They would have been facing a grim trip to the slaughterhouse, but for these former working hens the cages were opened and free range living was in their sights.
Contented clucking filled the air as animal lovers descended on a farm at Overton, near Wrexham, to take part in a major re-homing which has given these creatures a new lease of life in their dotage – while at the same time spreading a powerful animal welfare message in the agricultural community.
Their usefulness may have been deemed “expired” at their former homes – commercial egg farms where, even under new tougher welfare rules, egg-laying chickens are often packed into cages – but their new owners travelled from far and wide to offer them a new life.
Battery hen farming was banned in the UK in 2012. While farmers have introduced more humane ‘colony’ cages where birds have space to roost and scratch, conditions can still be crowded.
But for the happy hens moving through the British Hen Welfare Trust’s re-homing at the weekend, life will be better.
Many could become backyard animals with new owners who will delight at their new pets.
Others will even find themselves with access to the countryside, perhaps on smallholdings, while some are guaranteed a happy retirement from relentless egg laying, at the Idlewild Animal Sanctuary at Llanfairfechan.
Rehoming hens is now widespread in the UK and the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT) hopes one day all laying hens will be given access to the outdoors and a stimulating environment in which to see out their days.
The need for re-homing is growing. Life can short and brutal for many commercial egg-laying chickens – of which 16 million are being kept in colony cages.
As egg production dips after a year, economic pressures force many farmers to cut their losses and send aging birds to slaughter.
But over 600,000 hens destined for slaughter have been found new homes by the trust since it was founded in 2005, thanks to well-organised rehoming events like the one in Overton.
The military-style operation saw volunteers ferrying hens from around 12 local farms to the central pick-up point at Home Farm, where owners Dave and Alison Everett pride themselves on their free-range production methods.
Local BHWT organiser Mel Print says: “There are a dozen farms that we work with and our volunteers and drivers went out and collected the hens. They were put in crates and brought to a marquee we set up at Home Farm.
“We laid on feed and water to minimise any stress they were under. We are the rehoming centre for the whole of North Wales, Cheshire and Shropshire, so people come to us from near and far.
“We’ve had people travelling from Anglesey and this time we had people from Clun in Shropshire.”
The demand indicates many Britons are warming to the appeal of saving commercial farm chickens.
But as prospective ‘parents’ they have to go through the trusts’s vetting procedure and demonstrate they have enough space and a shelter for the birds.
For example, they are asked to arriving at the rehoming point with a ventillated, straw-filled box to carry home their brood.
“We make contact at least two weeks beforehand and discuss how many chickens they want to keep.
“It can be from two to 20 but we like to rehome in twos because hens are sociable animals,” outlines Mel.
“While we do rely on the application form to screen the new owners and if they are new to it and have not had chickens before our volunteers will show them how to handle them. We also give out an information pack which sets out what they need to do and we will work with them in the first few days.
“An essential requirement is that all rehomers need a chicken house, although these can vary from purpose-built coops to plastic ones.
“Other people have fields the hens can roam about and they will wander in at night. We work with the families who take them in.
“We get all ages from the elderly to young families, but they are all keen on taking chickens from the British Hen Welfare Trust into their homes.”
However, ownership is not without its pitfalls and birds do need time to settle into their new homes. Some, used to the rigours of the hatcheries, are not inclined to put themselves to bed and they can feel stressed and nervous in their new environments.
It may take them time to display the natural behaviour of scratching the ground beneath their feet, but most birds do settle in, grow new feathers, and begin to thrive in their new free-range lives.
Owners are advise to re-home a minimum of three hens as they are social creatures, for if one bird dies there is still a couple for company.
They are also warned about falling prey to foxes, even in urban areas, so securely locked, and spacious, coops are high on the list of priorities.
“Sadly, a small number of hens will die soon after re-homing because of the shock. Birds can be strange animals anyway – I had one old one who dropped quite suddenly and she was perfectly well,” recalls Mel, who lives near Wem in Shropshire.
“But most of them will thrive in their new environments – we had one hen who lived to be four.
“They will adopt natural behaviour and as soon as they are loose they will start stratching in the grass.
“They can still go on producing eggs. But if they don’t lay then they are great pets.”
Mel has rehomed hens for six years. “I started off volunteering and thought it was just great,” she adds.
“Chickens have great personalities. They can be really fun to keep.”
The trust’s Wrexham area team ensures high welfare standards by working only with designated farms. Wrexham co-ordinator Lesley Norfolk says they are always on the lookout for volunteer drivers, ideally with their own horsebox or trailer, to help on re-homing days.
She says: “We have a wonderful rehoming team in Wrexham and we have saved more than 20,000 hens.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing them feeling fresh air and sunshine on their skin for the first time once they get here.”
l If you would like to give a rehomed hen a happy home in the Wrexham area register at the BHWT’s webiste www.bhwt.org.uk or ring 01884 860084
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