Why chickens may be the best pets
PUBLISHED: 10:55 02 May 2017 | UPDATED: 10:55 02 May 2017
A flock of hens in the back garden can provide fresh eggs for breakfast as well as entertainment by the bucket-load, making them surprisingly wonderful pets according to one Kent resident
Watching her seven hens enjoying their free-range lifestyle involving scratching in the dirt and ‘talking’ to each other is hugely enjoyable and rewarding – especially since some were rescued from an untimely death, says Mel Anthony.
The Tunbridge Wells mum-of-two explains: “They are the best time wasters ever, they really are – an hour or two can go by before you realise what you have been doing. They have little conversations with one another and the variety of noises that they make is endlessly entertaining.”
A full-time employee at Kent County Council, Mel says she bought most of her hens from people who could no longer keep them for a variety of reasons, but some are rescued from commercial farms.
Keeping chickens she says is a real treat and also serves as a reminder of her rural upbringing in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Mel stresses that while she is fortunate enough to have a large garden in Tunbridge Wells in which to house her ‘girls’ they do not necessarily need a big space.
And while keeping hens is not the same sort of tie as a cat or a dog Mel says certain requirements must be met including providing a shelter, a dirt bath, access to fresh water and covered food.
As well as focusing on the wellbeing of her own birds, she also volunteers with not-for-profit rescue organisation Fresh Start for Hens which rehomes ex-commercial hens who would otherwise be killed.
Mel explains: “The point of Fresh Start is to educate people about the alternatives to early slaughter for commercial hens at 72 weeks and to increase the awareness of their plight.
“Once they have gone through their peak for egg-laying, the carcasses are not really worth a lot because they are not bred for meat. We make people aware of what other sort of life they could lead at the end of their egg-laying days.”
She adds: “Hens are a lovely relaxing addition to your garden without having all the commitments of other types of pet, such as training. And although we wouldn’t recommend homing less than three hens home at a time, you don’t need many in order to be able to enjoy them.”
Mel explains: “Safety is the number one priority and that’s why we ask for photographs from potential owners to make sure that the runs, the free-ranging areas, or the coops that people have are secure.
“Also, affordability should be considered – the hens do get poorly like all sorts of pets, so knowing that there’s a good avian vet nearby is useful. Being aware of common ailments, having an emergency first aid kit at home, thinking about where they are sited in the garden and whether that’s a safe and pleasant place to be are all important things to think about.
“Obviously, you need to think about where you are going to put all the waste poo, because they generate quite a lot! I’ve got friends at work who have got allotments who will bite my hand off for chicken poo, so I take it in buckets into work.
“We exchange eggs and manure and in return I get cucumber, tomatoes and chilli. I think I have got the better end of the deal.”
Mel is now running one of the Kent-based Fresh Start collection points which involves some very early mornings preparing for what she terms the arrival of the ‘henvoy’ – the hens leaving the farms and arriving at her collection point.
She explains: “I put them in the garden in a secure pen just so I can watch them for an hour or so just to make sure they are behaving normally and that they are fit to be rehomed.
“We make sure they have a nice big drink and something to eat and then we ask those people who have booked the hens to come and collect them at their allotted times. When they arrive, we help pick out and catch the hens that they want and put them in secure boxes. Then they can take them home usually with a cake or two and a pouch of corn for their new girls when they get home.”
Last year Fresh Start for Hens, which operates across England and Wales, rehomed more than 19,000 hens and since 2013 more than 60,000 ex-commercial hens have found new homes via the voluntary group.
Mel says: “We do make sure that we are rehoming them to better circumstances than they left and that they are going to a happy life. The photographs of the set-up that they are going to are approved by the admin team and if we have got any questions or suggestions for changes, we will ask for those to be made before accepting donations or allow them to be rehomed.”
She adds: “One of the things that attracted me to work with this organisation is because it comes from a position of understanding the pressures that farmers face. When they clear the barns of their hens they need to get rid of them all in one go so we have to be able to do that, otherwise the slaughter man will come and clear them anyway. We understand that the farmer wants to be able to replenish his stock and get on with the business of producing as eggs.
“Obviously, we would love it if everybody would move to free-range – we know that is not possible so while it’s not, let’s try and do the best that we can for the hens.”
Meanwhile, the commissioning manager at KCC says that when it comes to choosing names for her flock she looks to TV and book characters for inspiration.
Among the famous line-up is Ena (Sharples, Coronation Street) – an ex-commercial hen who is always by Mel’s side and ‘is more like a dog than a hen’ and Hilda (Ogden, Coronation Street), who is white with black spots with a beautiful feathery plume on top of her head and ‘flighty by name and nature’.
Mel’s favourite, Sybil (Fawlty Towers), is a peachy coloured bantam and Minerva (Professor McGongall from Harry Potter), a booted bantam who Mel says is a big bully but is often unsuccessful in her attempts to rule the roost due to her small stature. Meanwhile, Babs (Barbara Windsor from Carry on… fame) is, according to Mel a ‘big-boobed’ bantam.
Taking up the last two spaces in the flock are ‘feisty’ Cherry, a tiny black bantam with shiny black feathers and Priscilla who Mel says lays blue eggs ‘when she can be bothered’.
She is keen to point out that unlimited access to fresh eggs is somewhat of a myth and although the commercial breeds are bred specifically because of their egg-laying ability, those eggs tend to run out a bit sooner than the finer or pure breeds.
“I’ve got a bunch of free-loaders that don’t lay – certainly not during the winter time but the commercial girls, who are a bit older, they will come into lay and some of them will live to a ripe old age, five to eight years.
“They won’t lay regularly during all that time. However, if you are getting a hen who is 72 weeks you are very likely to have another couple of years laying if that’s what you want but most of us want the cuddles and the eggs are a bonus.
“The girls really are great fun. A lot of the people who come to rehome from me bring their children and it’s just lovely watching their little faces because quite often the hens would have laid eggs. It is a lovely introduction to keeping a pet and they are educational for kids too.”
Mel’s hens co-exist happily with her two Jack Russell Terriers, Victor and Tidy and the secret to this, she says, is to make the introduction to other pets gradually and carefully, but it is perfectly possible.
She adds: “They also know the local cats, so those who regularly come into the garden don’t bother them at all. If a strange cat comes in that they don’t know they will make a noise and that will send me running down to the garden to see what’s going on.”
For more information visit www.fsfh.org.uk