens will be ok, unless it is unusually cold. Just ensure they eat just before going to bed and give them a thick bed. They advice against jackets and jumpers as they are inclined to get caught in them and they can cause more trouble than they solve. Feed a good protein rich diet (Super Seeds are the ideal treat for rescue hens) and within a few weeks you will see new feathers growing.
7 – If you have hens already, it is best to introduce your new girls at night. Expect some squabbles for a few days as they re-establish their pecking order and keep some poultry-safe antiseptic spray to hand in case of any injury. I have never had any issues when introducing new birds but they have plenty of room and I always have several food stations so no one has to share. Even your new girls may fight with one another as they may never have met before.
It is not just ex-battery hens who have a very short life. Commercial free-range birds are also only kept for 13 – 18 months. You may be able to buy a few from your local free-range egg producer. We have had many this way. They are usually in better condition than ex-batts but still in much need of tlc.
For further information on rescue hens, visit the British Hen Welfare Trust