Published On: Fri, Jul 21st, 2017

Backyard hens: Why we should rescue them, and can we eat their eggs?

Veganuary’s Clea Grady speaks to the ‘Mama Chooks’ who take feathered friends under their wings…

Backyard hens: Why should we rescue them, and can we eat their eggs?

There’s something about chickens that I just love and that makes me want to protect them. Maybe it’s because rescued ex-battery hens look so shockingly awful in the pictures on social media; maybe it’s because they are still such maligned birds – regarded as stupid, worthless and inconsequential by so many; or maybe it’s because every time I think about the fact we kill 900 million of them every year in the UK alone (and that doesn’t include the male chicks immediately killed upon hatching), I still catch my breath.

And I guess it’s a combination of all these factors that have led to a real yearning to rescue some hens. To provide sanctuary and love for animals who have known nothing but darkness and the cruellest of touch.

But where do you start? And is it a good idea? 

I thought my best bet was to talk to some real-life hen-rescuers! My lovely friends Kay and Mortimer have created safe havens for ex-battery hens at their respective homes in Yorkshire. So who better to ask about the ins and outs of chicken adoption than these two self-confessed ‘Mama Chooks’?

Why should we rescue hens?

Kay: Because these poor little things have worked so hard their whole short lives producing eggs. If people don’t rescue them, they’ll be slaughtered without ever experiencing what it’s actually like to be a real hen. It’s so rewarding to see them become more and more confident – their feathers grow back and their individual personalities start shining through! And also to see them try food other than layers mash (all that they’re given for food in the egg industry). Mine absolutely love spaghetti, blueberries and sunflower seeds.

How and where do you rescue them?

Kay:  We have had eight in total now – six of them from Lucky Hens in Wigan and two from Homes4Hens who are based in Scotland. Both are absolutely fantastic; they really care about the hens and are very helpful if you have any questions afterwards. They have websites and Facebook pages and regularly share ‘save’ dates. Once you choose one of their save dates you just fill in a booking form and they give you all the info you need.

Mortimer:  I heard about a farm via the British Hen Welfare Trust that was having a clear-out (they have one about every 18 months). The more people who took chickens, the more chickens that could be saved! I said I could take four and bought a coop and run the next day. We travelled from York to Lancashire to collect them a couple of weeks later. Rehoming sites are set up all over the country and they are all listed on the British Hen Welfare Trust website.

What do you need to consider before deciding to rescue?

Kay:  You need to have a hen house and coop set up before you collect your hens. And these have to be fox proof, as foxes are the number-one predator to protect against. You also need to think about the commitment of letting them out every morning and locking them in every night to keep them safe. And get used to the idea of picking up lots of poop! Finally, you need to be prepared for the fact that they might not live very long, however well you look after them. Thankfully ours have all lived for between eight months and two years, but I know others who have lost some within a few weeks. However long they have though, it’s so worth it; I can’t imagine life without my little chooks.

Is there anything else we should know?

Kay:  Hens are wonderful, intelligent, funny, friendly little things who deserve to end their days happily, roaming free in a garden. I love mine with all my heart.

Mortimer:  I honestly feel that if people get to meet, touch and learn about chickens they will make the connection with what is on their dinner plate and see that these animals are amazing. I volunteered through the British Hen Welfare Trust website and helped at a collection day in York, where I met some wonderful people and learnt more about chickens and the industry. If you cannot commit to rescuing hens right now, then I recommend this as an active way to help as they are always desperately in need of volunteers.

There are FAQ pages galore on the websites that Kay and Mortimer mention, so be sure to have a read of those before you make any chicken-adopting decisions. I didn’t know, for example, that the minimum number of hens you can take is three, but four is preferable (this is because chickens are social creatures and being together is not only natural, but will help them to settle and adapt into their new life), so sadly my current set-up is nowhere near big enough. But I also wasn’t aware that it was possible to get involved in the adoption days, so I think I’ll head in that direction for a more immediate chicken fix. And I suppose I’m now on the hunt for a place with enough garden for a reasonably sized ‘chook nook’!

Backyard hens: Why should we rescue them, and can we eat their eggs?

The egg debate

Is it OK to eat the eggs from rescued hens?

During Veganuary and throughout the year, we’re frequently asked about eating the eggs from backyard hens, and it’s a subject that almost always explodes into a passionate debate on social media.

People want to know what harm it does if the birds are kept happy and well…

Well, it doesn’t do any harm to the birds in question, of course, but being vegan means we don’t eat animal products, and we don’t need to.  All the nutrients we need are available from plants, and all the cakes we could ever want can be baked egg-free (check out veganuary.com/starter-kit for the best baking tips!). And we don’t need to give the impression that we struggle so badly that we keep our own hens just so we can have an egg or two. We try to encourage people to rescue hens without wanting something in return. As for what to do with their eggs, one option is to give them to neighbours in order to reduce the number of eggs they buy from supermarkets. This serves as a double-whammy of activism: save the birds and reduce the number of eggs bought from exploitative intensive farms.

Caring for your chickens

After reading this article in our magazine, Suzanne Waijers-Klappe got in touch to share her top tips on how to make sure your chickens are well looked after, as well as some great advice on consuming backyard hen’s eggs.

“The only good solution on what to do with the eggs was not mentioned; The eggs belong to the hens, and to no one else. They love to eat them cooked, scrambled or smashed raw. For most hens it is their favourite treat. The eggs are of great importance to them too, as they loose many nutrients laying the crazy amount of eggs they were bred to lay.”

“By giving the eggs to neighbours, you take eggs away from their rightful owners, who love the eggs and who actually need them, unlike your neighbours. In addition to this, by giving eggs to neighbours you keep alive the idea that eggs are food for humans.”

With regards to caring for your feathered friends, Suzanne says: “It is VERY smart to find a good (avian) vet BEFORE you get hens. Chickens are prey animals and only show their illness when it is advanced. This means you need to contact a vet immediately in all cases of possible illness. You want to be prepared for such cases.”

“It is not at all impossible to let hens live 2-5 years (as opposed to 8 months – 2 years) with a good vet with knowledge of things like suprelorin implants to prevent laying (most health issues are related to the extreme laying they are bred to do)”.

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