When I first thought I would like to keep some hens (so many years ago now) I had considered taking in rescue hens. Knowing I was a bit soft around animals, my friend Richard said I would probably find it very distressing to see how poorly feathered and generally unsure of their surroundings they would be, and advised that I started with hens bought from a breeder. I could then take in rescue hens when I was a bit more used to hen keeping. I thought this was a sensible idea, and so we started with three black rocks in 2007. By the time we had been keeping hens for a few years, and had our ups and downs health-wise with one or two of them, I felt better able to cope with problematic chickens, and so I registered my interest with the British Hen Welfare Trust. The Yorkshire collection centre had only just stared rescuing, and so I had to wait a while, but eventually, in late September I got the call that hens would be available the following weekend. I was a bit worried that the date was only a week before our holiday and also so close to the start of the bad weather in our part of Yorkshire, but it was either take them then or wait until next Spring, and I am not reknowned for my patience once I have decided I want something!
On 2nd October 2010, a beautiful sunny and warm Saturday, we drove up to a small village near York, and there we found a shed full of ex-barn hens, rescued from an egg producer in Scotland only a couple of days before, waiting for people to collect them and give them a home.
Our six hens were selected and popped into the cardboard boxes we had brought along, filled with straw for a more comfortable ride. I didn’t really get to see them before the boxes were closed, and they did not get to see us or where we were taking them. They were very subdued, not chattering much, on the hour’s drive home, and when we arrived we carefully carried them into the old pen and opened the boxes. I can truthfully say it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. These poor scrawny little bundles of feathers looked up from their cardboard boxes with wonder and bemusement at the sky and the sun. I carefully lifted each one out of their boxes and put them on the grass, and they looked at the grass wondering what on earth it was for! They all had semi-naked necks, very naked bottoms, huge distended pale combs, and stumpy ragged tails. Almost immediately, one of the hens took an experimentary bite of a blade of grass, and soon the others followed suit. I hoped they were going to like it here!
The first night they found their way into the house but they did not perch, instead they crammed themselves into the two nestboxes; they were so thin, and could easily fit four into the larger nestbox. For several days they were reluctant to come out into the pen, and spent a lot of time just sitting in a nest box or on the floor of the henhouse. I kept a close eye on them and tried to encourage them out onto the grass whenever I could, but one was particularly reluctant and I was worried that she was not eating. The others seemed to be eating well although they were not used to the Ex-Batts Crumb I had bought for them. We were due to fly off on holiday in the early ours of Friday morning, so I had less than a week to get to know them. I tried to handle them and reassure them, but they were understandably rather wary of me, and I don’t feel I really got to know their characters in that week, certainly not enough to be able to assign names to them! Paul’s Mum and Dad were coming to house and chicken sit for us while we were away, so I wrote copious instructions about feeding and watering the hens as they had never done it before; we have wonderful neighbours who have looked after the hens in the past and provided great backup this time too.
We arrived home around 4am the following Saturday and fell straight into bed, so we did not know that one of the rescue hens had died that morning until we got up around midday. Our kind neighbour had come to let the chickens out that morning, not knowing we were in fact home but fast asleep, and had found her dead in the nestbox. By the time we were up and realised what had happened, our neighbour had already disposed of her body, so I never got to say goodbye to the poor little hen nor know exactly what killed her, but I suspect the sudden change of circumstances, unfamiliar food and surroundings, and stress had caused her to stop eating and fade away. I like to think that she had at least one day in the sunshine before she died.
The remaining five hens were eating well and very alert and active. When we let them out of the pen to roam they were understandably reluctant to go too far from the pen gate, and frequently shot back inside, especially if one of the established hens came near. Ginger, however, had a little fire in her, and one day marched straight up to Lily and picked a fight! She also had a go at Betty, the chief chicken, which was pretty brave since Betty was more than twice her size! Their characters gradually revealed themselves as they became more confident. Ginger is a feisty little one, still scrawny and with a persistently untidy tail and red raw bottom; she was a slightly different shade of brown from the others, burnt umber more than burnt sienna, and always the first to rush over to me if she thought I might be carrying a treat! She had and still has a large distended comb, although it is not now as big as the day we brought her home, and is much pinker; she is bright and active, always jumping up onto something; she is so far the only rescue hen to get the hang of going up (and down) the 9 steep steps to our upper garden, she jumps up onto our garden table if there is the hint that there may be food to be had, and has even jumped up onto our kitchen table and the much higher work surface. She is indomitable, and will try anything, it seems!
