Meet the Hybrids

Submitted by Neil Armitage on Thu, 11/24/2016 - 10:54

Hybrid? Or crossbreed? What's the difference ?

I have kept most of the commercially available hybrids in the last 15 years including quite a selection of ex-battery hens. This page is about laying hybrids, for meat birds or broilers look here. 

A hybrid is a complex bird made up from 3 or more commonly 4 different other breeds of chicken. They might well be the product of several generations of crossing.

A crossbreed would just have the 2 purebred parents whereas a hybrid has crossbred parents. For our purposes the word hybrid will be used for any bird that is not purebred.

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The characteristics of hybrids:

  1. They are fast maturing mid sized birds that lay larger eggs with one or two exceptions.
  2. Sexable at hatching so you are sure of getting hens.
  3. Hybrid Chickens convert feed to eggs well and lay between 240 and 320 eggs a year.
  4. Hybrids are vaccinated,
  5. Easy to look after and tame.
  6. Tend to be short lived.
  7. Diet is important and feed and water need to be always on tap to sustain high production rates.
  8. Egg quality can deteriorate easily because of the shear number of eggs these hens lay.

Standard brown hybrid chickens

Standard brown commercial hybrids like these have become the standard in the eggs industry.Also known as Hylines, lohmann browns or Production Red chickens depending on where you are in the world. These birds are crosses of Rhode island Reds and Whites with characteristics selected for over many generations and come in various shades of brown. 

Production: Up to 360 eggs per year under commercial conditions but around 300 in standard backyard conditions.

The general idea of hybridisation is to produce offspring with ‘Hybrid Vigour’ . The offspring is better than either of its parents, or inherits certain desirable characteristics, a gestalt entity which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Over the decades millions have been invested in their development; producing hens that require the least amount of input (feed and maintenance), whilst producing the most amount eggs or meat when compared with traditional or heritage chicken breeds.

There is no way the traditional breeds can compete with these types in terms of performance. Heritage breeds still have their advantages. People who keep traditional meat varieties prefer flavour and traditional methods over speed.

Hybrid chickens don't breed true so the companies or breeders keep a closed flock of parent birds. This ensures the quality of the offspring remains the same and they origin stock doesn't become contaminated from the outside.

Speckledy hen free range

The Speckledy (above) is a cross of Rhode Island Red and Maran and is one of the larger types . Currently have seven of these and they consistently lay 250 brown speckled eggs every year.

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Some tips for keeping your Hybrid happy:

  • Ample food and fresh water - Super-productive hens need a quality food on tap.
  • A routine - Hens and keepers benefit from routine.
  • Access to pasture - You will get better eggs from free range hens.
  • Hang a cabbage or peck toys in their run to keep them amused.
  • They will need somewhere to scratch - and prefer soft dry earth.
  • Dust bath - filled with sand and diatomaceous earth where they can wallow.
  • Nest boxes and perches - For laying eggs in and resting or sleeping on.
  • Calcium or shell added to the feed is a must for layers. hybrids tend to be slight with little in reserve.

A Goldtop or silkie X Light Sussex is a prime example of a crossbreed. They are used extensively in backyard poultry keeping as broodies. This is one of mine.

Goldtop

It has become common to call any bird bred for a specific purpose a hybrid so for the duration of this article I will call any chicken that is not a purebred a hybrid.

The crossbred Chicken is created by crossing 2 different pure breeds and a hybrid by further crossing or breeding after this stage.

More recently, breeders have been producing hybrids that have attractive egg colours with supermarkets now selling coloured eggs such as those from the Cotswold Legbar or Burford Brown. You can now get rare breed egg colours in easy to hybrid hens.

Some are for laying, while others developed for the table. The latter are usually referred to as broilers.

The US market tends to use leghorn based hybrids as they prefer white eggs. Here in the UK they are sold as White stars. a medium sized bird based on leghorns that lay around 300 white eggs a year. This is one of mine looking for something interesting in the long grass.

It is important to remember they were developed for intensive battery and broiler conditions.

