To the Rescue (again)

Earlier this week, we had an email asking us if we could find room to rehome a few hens from the thousands being rescued from a commercial egg farmer.  If you’ve not come across this phenomenon before, commercial egg farmers keep their hens until they’re about 18 months old, and then sell them on, usually to the food industry, to end up in dog food or baby food. Some luckier hens are sold en masse to a rescue charity who buy thousands of hens at a time from the farmer, and then split them up into a few groups to be rehomed from various pick-up points. People will offer to re-home a couple, or as many as they can find space for because these hens generally have another 5 years of life ahead of them.

Hens can lay a finite number of eggs in their lifetime and once they’re all laid that’s it. Different breeds of hen lay different amounts, and with differing frequency. The warren is a hybrid bird bred for their laying ability – they lay far more than many pure breeds (up to 300 a year in normal conditions), and this is why they are used in the commercial egg system. Left to their own devices, they’ll lay an egg most days (less in winter) from around 20-24 weeks old for several years. That’s not enough for commercial outfits though, so they use artificial lighting for extended periods a day (daylight affects laying frequency, hence hens laying less in winter) to increase the frequency of laying. By the time the hens are 18 months old, they start to slow down their laying under these conditions and become financially unviable, and so the farmer sells them on by the thousand, having thousands of younger birds waiting to take their place. Ironically, once out of those conditions, living a healthy outdoor life with natural daylight, many of these birds begin to lay every day again for years!

Our previous rescue hens have been barn hens – living 3000-4000 birds to a barn under artificial lighting. There’s no daylight, no outdoors and not enough space to do normal chicken things like scratch about, perch a night, dust bathe … They’re literally fighting for space all the time and there’s a lot of feather plucking so when they’re rescued, they’re in a sorry state.  This time, the birds were caged birds. Battery cages are banned these days, but they were simply replaced by something called “colony cages”. These are bigger cages, housing 90-100 birds per cage. They allow a little room for movement, but not much and although they might be an improvement on battery cages, they are not good for the birds. You can see from the picture below, that they are stacked cage upon cage, and although the birds can technically move around, there’s really not space to do that.  This picture is used to sell these cages, and you can see the birds in there have lovely, full plumage, although their combs are a little pale. They look fairly healthy though.

This could not be further from the truth of how these birds live. We collect our four rescues this afternoon and they don’t have enough feathers between them to fully feather a healthy chicken. One has no neck feathers, barely any on her breast or back, her rear end is bare, her tail is missing and her wings have only the shaft of the feathers, no actual “feather” on them. None of them are in a very good condition. They are now in their run, where they’ll stay for a few days before we let them free range. Until they were removed from the farm, they’d never seen daylight, let alone been outdoors, so the last couple of days has been confusing and unsettling for them. When we left them to settle in they were trying to hide away from view.

Within a couple of weeks, they’ll have started to perk up a bit – new feathers will begin to emerge and they’ll look brighter. At the moment they just look sad. Within a few months, we can expect them to have regrown a full complement of feathers and their combs should have regained their colour and be a little more vertical. Their eyes will be bright and they’ll act like happy birds.  For now though, this is what they look like.

Betty is by far the worst. Most of her neck is bare, her wings have no feathers to speak of – the shafts are there, but the vanes are mostly missing. Most of her back, rear end and breast are bare. Her tail is missing. Amy has lots of fluffy feathers, but not much else. Her neck has fared quite well, but her back is bare and her comb is in a very bad state, looking to have been mostly pecked away.  Emily is missing most of her outer feather. You shouldn’t be able to see any of those fluffy white feathers. Her tail is bare and so is the breast. Jessica is arguably the one who has fared best, although her rear end is bare and raw and her wings are quite bare.

It’s upsetting to see them like this. I can’t understand how anyone who keeps animals can let them live in conditions which cause this. I know they’re commercial animals, not pets, but I still can’t understand how people can live knowing they’ve caused this to thousands of birds. Most rescued hens do begin to lay again, but not all of them, and we take them on knowing that. If they don’t lay, so be it – nothing can beat looking out the kitchen window and catching site of the hens digging for worms, stealing the raspberries, dust bathing and generally being happy with life. It’s all the better when they’ve started from a point like this. Keeping a few hens is definitely not a way to get cheap eggs – they cost more to keep than it costs to buy the equivalent amount of eggs, but it rewards you in so many other ways.

I know cost is always an issue when shopping, but please, if you can manage to pay the extra for eggs that come from farms with high welfare standards, do. Please avoid eggs from caged hens, because this is the misery it causes. Better still, you might find someone local who keeps hens in their garden. (Or pop down to the local allotments). It’s often the case that they have plenty of spare eggs and are willing to give them away or accept a nominal amount to cover the cost of the egg box. Or seek out a farm shop who sell their own eggs where you can see the hens.

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