Hens, A Gardener's Best Friend

Ex-battery hens have been a part of my organic garden for three years and in my opinion are vital if you want to grow your own food more sustainably.

They:

  • Provide manure…and lots of it!
  • They help you with the weeding.
  • They keep pests down.

What many don’t realise though – and it’s something that took me by surprise as well – is how loveable and hilarious they are! They genuinely enjoy your company and want to be around you.

Flops!

Each hen I’ve had the privilege of owning has been their own little character.

Flops – Alpha hen. Smart. Loved sitting on my lap and snoozing. Ran off with a samosa.

Mops – Crazy pigeon chasing ninja hen who’s moves both shocked and delighted. Not sure a lot was going on in her brain but in a funny way. Loved wildflowers and squash.

Feathertail – Mother hen. Went with the flow. In the middle of the pecking order which sometimes got her in trouble.

Lottie – The smartest hen I’ve had. Adventurous. Wanted to be friends with everyone and everything. Loved jumping off high things.

Jane – Wannabee alpha. Loves banana, hugs and jam sponge (don’t ask!).

Thelma & Louise – Absolute badasses. Sometimes not in a good way.

Reese – Scared of most things. Sprinter. Smart. Knows to keep out of the way of T&L.

Where to get your hens

For me there’s only one place to get your hens and that’s from rescue centres such as the British Hen Welfare Trust, Animals In Need and other charities who’s aim to save as many ex-battery hens as possible from slaughter.

Ex-battery hens live terrible lives.

Each hen has the space of an A4 sheet of paper and is crammed in with other hens. Light and temperature is controlled to maximise egg production so they live in a completely unnatural environment. High stress levels are a given. And when they’re deemed ‘unproductive’ at just 72 weeks old, they’re sent to slaughter.

When you first see them they look oven-ready, scared and extremely pale due to the lack of sunlight. They stand petrified wondering what everything is from grass to birdsong to sunlight. However, watching them flourish is one of the BEST things.

Day 1.
Day 60.

As they days go by, they get more confident. They learn that grass is yummy along with their new food, treats and any other vegetables and herbs you want to give them.

They come out of themselves. Their personalities grow. And dare I say it, eventually they take their first steps out of the run and run! A little wobbly at first as their legs are weak, but determined all the same.

Hens also learn that you’re their friend and as such they’ll chat to you in their own way and run up to you when you walk in to the garden.

Despite a shorter life of around 3 years due to their early lives, most people don’t realise that you get a lot of eggs in the time they’re with you, they’re extremely sociable and love their new found retirement! Plus they’ve already been vaccinated which a lot of private sellers don’t do.

Now at this point I should say that you can get your hens from other places. Private sellers for example, some shops sell them. But it’s the line of ‘adopt don’t shop’ and another line of ‘stop buying caged hen eggs’ so I’ll leave that there.

Never get just one hen. They’re sociable animals and need company otherwise they’re highly likely to get depression.

What you’ll need

A good place to start is this list!

  • A coop big enough for your hens plus more. For example if a coop says it fits 6 hens, only put 4 in. They will need that additional room!
  • A coop that has a nesting box and roosting bars
  • A large run (even if they’re going to free range because they’ll be in more during winter) that allows 1 to 2m squared per hen or more
  • Water and food feeders
  • Layers mash or crumble to begin with, then pellets
  • Corn for treats (no more than an eggcup per day)
  • Grit which ensure their eggshells remain strong
  • Anti bacterial and fungal bedding (standard straw becomes sodden quicker and attracts bugs)
  • Antibacterial purple spray to prevent serious pecking wounds and to help the ones you’ll have to deal with
  • Mite powder
  • Coop and run cleaning equipment such as sanitising powder, spray etc

Optional but in my experience needed.

  • Herbs pots for them to eat such as oregano, comfrey, thyme and parsley (which not only help them health wise but also their eggs!)
  • An area where they can dust bathe
  • A selection of fruit and vegetables scraps. Just avoid things like raw potatoes, onions, garlic, rhubarb leaves etc.
  • A secure garden for them to use as a playground
  • Lavender plant near their sleeping area, especially in the early days
  • A camera at the ready to capture hilarious moments!
  • Rodent deterrent measures such as specific feeders, keeping their coop and run clean etc

Once you have this, you’re good to go!