More recently hybrids have appeared for free-range conditions. They are produced for the backyard poultry keeper and smallholder and are a little heavier at point-of-lay. Birds like this tend to be better equipped to cope with outside conditions and cold weather. Examples include Black Rock, Lohmann Brown, Speckledy, Rangers or Columbian Blacktails. These modern birds tend to lay brown or speckled eggs.

A selection of eggs from my hybrids

This is a selection of eggs from my hybrids from blue, green to brown.

Specific strains crossed for many generations and creating closed flocks for biosecurity, selecting for certain characteristics within the offspring such as egg size or numbers, feed conversion or a broad breast, fast maturity and body weight in the case of table hybrids.

For hobby or backyard poultry keepers there are newer hybrid varieties to choose from that are productive and ideal for beginners.

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What are the benefits of Hybrid Chickens?

Hybrid vigour - The parent birds are usually crosses themselves and offspring are usually fit and healthy.

Vaccination - They are vaccinated on or before hatching.

Price - Production costs are low and birds are cheap.

Availability - Produced in large quantities and readily available from more stores.

Cost effective – They are bred with profit in mind and have a good conversion ratio. I.e. More eggs from less feed than say a pure bred bird.

With certain crosses, and always with commercial production, the results are sex linked. This allows the males to identified at day old. This reduces the rearing costs to the breeder and the price you pay for the bird. There is a moral issue surrounding the gassing and disposal of the day old male chicks.

The Black rock hybrid

The black rock is a trademarked name in the UK. It is produced from a Rhode Island Red cockerel and a Barred Plymouth rock hen. The original is produced by the Muirfield Hatchery from specially selected parent stock. You can produce your own but cannot sell them as black rocks. 280 brown eggs per year.

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Are there disadvantages or things you need to bear in mind: -

  1. They are single purpose, laying or broiler.
  2. Hybrids do not breed true so when you need more of them, you have to go back to crossing the original stock again.
  3. They can moult very fast and may need shelter and support.
  4. They tend to lay themselves out inside 3 years and rarely live long.
  5. The eggs tend to be larger, thinner shelled and more watery than heritage or rare breeds. The egg quality can deteriorate in older birds. This is why they tend to be kept on 80 week laying cycles in the commercial environment. Sheds are stocked and the hens lay for 80 weeks and are then sent for slaughter.
  6. The diet is important in birds that produce large quantities of eggs. Because of their hyperactive laying habits and lifestyle they need food concentrates on supply at all times. Birds can be bad tempered with each other and their environment may suffer as they scratch through it maniacally.

Bluebelle hybrid chickens

The blue belle is an attractive modern hybrid bred for the backyard chicken keeper.

Weight: It varies. The layers are usually light and surprisingly feathery, fast maturing with good feed conversion and a POL (point of Lay) around 16/17 weeks. Table hybrids are heavy to provide a predictable sized carcass in a short time so are fast to mature. It is not uncommon for meat types to reach 8Kg at 90 days+. Commercially the time to slaughter is 37 to 62 days depending on the sex of the bird and it’s final use.

Uses: Either eggs or meat but not both. I have found them to be placid and good natured if well fed and make good pets just like most chickens.

Origin: Crosses between pure breeds or other hybrids starting in the early 1930's and took off in the early 1950’s. Borne out of the need to feed ever growing populations and to help cover the food shortages hanging over from the war.

Eggs: Hybrid layers: usually more than pure breeds, in some cases under ideal commercial conditions they can lay an egg a day. Predictable numbers of similar sized eggs of good quality.

Useful to Know: Cheaper than pure breeds, available in quantity and for delivery. Tame. Vaccinated.

Photo: Some hybrids are quite light in colour like this ex battery hen.

An ex battery hen

These are birds developed for production by selecting from the best strains. A strain is a family line which has a particularly desirable feature.

Most modern egg laying hybrids, based on the Rhode Island Red or Rhode Island white have other types crossed in. Breeders have spent much effort selecting for various characteristics. White egg layers begin with the White Leghorn like the white star or Sussex star.

