Ex-commercial hens, that is. In France they are called des poules pondeuses de réforme. In the UK they are known as ex-batts, or ex-battery hens. In the US they are called dog food, as apparently this trend has not gained any footing there. When a commercial laying hen reaches anywhere from one year to eighteen months old (essentially once they pass peak laying), she is sent to slaughter. In the UK especially, but also to a small degree in France, there are efforts underway to rescue as many of these hens as possible. When I decided almost three years ago to have hens of my own, I knew I would try to rescue ex-batts.
The British Hen Welfare Trust was founded in 2005. One of the things they do is rehome ex-battery or ex-commercial hens. Here in France there is no such trust, but information about our poules de reformé can be found at Dignité Animale. I didn’t know about that site until just today, as I was researching for more information about ex-batts in France. I ended up with my hens through a stroke of good luck or, as I like to say, the universe was smiling on me that day.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that the life and death of a battery hen is unpleasant. These types of hens are most often ISA Browns. They were bred to produce around 300 eggs per year, which means after one or two laying seasons they are pretty much spent as their reproductive (and other) systems fail under the strain. My chooks came from a commercial farm that claims they were “plein air”, which means they were allowed some time under the skies. How much time, I do not know. What I can tell you is that when we went to collect them, the stench emanating from the enormous enclosed shed was horrific, and I could hear the sound of thousands of unhappy chickens inside.
As you can see, her wings have been clipped, her beak has been cut, her feathers are a mess and her toenails are too long. What you can’t see is that her legs are so weak she couldn’t roost even if she knew how. When I first brought them home, a week ago tomorrow, they wouldn’t come out of their house. They huddled together inside, looking a bit baffled but also curious. It didn’t take them long to figure out what to do. Now they rush me when I open the door to their run, dive for the water and fling grass, dig up stones and pull out trees. A happy chicken makes the most wonderful sounds, and my wee flock sings to each other and to me all day long.
I don’t understand why this trend hasn’t made its way to the US yet. It was only the other day that I learned about how it would be illegal to sell UK eggs in US stores, and vice versa. When I lived in America, I had to give up eggs as no matter what kind I bought (organic, free-range) they all gave me a terrible tummy ache. After moving to the UK, I decided to give eggs another chance. I now eat at least four a day with no problems. Maybe that article explains it, I don’t know. Eggs are not the only reason I have hens, however. I simply love them and I wanted to do my part to give these girls a chance at the kind of life they deserve.
This one, above, is by far the friendliest of the four. She eats out of my hand, hunkers down for a cuddle, and stays right beside me when I’m in their house. Even their house was a stroke of good fortune — it was given to us by a friend. Here is a photo of the house before we got the chooks.
This weekend we’re going to build a set of chicken tunnels so they can get out into the garden and dig the rest of it up for us. It probably won’t take them long. I got the tunnel idea from the chicken tunnel man. Genius! And then once they’ve settled in and know exactly where home is, I’ll let them roam free in the garden while I’m out there trying to plant things. I’m sure they’ll be happy to help.