“We are getting some chickens,” I said. “No, we bloody aren’t,” said my husband. “Ok, I’m getting some” I replied firmly. “FFS, Emmeline,” he muttered, wandering off and contemplating a life with hens. That was the first introduction to the idea of getting some chickens last August. “You don’t even bloody eat eggs,” I was told grumpily and with the most exasperated sigh I have heard in a while; there are a few in this house.
It’s as if people want to charge the chickens rent for a good deed by still taking what is not theirs.
I googled ‘keeping chickens in the city’. Introducing animals to your family requires careful consideration – of lifestyle and wallet, with head and with heart. Would they be too noisy? Would the dog eat them? What about the neighbours? Or foxes? What is the long-term cost and how would I become their responsible human? Lots of questions needed answering.
To my horror and sadness, everything online regarding ‘backyard’ chickens – even rescued ex-battery hens – recommends continuing the cycle of taking their eggs. It’s very hard to find advice on what to do with eggs if you don’t want to eat them (more on that below). It’s as if people want to charge their rescue girls rent for a good deed by still taking what is not theirs. I wanted to find solid advice on caring for them, not how to maximize what plops out of their bottoms. Any information on eggs was related to human consumption – even to the point of denying or limiting favourite treats to stop the eggs tasting different.
Thankfully I met two lovely chicken keepers at Essex Pig Save, who I quizzed relentlessly – thank you Debra and Tyler. They told me how chickens love to eat their own eggs and how in the wild they naturally eat unfertilised eggs to replenish nutrients lost in laying. Boiling or scrambling makes them easier for the hens to eat, and they need the shell too – just crush up a cooled boiled egg and leave it for them to devour. When you see how much they enjoy them it becomes so clear eggs are not ours to take for our own enjoyment. I have even learned that sprinkling turmeric on them – the eggs not the chickens – keeps them healthy. Ex-battery hens just need love and time to heal as well as a safe clean coop and fox-proof run.
I found a second hand Eglu house from Gumtree and, after a predicable amount of cursing, it was constructed in the garden under the eyes of a defeated husband, an excited child and a suspicious dog. We were ready.
it was simply a joyous moment for all; in fact it was so exciting, Plum laid an egg right there and then! She turned around and looked at it, startled.
The day came in October to collect the girls from an organised pick-up point not too far from us. We borrowed a dog-training crate, were handed three very bald and scraggy chickens, and we went from a family of four to seven. It’s very sobering seeing and holding victims of the egg industry. I couldn’t help thinking how much they resembled chickens in the supermarkets with their bare skin. It was heartbreaking, and at that moment I knew it was the right thing to help them have a chance. They seemed broken but they had a will to live – I prayed to something (in the way atheists do sometimes) they would make the journey home and thankfully they did. Razzle, Peri and Plum were home.
We opened the crate door and they gingerly looked around – this was their first outside experience. They felt their first gentle breeze, which startled them, and the warmth of sun on their featherless backs. They felt for the first time soft grass and soil under their strangely beautiful claws, instead of wire cages. Their instincts took hold immediately, scratching and foraging. They nibbled sweet blades of grass and it was simply a joyous moment for all; in fact it was so exciting, Plum laid an egg right there and then! She turned around and looked at it, startled.
I decided to just leave them to settle in without prying eyes and let them discover their new home. That night they needed guidance getting into their coop, but once they were in that was it. We had all made it to the end of day one, and I smiled knowing they were enjoying their first night on a clean bed of hay – the most basic of needs denied to them until now. Chickens are so smart that the first night was the only night I had to show them at dusk how and when to go in their coop. Whoever says chickens are stupid is an idiot.
Weeks went by and their individual personalities grew as fast as their feathers. Feather growth is fascinating and hugely gratifying. Even their clipped beaks are healing. I have seen lots of footage of day-old chicks having the tips of their beaks sliced off (standard practice, including free range); it’s hard to watch but to see it first-hand – it’s awful what we do to them. My dear mum-in–law, Shirley, lovingly knitted them jumpers in the way nans knit their new grandchildren booties, to keep their fragile bodies warm. Much to everyone’s amusement – a chicken in a jumper?!
They have healed me too after many years of grief and loss. What they have been though, where they came from and where they were destined – it just shows anything is possible, you just have to keep going.
Plum is not interested in humans unless they have food. She is an independent girl who wants to be left to get on with her day.
Razzle was absolutely petrified of us at first, quivering every time we were near. Like Plum I just left her to it, but in the last few months she has begun to trust me. It must be on their terms and giving her space has been key. Now if I am lucky enough she will jump on my arm or shoulder and perch there staring at me, trying to figure out what and who I am. Not many cuddles mind you, she really has to be in the mood, but I’m more than happy to extend an arm or steady my head for her to rest on when she lands on it. That’ll do just brilliantly.
They all enjoy my daughter gently singing nursery rhymes to them feeding them spinach. A tip – always look in the discounted veg section in the supermarkets or your greengrocer for greens they will like; spinach lettuce and corn on the cob are often pennies on the use-by date.
It took around three months for the chickens’ feathers to grow back and their combs to go from an anaemic pale pink to a healthy plump red. Apart from a rather traumatic incident with Peri’s bottom, which involved a desperate search for a vet that will help a chicken, there have been no issues.
In fact, quite the opposite: as Paul Checkley wrote in his piece in The Guardian My chickens saved my life it’s amazing how healing and inspirational rescue chickens are. When you have been through a certain amount in your life, to be around such strong and determined survivors is deeply moving. I may not take their eggs from them, but I take strength and inspiration from them by the bucket load. They have healed me too after many years of grief and loss. What they have been though, where they came from and where they were destined – it just shows anything is possible, you just have to keep going.
I used to love eggs; in fact, scrambled eggs was the last non-vegan meal I ate.
Chickens are the most abused animals on earth, 975 million ‘broiler birds’ and 40 million ‘spent hens’ are slaughtered here in the UK alone every single year (viva.org.uk). The amount of people who, when talking about animal welfare, will say ‘well, I only eat chicken’ just shows how little humans regard them. To most they are not even an animal, an exception to the rule of welfare or those deserving empathy, just an unfeeling thing, a machine, a product to consume. When you are lucky enough to spend time with them, you can see how wonderful they are.
I often hear how lucky the girls are to live with us; in truth it is the other way round. That I have the opportunity to spend time with them and learn from them makes me the lucky one, and I just wish other people would open their hearts instead of their mouths to these wonderful creatures. They need protecting from the egg and meat industries. The only way we can do this is to stop being the abusers – the buyers of their eggs and their bodies.
We know caged hens are a disgrace already but we need to stop thinking free range is good. It’s not, not to the billions of male chicks that are tossed aside and killed on the first day of their life because they are the wrong sex. It’s not okay to the billions of chickens who are labelled free range, yet the only time they leave a vast shed is to be slaughtered. I used to love eggs; in fact, scrambled eggs was the last non-vegan meal I ate. If there was a way to eat eggs ethically I would be eating them, but there isn’t so I don’t.
For information about the egg industry please click here.
For a list of egg replacers see here
For help, inspiration and support to switching to plant-based diet see veganuary.com
I also have a helpful beginners’ shopping guide here