These are often the same or similar birds with different names for trademark purposes

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Hybrid breeding hints :

Hybrids do not breed true and there is always some variability. If you cross a hybrid chicken with another breed or cross, you will not get the same bird with the same performance as the original hybrid. ‘Like breeds like’ however and if you are careful with your choice of cross, you can still get some good performing birds.

You can always produce you own, we sold a Barnevelder cross Rhode Island Red or light Sussex. They made a sturdy and hardy layer for the wild conditions here in Yorkshire.

You can still find traditional or heritage chickens that are good layers and reasonable meat producers. One area where traditional varieties excel is uniqueness. You can find all manner of colours and personalities and breeds that fare better in harsh environments.

Also, in my experience, traditional and heritage breeds tend to live longer than the free range hybrid hens I’ve kept.

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Are Hybrid hens for beginners?

Very much so. Hybrids are ideal beginners birds, they are usually vaccinated and are generally quite tame and easy to handle and do not take quickly to the wing.

Columbine legbar hybrid

The Columbine is green / blue egg hybrid – based mostly on the cream crested Legbar known by a great many names depending on where you are in the world. This bird has around an 85% chance of laying a green / blue  egg and they can look very different.

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How much to pay for hybrids?

 American ($) and English (£) prices are broadly the same.

They are cheaper than pure breeds, you can expect to pay between £10 and £15 for a POL (Point of Lay) Hybrid. I have bought them POL as cheap as £5.50 a bird, depending on how many you buy. Compared to £25 – £35 for a pure breed hen.

Chicks start from £0.90 for 500 up to £2.95 each for 12 . Again it depends on how many you buy.

A selection of popular hybrid laying hens:

So what is the best egg laying chicken ? This is a common questions asked most poultry keepers  at one time or another.

This was my best layer ever. She was an amber star called cappuccino and she produced 353 eggs in her 1st year. She did however die age 2 ½ after laying around 600 eggs.

My Amber star hybrid

Amber Stars, or Amberlinks, are another Rhode Island based hybrid. Mine have been happy and friendly as well as being escape artists and flying surprisingly well for a chicken.

These birds will be prolific layers under the right conditions. After twelve months egg production tends to tail off a bit – some types are worse than others. However, they do tend to start laying bigger eggs after the first year.

The Utility Sussex is a Rhode island cross light sussex and the hens grow up to look like a very pale light sussex. They lay around 280 pale cream eggs in their first year. 

Sussex ranger utility fowl

Goldline – The Goldline or Bovans Goldline is the name of a commercial strain of hybrid hen produced by Joyce & Hill Poultry Ltd. This is a common bird in the United Kingdom and is the result of many years of breeding and crossing.

Goldline hybrid

This is a very plain average size brown hen that lays large pinkish / cream shelled eggs. It is not common in the US or anywhere the white egg is preferred. They are colour sexed at day old.

Black Tail, Gingernut Ranger. I used to call these Calder Valley rangers when I sold them.

Blacktail hybrid

To sum up : There are a great many varieties of hybrid chicken. Whichever you choose is going to be a matter of personal choice as they are all broadly similar.

 

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The life of the battery hen

I can’t say that was delighted when back in 2012 that the UK enacted the European legislation to ban these conventional battery cages and replaces the minimum standard with the Enriched Colony Cage, for me it just was not enough of a change. I was however, glad to read that the sale of free range eggs has grown by 16% in 10 years so we are on the right track.

battery chickens in a cage

Rows of hens in battery cages , 6 rows deep and hundreds long.

I struggled a great deal to write these two articles of battery hens and keeping them after you have managed to liberate some. During my research for this I measured a sample of my enclosures and discovered my most confined birds have 16 Square foot of grass, 2 square foot of indoor space and around a 6 foot of perch, indoors and out, EACH.  I keep my chicken’s completely free range and consider myself very lucky to have access to around 4 acres. I found it distressing in the least to research.

Usually, hens that reach 16 weeks of age are moved from initial housing into the battery cages.  Battery cages are most often constructed in long, connecting lines up to 8 rows high.  Some are set up to allow a single hen per cage, and others will hold 8-10 hens per cage.  The floors are slanted to allow eggs to roll out into a receptacle for collection, or in some of the really large units onto conveyor belts for immediate processing.

