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Cuddling on the sofa with cats and dogs may be commonplace, but under lockdown, many also sought happiness from chickens.
Fresh Start for Hens, a chicken rehoming charity, received 52,000 requests for pet chickens from bored home-dwellers since the lockdown began in March.
The charity receives batches of chickens from farmers who no longer require them when they’re too old to lay eggs. Last year, they rehomed 47,000 senior chickens – it looks like that figure is likely to be more than double in 2020.
Why the surge in demand? “People were stuck at home, they were bored, there was a lack of eggs in the shops – there are so many reasons,” says operations director, Jaki Hann. “Many people may have talked about getting hens for years and now, suddenly, they’re furloughed so it’s an ideal opportunity to start a new garden project.”
It’s been a busy few months for Hann, and others at the charity. The main challenge has been working out ways to deliver chickens to people’s back gardens, amid the pandemic, she says. “We developed a ‘cluck and collect service’ so people could pick up their chickens if they were on the way to the supermarket. And we also did home deliveries when it was safe to do so.”
Hann says “more prestigious coops” to house chickens have also experienced an increase in demand. One company called Omlet, which she recommends, now has four to six-month waiting lists as demand has overtaken supply.
Posh coops aren’t necessary, though, and there are other organisations offering chickens for rehoming if you’re hankering for a pandemic companion, reminds Hann. So check for local chicken rehoming projects or contact local farmers.
So, what’s it actually like having chickens?
Owners who’ve had pet chickens for years tell us they’re joyous pets. “I have kept hens [female chickens] for almost 15 years,” says Anne Stabler, a PR consultant who got her chickens from the British Hen Welfare Trust.
“They make wonderful pets and produce fabulous eggs with rich deep yellow-orangey yolks. I could watch the hens for hours!”
Stabler also says they’re “very entertaining and sociable”, which was great during lockdown. They’ll follow you around the garden, she says. “They also love titbits, and they go wild for grapes and sweetcorn!”
Vet Dr Sean McCormack, from London, also loves keeping chickens as pets. “I have some clucky ladies I rehomed from a friend,” he says.
McCormack agrees they’re entertaining, and reckons chicken ownership is the next new trend – overtaking hamsters, guinea pigs and budgies in the popularity stakes.
Each of his hens has a different personality, he says. “Christina Egg-uilera is the friendly, chilled-out one. Shelly Rowland likes to sit on your lap. Nelly Frittata is feisty and aloof, whereas Hennifer Lopez is flighty and as independent as they come. Margaret Hatcher has a real mean streak!”
One word of warning from McCormack, though, who lost a chicken to a fox out brazenly by daylight: make sure your chickens are protected from prey by locking them securely at night.
“Predator-proof housing – homemade or purchased – needs to be covered and prevent animals from digging under the perimeter fencing,” he says.
Lastly, these bright and cheerful animals are innately social, so a minimum of three is advised to reduce stress levels and give them the best chance in life.
Many rehomed chickens are former battery hens. The EU has improved standards for battery hens, but still, their quality of life is low, with little opportunities for movement and natural light.
So remember that when they arrive in your back garden – it’s the beginning of a fantastic new chapter for them, treat them like the princesses they are!
Fancy it? Things you should know before rehoming a hen:
The British Hen Welfare Trust has lots of information on its website about how to choose your coop, clean it out, what to feed chickens, as well as their general routine. But before you get started, here are some things to know.
1. The minimum number of hens you can reserve is three because hens are sociable and like to be part of a flock. The maximum number of hens you can adopt is 20, and they must all stay together with you.
2. You can convert a regular shed or outbuilding for them to live, build your own coop, or buy a purpose-built hen house. Design, prices, quality and sizes vary hugely so do some research.
3. You can’t guarantee the future egg-laying capability of any individual hen, but most will carry on laying provided you feed them with a high quality feed and don’t give them too many treats.
4. Foxes are attracted by hens; they will visit night or day and kill your birds if they are not secure. They jump and climb like cats, so a standard 6′ or 7′ perimeter garden fence alone is not guaranteed to keep them out.
Find out more from the British Hen Welfare Trust.