Mabel was always going to be the boss of this flock; she was a pale goldy brown and as her feathers developed her back took on pale pencilling on some of the feathers. She has a rather patrician-looking beak, with the flopped-over comb coming right down onto the beak. She would peck at the newly emerging feathers of the other hens, and not surprisingly she feathered up the fastest. In fact by Christmas she was almost completely covered, unlike the others who still looked very scruffy; and since she was still pulling out their feathers and generally harassing them, we decided that we had to separate her from them, to give them a chance to improve too. So Mabel was transferred to the big girl’s house. She was not happy to begin with, as Lily became her Nemesis, chasing her away from the food, and preventing her from going to bed at night. She adapted to the steps up to the pophole remarkably quickly, taking them two at a time. She was last to go to bed each evening, waiting until the others had settled and she could make a dash to the nest box. She often had to share a nest box with one of the other hens, as occasionally the Bluebelles preferred nesting to perching, and one night in the depths of the cold snap, I found her snuggled in one box with both Bluebelles! She continued to thrive, did not let Lily and Dolly get her down, and was always first at my feet in the morning for a handful of sunflower seed treats. She has perfected the standing jump, probably learned from Dolly who was also very good at leaping two feet in the air up to my hand to encourage me to part with more seeds. Mabel, though, would actually grab a portion of my finger or thumb and hang onto it as she descended back to earth! When the two flocks meet free-ranging in the afternoons, she still chases Ginger or Doris and makes a grab for a feather, but she is gradually learning not to do this. She does hang out with her “old” flock members more than with the big girls, even though she has now spent longer living in the big house than with the other rescue hens.
Doris‘s comb has strunk enormously since her first days with us. She has a sweet nature, but seems to be quite happy in her own company, trotting off on her own to investigate the boggy parts of the field for insects and grubs. She has an endearing skew-wiff beek, with the lower part extending a long way past the upper part. She does have some difficulty picking up individual seeds because of this, but she seems to thrive so I don’t think it can be much of a problem to her. She is always the last to go to bed, wanting to extend her time outside as long as possible, and who can blame her!
Gracie‘s comb has also shrunk back to a normal size and she has turned into a lovely hen, slow and gentle. She also has thrived and has become quite a large hen, larger than the others by a long way, but never barging the others out of the way to get to food. She seems to have a caring nature, and when Ethel was very poorly, Gracie would stay with Ethel as she wandered slowly around the garden, and did not let her be on her own or get separated. She also takes the pecks of others in her stride, keeps out of the way of the older girls, and generally shows a passive face to the world. She is also the only one of the four remaining in the old house to try out the perch as a place to sleep, and when the weather was warm has taken to perching at night on her own; perhaps due to her size and the nestbox feeling a bit claustrophobic and warm, she finds the airy perch more comfortable. Gracie has not laid any eggs to my knowledge, although I suspect that she has laid the “lash” we found in the nestbox one day. It looked and felt like a rubber egg, and when cut open seemed to contain lots of smaller eggs.
Ethel was for a long time a real worry to us. She was always a bit slow of movement, hanging back when the more boisterous Ginger and Doris were gobbling seed from my hand. In early February 2011 she became very ill, but I will write at length about this another time. She is another of the hens that did not shrink their comb once they had been released, and it is now a bright red colour slightly flopped over to one side. She is still slow moving and generally placid, and spends a lot of time walking alongside Gracie as they free-range around the garden. She has plumped up a lot since she was ill. She has not laid any eggs, and probably never will now, but that is OK she deserves a happy retirement from the daily grind!