Mortality rates are high at all stages of production and around 4% of birds never start laying. You may need a strong stomach to finish reading this. The figures for the UK egg market a below.

The Egg market size for 2014 (industry estimate)

UK Production - 9,755 million eggs

Imports - 1,898 million eggs

Exports - 134 million eggs

Total UK Consumption - 11,819 million eggs (+2% on 2013)

Number of eggs eaten in the UK 2014 (industry estimate)

Total per annum - 11.8 billion - Around 0.8 per person per day

Retail market value for 2014 - Sales - £955m

UK egg market breakdown 2014

Retail - 52.5%, Food Manufacture - 23%, Foodservice - 24.5%

Retail sector - outlet share 2014 (industry estimate)

Multiples - 88%

Co-ops - 3.3%

Market Stalls - 2.1%

Independents and symbols - 1.3%

Butchers - 1.4%

Others - 3.9%

Egg type breakdown 2014

Total Market (source - Defra)

Laying cage - 52%

Free Range - 45% (including estimated 2% organic)

Barn - 3%

Retail Sector

Laying cage - 45%

Free Range - 52% (including estimated 1% organic)

Barn - 3%

UK laying flock - industry estimated - 33.5m

Enriched colony cages were the result of efforts to create a more humane caging system, although critics, me amongst them, maintain that the enriched colony method is still a long way from humane. There are two main improvements of enriched colony cages over traditional battery cages.  The first is fairly straightforward, in that enriched colony cages require more space.  While battery cages are anywhere from 67 to 86 square inches, enriched colony cages must provide 116 square inches per bird.  Despite the increased space, those concerned with animal welfare continue to argue that any confinement limiting the hens’ abilities to stretch their wings still falls short of humane.

Egg producers had to opt for a slightly improved ‘enriched’ cage that allows hens to roost, a nest to lay in and a little more space, although personally I hoped that more would take up the idea of keeping their birds free range as for me a cage is still a cage.

enriched colony cage

The so called enriched battery cage - Still a cramped cage however you look at it.

There are still many a great many other countries keeping hens in the conventional battery cages and these eggs are often incorporated into food products for sale in the UK.

Since the Second World War, millions of dollars have been spent in research and development, and there was an incentive, in the years after the war food was short and farming had to become more productive and cost effective as whole nations had to be fed. Hens were created that would lay large numbers of eggs during the first year of their lives.

For the US market, white eggs are preferred and the white Leghorn hen is the preferred choice as the base for the hybrid and here in the United Kingdom we prefer brown eggs.

It is the hybrid hen that made its debut in the late 1940’s, originally created by crossing certain strains of Rhode Island Red cockerels with Light Sussex hens. Now known only by numbers and mostly shades or red and white. A new group of hybrids hens has been produced recently to cater for the home chicken keeper, see our meet the hybrids pages.

The battery hen, hatched in factory conditions and sexed on a production line where the males are inhumanely minced or gassed, raised in cramped cages for 19 weeks then put into cages of up to 12 hens sometimes 8 deep and needed to produce in excess of 320 eggs during their first laying year or 72 weeks of life. Feed intake, production and egg size are all monitored weekly and after 72 weeks or so, they are usually sold off to be used in pet food or meat from spent hens like mass produced chicken Kiev’s.

Don’t forget the vast majority of young pullets in the cage system have been debeaked by a cauterisation knife, essentially a red  hot wire.

The most common complaint about battery cages is the small amount of space allotted to the birds.  In a natural environment, chickens engage in behaviours such as flapping their wings, stretching, walking around, and hopping, as well as natural behaviours like dust bathing, scratching, and preening. 

Due to the restricted space of battery cages (the minimum space requirement in the United States is 67 square inches, or slightly less than 10” by 7”) chickens are unable to enjoy these activities.  Additionally, the cages made to hold multiple hens are often so crowded that the birds end up harming one another out of stress and lack of space.

