There can few things more satisfying than watching a former battery hen pecking in the dirt with the sun on its glossy feathers.
Thanks to high-profile campaigns to halt the use of battery hens, we are all much more aware of the lives these creatures lead in captivity and how choosing free-range eggs can help stop the suffering these intelligent birds endure.
However, there are still around 300 million battery hens in the EU and as consumer demand for free-range increases and legislation to improve the conditions in which these hens are kept is introduced, what happens to these birds when they are no longer needed?
The answer to this is simple - they need homes, and with the right environment and a bit of TLC these birds can flourish and provide you with a supply of delicious free-range eggs.
More and more people are choosing to keep chickens both for the eggs, and for the entertainment they provide. You do not need acres of land (although you will have to give up some!) and you don't need to keep a huge flock. Many owners choose to keep their flocks to just three or four birds. But what you get in return is enormously satisfying and will keep your shopping bills down too!
There is an endless amount of information on keeping chickens available both online and from breed societies and farm stores, but if you have opted to keep ex-bats the best place to start are the rehoming specialists. Organisations such as The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT) and Little Hen Rescue can not only provide you with lots of helpful tips and advice on taking on ex-battery hens, but they will also be able to pair you up with some feathery friends.
Please be aware that if you do choose to adopt from organisations such as these they will keep your details on record so they know exactly where their rescued birds are.
Many people mistakenly believe that battery hens are riddled with disease. This couldn't be more wrong. Most bats receive an array of vaccinations at chick stage and so are usually healthy and laying well. There are exceptions to every rule however, and although the rehoming societies would never knowingly rehome a poorly hen, your flock will need monitoring closely in the first few days. If you already have an established flock you should keep the two groups separate until you are sure all will be well.
Although disease is unlikely, being confined to a cage usually no more than 20" x 20" and only ever standing still means these birds are very unfit. They may also have bumps and bruises and missing feathers from living in such close proximity to other birds and in such cramped conditions.
If you adopt a featherless hen or a bird with bald patches, you will be amazed at how quickly it begins to grow more, and within a couple of months it should be covered in beautiful rust red plumes.
Your girls may also display other signs of their former life such as a pale, flaccid comb. The comb acts as a heat dissipater in the warm farm environment, but it will soon shrink and become a vibrant red once the hen begins to range freely.
Again, there are plenty of housing options to choose from so it's vital you do some research around the housing required for your ex bats. You can convert an existing shed or outhouse, or you can choose from a wide variety of purpose-built coops - from traditional wooden constructions, to the space-age and very brightly coloured plastic houses that look incredibly stylish! However, most chicken lovers would agree that it's wise to provide a home that's built for more hens than you anticipate keeping. For example, if you are looking at adopting four girls, choose housing intended for six.
The house will need to have an area for roosting and an area for laying, as well as a good floor covering such as soil for the birds to forage and peck. If you want the hens to lay, it's vital this area is relatively dark and private. You do not need to keep a cockerel unless you intend to rear chicks - your hens will still lay without a man on the scene, but the eggs will not be fertilised. A run should also be provided and this may mean you have to move the coop and run every few weeks or so to provide fresh ground.
The single most important thing to consider when organising the housing for your flock is that it MUST be predator proof. Foxes, badgers and rats will try and get into your coop and will kill your birds if they get an opportunity.
Rehoming organisations and experts suggest that the best food for your new friends is a feed called 'crumb' - choose a variety which has been specifically designed to provide optimum nutrition for ex-commercial hens. The hens will have been fed a dry mash all of their lives so a crumb feed will be a great way for them to start their free range life, as it helps support feather regeneration and egg production as well as replenishing those all-important nutrients lost in the commercial environment.
As the hens get used to the crumb feed and as they become more confident, ex-bat pellets can be introduced, as well as a little mixed corn. Don't forget the birds will also be foraging for insects, grains and grubs, and as the birds settle in they should be provided with a few feeding and water stations in different locations so the lower-ranking hens get a fair share of the food.
Commercial hens are bred not only for their egg-laying capacity, but also for their docility, and as they grow in confidence you will quickly find they are inquisitive, endearing and very friendly. You will usually find them following you around, eating out of your hand or pecking at your shoelaces after just a few days.