Why not give a rescue hen a home?
Owners say rescued birds go through major transformations after they are adopted
Hens roaming in a garden. “When you first get rescue hens you think they all look the same, but over the course of a few hours even you get to know them as individuals”
“You’ll have to try snuggling a chicken,” says Nelly. “You’ll see what all the fuss is about.”
A few months ago Nelly took in four egg-laying hens that would otherwise have been sent to the slaughterhouse. She had already been keeping chickens at her home in Kinvara, Co Galway, when the rescue hens arrived, but she will only take in rescue hens from now on.
“My rescue hens are actually far more craic than the hens I bought at the market,” Nelly says. “They have such a lust for life! Maybe it’s because they’ve had such difficult lives so far that they appreciate their freedom now. Or it could be that they’re just a bit nuts because of all the trauma.”
Nelly says she and her partner call their kitchen window “Chicken TV” because of the entertainment they get gazing at their hens while doing the dishes. The chickens cluster together to dust-bathe, kicking up clouds of dirt to prevent parasites in their feathers, or they chase each other about, or hold “chicken conferences” where they stand in a circle and, presumably, discuss the chicken issues of the day.
“When you first get rescue hens you think they all look the same, but over the course of a few hours even you get to know them as individuals. We have a shy one who’s really unsure of herself. We have a defiant one with such a sense of entitlement. There’s a curious one who follows me around like a puppy dog. And then there’s Bruiser.”
Nelly says she named the hen Bruiser because when it was first rescued, “it looked pretty rough. Like a bit of a thug. Now she’s the most beautiful bird you’ve ever seen, but the name stuck. It’s pretty unfair, but we can’t change it. It’d be too confusing for her.”
Before being rescued, the chickens were fated to be turned into low-grade meat. Commercial hens produce fewer eggs as they get older, and most operations consider them unprofitable to keep after about 18 months. Nelly says the hens she adopted still produce nearly an egg a day.
Nelly’s hens were provided by Littlehill Animal Rescue, which keeps hundreds of chickens still waiting for permanent homes in its sanctuary. The founder, Susan Anderson, tells me that they have recently been saving about 12,000 chickens a year, and they would like to rescue even more if they could find homes for them.
“They don’t need a huge amount of space, just a nice, little area to roam about in,” Susan says. “We have a lot of hens homed in the centre of Dublin, flapping around people’s gardens.”
Susan says that the chickens make especially good pets for elderly people: hens don’t need to be taken on walks, they’re very social and, unlike dogs, there’s little risk of a chicken knocking an old person over.
One widow who took in a group of hens after her husband’s death regularly brings them into her house to watch TV on the sofa with her, Susan says.
Littlehill Animal Rescue often announces chicken runs, where it goes around the country delivering hens to those willing to take them in. Susan says she is worried about the chickens being used as bait for fighting or hunting dogs, and tries to screen potential adopters before hand. To prevent this Littlehill charges a €6 adoption fee that also helps to pay the cost of feeding the hundred of hens kept at the sanctuary.
Quirks and traits
Susan says she has become very attached to some of them. “I’ve loads at home that I just can’t bear to part with now – way too many. They’re all individual little personalities with their own little quirks and traits.”
Susan doesn’t know if it’s possible to buy cruelty-free eggs commercially, and warns that the condition of recently-rescued hens can be shocking.
“More and more, people that see the hens, the condition of them, they never want to buy commercial hens again. Even the organic hens. They are often in the worst condition. I don’t know why. I supposed if you lock 5,000 or 10,000 of any creature into a shed for a year it’s not going to go well.”
All interviewees say their rescued birds went through major transformations after they were adopted.
“The first thing that struck us was the state they were in – half bald and with open sores on their skin,” David told me. He and his wife, Ines, have three rescue hens living in their back garden in Greystones, Wicklow, since last summer.
“When we got them home they huddled together,” Ines says. “Our other two hens took to pecking them and chasing them around, never letting them rest. It was quite distressing to watch.
“After a few days things calmed down between our old hens and the new arrivals, but there was still a level of aggression and, well, bad manners from the rescue hens – they ate all my flowers and rampaged through the garden.”
“They were plainly traumatised and couldn’t seem to cope with the extra space and the peace and quiet,” says David. “Things have quietened down a lot since those early days. Their feathers grew back quite quickly, and they soon asserted themselves with our other hens.”
Back in Kinvara, Nelly says that all her rescue hens have developed into big, beautiful, fluffy birds. She has begun helping Littlehill Animal Rescue on its chicken runs, driving around the country with boxes of hens packed on the floor and the seats and in the trunk of her car.
“By offering them a home you’re literally saving their lives. You’re giving them the chance to have a happy, stress-free existence that they would never experience otherwise.”
The new owners often send Nelly photos showing how the hens are getting on with their new families. Kids, it seems, especially love the chickens.
“I find keeping rescue hens so fulfilling,” Nelly says. “It’s nice to be able to bring that to other people as well.”
HOW TO ADOPT HENS
Hens are relatively low maintenance but they do need a small space that is safe from predators. A chicken coop that can be locked at night is strongly recommended.
Littlehill Animal Rescue and Sanctuary regularly announces rehoming dates and locations on its Facebook page, and holds events throughout the country. If you are willing to travel to its sanctuary in Co Kildare, send it a private message on Facebook to arrange a time to pick up your hens. Littlehill charges an adoption fee of €6.
Chickens are social creatures and at least three should be adopted at a time.