It’s at this point that the re-homers can come in and buy the battery hens or get them from rehoming charities. Just before the majority get sold on, hopefully to end up being re-homed for a free range retirement.

So what has life been like for the hens you re-home?

hot wire debeaking

This is how hens are debeaked before life in the cages

To be commercially profitable, hens are housed around 18 weeks old and are laying around 20 weeks old. Battery Hen pullets are often fed high protein diets of around 19% crude protein for a period after the birds have been housed to boost their growth and egg size as quickly as possible. Pushing the birds like this with higher protein often results in poor shell quality later on in their lives. Movement is still restricted – remember there is only 20% more room – and feather pecking still occurs. Hens coming out of the new cages are in a very similar state to those coming out of the old barren ones, mostly featherless and very haggard.

Normal layers diets that we feed our backyard hens contain about 16% protein. Hens housed in normal backyard conditions moult and stop laying in the winter when the nights draw in and there are fewer hours of daylight which reduces the number of eggs a hen lays over a year.

foot of a rescued battery chicken

The foot of a rescued battery hen, damaged or long claws, infection, injury or oesteoperosis

Commercially, even a few less eggs per year can make a huge difference when you are housing 20,000 to 200,000 hens or more on a farm. Hens will lay when the pituitary gland inside the eye produces a hormone that stimulates their ovaries to release eggs into the oviduct. This is nature’s way of ensuring that birds lay their eggs in the spring when their offspring will have the warmer summer months to grow up and when food is in plentiful supply. In order to keep a hen laying during its time in the battery, hens are kept under artificial lighting of typically 18 hours per day.

Commercial hens are bred to produce high numbers of eggs (an egg a day) for a short period of time. This depletes their body of calcium and leads to brittle bones. They have a disturbing tendency to die with the shock they sustain after their cycle is complete. They cannot survive outdoors in the condition they are released from the farms in and require considerable care.

A list of re-homing charities can be found in our article Ex-Battery Hens

What are colony cages?

These larger cages house 60-80 hens in large aircraft hangar-style buildings which are full of these cages. They have the same facilities as the enriched cages and the same amount of room per hen. In each cage of 80 hens there are 4 nest boxes. What is good about the new cages?

They have taken most of the hens across Europe out of tiny ‘barren cages’ which restricted their natural behaviours and movement considerably, but the most important benefit of the new larger cages is that they are an acknowledgement by the egg industry that the barren cages were an inhumane way of treating commercial hens and as such, an important step forward in the advancement of hen welfare. The new facilities give the hens the opportunity to exhibit some basic natural behaviours such as perching, scratching and nesting.

Cages now have nesting areas, seen here in red.

‘Scratching materials’ are provided, or more accurately a patch of fake grass a bit like Astroturf, the rest of the floor is still wire similar to the old barren cages?

The Hens will never see natural daylight, they still stand on wire floors, they are still routinely debeaked, they are still sent to slaughter at about 18 months.

What problems are there with the new cages?

There are very limited facilities in the new cages. 4 nest boxes for 80 hens is a tiny amount and will cause fighting; dominant hens will ensure hens lower in the pecking order cannot access this facility. And submissive hens will also still not be able to escape bullying. The scratching area is often Astroturf so the hen cannot properly scratch or forage – another basic natural behaviour. Nor can she fly, jump, preen properly, dustbathe, sunbathe or even spread her wings.

Several tiers of crowded cages, two cages deep, make checking for unwell hens difficult and dead hens may lie unnoticed for days.

Cages are still very crowded but at least there are perches of sorts.

Whilst UK farmers are all compliant with the Barren Cage Ban, some EU countries (most notably Italy Poland, Greece and Spain) still defy the law and have the old-style barren cages. The UK government failed to support its own farmers and thus failed to ban the import of these now illegal eggs.

Whilst it is easy to identify barren caged shelled eggs (due to unique markings seen under ultraviolet), it is impossible to trace the source of liquid egg which is widely used in commercial products. Eggs crop up in no end of products, from the obvious quiches and pies to less obvious products such as wine. The only way to be sure your eggs are not from illegal barren cages is to make sure it says Free Range on the label.