Looking after your girls

Daily

For all their value and gorgeousness you only need around 10mins a day to ensure they’re ok and that includes collecting your freshly laid eggs!

A laying hen needs around 150g to 300g of proper chicken food e.g. layers pellets per day.

Their water also needs topping up and their poo removed from their coop.

I shuck the poo on my veg beds and it’s great! Don’t be tempted not to clean them out daily as ammonia can build up causing health issues.

Weekly

Cleaning out your coop weekly is a good rule of thumb. Clean down with mite spray and/or fit-for-purpose spray and replace the bedding. Feel free to add in a little extra in the nesting boxes so they have somewhere extra comfy to lay.

Spend as much time with your girls as you can. They’re extremely sociable and will want your attention.

Treats

Belle chucks a handful of corn while singing and it all looks very whimsical! But corn can make hens fat and can lead to health issues. So keep that to a minimum and focus on the following as well:

  • Vegetables but avoid onions, garlic, mushrooms, avocado, and potatoes.
  • Fruits but avoid citrus, rhubarb leaves, strawberry leaves and tomatoes.
  • Fresh herbs such as parsley, oregano and thyme.
  • Cooked pasta, rice and sweet potato in moderation.
  • No chocolate, meat, mouldy food, fried food, processed food.

Just remember, however much we love them, treats are treats and should be given in moderation. If they don’t eat enough of their layers food, it can cause all sorts of issues.

My hen is sick, what should I do?

Be prepared to take them to the vet.

My gorgeous Feathertail at the vets. She took a turn having recovered from a previous illness 8 months before. See how she’s tail down? She passed soon after this picture was taken.

It’s an annoyance of mine that most vets don’t know a lot about poultry, however there are a small number of specialist poultry vets. This link from the British Hen Welfare Trust can help you find them. But it’s even more of an annoyance when hen owners don’t take action and let the hen suffer.

Hens hide pain extremely well because they could get picked on by other members of the group. Sometimes by the time they’re showing pain, it’s too late, but not always!

As above, common ex-battery hen illnesses normally come from the stress of their early days. Egg laying issues like being egg bound, ovary issues, liver problems and egg peritonitis are all something you’re likely to face.

When caught early, sometimes antibiotics can help so keep an eye out for lethargy, changes in poo, loss of appetite, keeping themselves to themselves, purple, pale or discoloured wattle and comb, tail down, ‘penguin walking’ and refusal to leave the nesting box are all signs something could be up.

Other hens can also suffer the above but my experience is solely with rescue.

Be prepared to love them just like any family member

Their feathery pantaloons will wiggle themselves in to your heart just like any other family member!

Yes you feed them, but it becomes more than that. They want hugs, to be near you, they’ll groom and sunbathe wherever you are and they’ll cover you in mud while trying to find worms. It’s just their way!

If you’re planning on getting hens, please be prepared for the commitment. Hens can live up to 8 years and beyond! They feel stress when moved from place to place.

Ultimately however you’re there person.

A note on buying eggs

As you can probably tell, I’m passionate about animal welfare, sustainable living and also supporting farmers.

This last point however is in conflict with hens but there’s something you can do!

Please do not buy caged eggs or caged egg products. It fuels an industry that treat chickens cruelly regardless of whatever “standards” are in place.

Having your own hens makes you realise how precious each egg is. You’ll see the natural cycles chickens have when it comes to egg production. And ultimately you’ll treasure the eggs you have; it’ll change the way you cook. Do you have eggs for breakfast again or save them for that cake you were thinking of baking?

It’s easy to say ‘if I run out I’ll just go to the shops’ but it’s that circle and the point I’ve just made.

Chickens, like all animals, have emotions and feel pain. There’s no need for any hen to be put through that amount of stress just for us.

If you’ve just adopted or are thinking of adopting hens, thank you! I hope they bring you as much joy as they have me and my family.

Questions? Fire away!

I’m not a vet or chicken professional to be 100% transparent. However I’m always happy to give my experience and answer as many questions as I can!

Simply message me either on Twitter or Insta and I’ll get back to you! Or email me at adrianne@mealsbyrebalance.co.uk