My views on the new cages - No creature belongs in a cage, I have rehomed hens from enriched/colony cages and there is minimal difference in their physical and emotional state to that of their barren caged sisters.

rescued ex batts chickens

A hen from one of the enriched cages.

At the end of the day the egg and marketing industry can dress the word caged up as much as it likes – colony sounds such a lovely word – and create a marketing smokescreen for consumers. The hard fact is the egg industry is responsible for the misery of millions of hens, as their only concern is profit.

The supermarket reasoning for stocking caged eggs is consumer demand but on my visits to supermarket the Free Range eggs had sold out and my suspicious nature would suggest the supermarkets are more interested in pure profit.

What can we do?

As campaigns have shown the British public to care deeply about animal welfare and the only way to make the egg industry and the supermarkets listen to us is not to buy caged eggs. Or colony eggs. Or even barn eggs or whatever the new marketing word for caged is. Always buy Free Range eggs. And always check the ingredients list of any manufactured products for egg. If it doesn’t say ‘Free Range’ it most certainly won’t be.

Then tell companies and supermarkets why you are not buying caged eggs.

Free Range eggs currently make up about 50% of the market and the only way that is going to become 100% is through the actions of consumers. The only way to win is take away the profit in caged hens.

Do you have experience of rescuing hens from Enriched / Colony systems or an opinion on this type of farming? We’d love to hear from you below.

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Giving ex-battery hens a new home

So you have been horrified by the media and charity reports about the life of a laying hen in a battery farm and have decided you want to rescue a few. By giving some ex-battery hens a new home you can give them a chance to have some quality of life after their ordeal. Apart from the welfare issues, you also have the opportunity to get some delicious free range eggs in the process, as well as doing your bit to help these innocent victims of the intensive farming system.

A list of rehoming charities is shown later in this article. They are widespread across the UK so chances are you won’t be far from one.

If you have no experience whatsoever of chickens you need somewhere to start. Keeping chickens is relatively easy and there are plenty of guides on this and other sites on looking after your chickens. Ex batts have a few extra requirements and need a bit of tender loving care.

You can’t just pick up ex –batts at a pet shop so you need to look elsewhere, the internet is as good a place as any to start and simply searching for ‘Ex Battery Hens for Sale’ into the search engine of your choice brings up plenty of results to plough through. There are numerous battery hen re-homing charities who work with the battery farmers to intercept the chickens otherwise destined for slaughter. These birds are the epitome of intensive farming in general as well as raising funds to enable them to help more of the 16 million battery hens in the UK each year. Only a fraction of these hens are currently re-homed and the battery hen charities are crying out for more loving homes to provide these girls with the free range life they deserve.

There are 2 ways to get your Ex-batts, through the registered charities like the British Hen Welfare Trust or direct from the farmer. I bought my last batch for £1 each straight from the farm but had to take 50. This method may be cheaper but takes extra work on your part and any money you pay goes to the farmer and you generally need to buy quite a few.

rows and rows of battery cages

Image above - rows and rows of hens in battery cages

I would recommend getting your ex-batts through a registered charity. They charity does all the work and gets your donation and any money you donate to charities however, will be invested into the future of rescuing ex-batts, promoting their terrible plight and campaigning for improved conditions for all hens. Plus you will be assured of a healthy hen who has been checked by a vet, who has had her claws trimmed and have the added reassurance of help lines and support should you need any advice.

The charities will ask for a donation for the chickens. This covers the vets bills on re-homing day, the money they pay to the farmer, transport, etc. and generally is somewhere between £2 and £5 per hen. Larger charities like the BHWT take donations on re-homing day but some smaller charities do ask for it up front when you register, to avoid losing precious funds from “no shows/ non payers”.

Before you contact the charities and register your interest to buy ex battery hens there are a few things to consider first. Like all pets, chickens are a commitment and it is your duty to ensure their health, happiness and safety.

hybrid chicken after recovery

Above - My Ex-batts are now sleek and happy in 4 acres of north Yorkshire Countryside.

First and foremost you need to take into account is that your hens are at least 96 weeks old when you get them, it was put in a cage at 16 weeks old and has been kept in warm extended light conditions for an 80 week laying cycle. Bear in mind these are commercially ‘spent’ hens and expect them to have been starved during their demob. They also have a tendency to die relatively young and newly freed ex-batts have a dreadful smell, bless them, and so open a window a bit. A few dust baths and some freedom will soon see them right. Remember that the chickens you have just got have never had any fresh air or seen the sun.

So you want to help a few - but -

1- Do you have the space: - Do you have enough space for chickens, they don’t require much room, a small back garden will easily be enough for 3 chickens. But are you going to keep them in the run or let them free range? There isn’t really enough room in the run of standard bought coops for the chickens to truly experience freedom and if you aren’t happy to let them trash you garden (and they will!) a compromise may be an area of garden fenced off for their use. This must have some shade in it, preferably some greenery, somewhere for a dust bath (a large bowl or trug with sand and wood ash in will suffice) and be secure. A moveable fence made of chicken wire is a cheap and easy way of keeping your girls and your garden safe. It is also vital to ensure your garden is as safe as it can be from predators. Make sure all fences are secure and hole free to prevent foxes getting in and inquisitive chickens getting out or trapped.

2- Number: How many chickens do you want? Charities state you must re-home a minimum of 3 chickens as hens are flock creatures and need company. 3 or 4 chickens fit comfortably into a standard coop and provide a ‘standard’ family with more than enough eggs. You don’t need a cockerel for a hen to lay eggs, you only need him if you want to raise chicks.

3- Costs: Unless you are lucky enough to inherit a coop and equipment, you will need to buy one. As always get the best you can afford as it will be built better, be more secure and last longer. A brief internet search showed you can buy a small coop/run for as little as £100 and maybe less if you can get one secondhand. Manufacturers are stingy when it comes to room in the coops and their attached runs so buy one that is suitable for more chickens than you intend to have. You also need to consider feed costs around £12 for a 25Kg sack which will last your 3 hens for months. Don’t forget the buying of feeders and drinkers, which are a few pounds each. Bedding is cheaper bought in bales. 3 hens will cost you around £100 to £120 a year to feed and house.

4 - Time: Chickens don’t take up much time, much less than a dog who needs regular walking. Chickens walk themselves.  However, they do need letting out in the morning, which is OK at 8am in the winter, not so good at 5.30am in the summer. They also need locking up before dusk, which can be 4pm in the winter. If you aren’t at home at this time, will they be in a secure run and safe from predators? Their coops need de-pooing each morning and cleaning out properly once a week. Plus you need to keep food and water topped up daily. You could spend as little as 15 minutes a day caring for your chickens although personally I can happily spend hours! And then an hour once a week to thoroughly clean the coop, feeders etc.

5 - What if they get ill? Battery hens are routinely vaccinated as day old chicks against most of the serious poultry diseases that they could get and they won’t be carrying worms since they cannot pick up the worm eggs in dirty litter having lived on a wire floor.  Ex-Batts are not unhealthy merely unfit. They can however be prone to certain ex-batt specific ailments

ex batts

Image above - Want to help one of these poor tatty batty's

The List below is Battery Hen Rehoming Charities- These charities are spread across the UK so chances are you won’t be far from one:

British Hen Welfare Trust - The largest hen rescue charity in the UK, having re-homed just over 250,000 hens in the 6 years since its inception. A group of 25 regional coordinators organise the rescuing and re-homing. Donations of £3-£4 per hen are requested.

Cambridge Little Hen Rescue - A minimum donation of £3 per hen.

Lincs Little Hen Rescue - Covering Lincolnshire, West Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and the East Midlands. A minimum donation of £3 per hen.

Free at Last - Not for profit organisation based in Bedfordshire. Donations of £1.50 per hen are requested.

Little Feathers Hen Rescue (Scotland) - Based in Fife in central Scotland.

RSPCA - Some RSPCA branches.

Fresh Start for Hens - (Hen Rehomers) Nationwide organisation with regional coordinators. Previously known as North London Rescue. Donations asked from £2.50 per hen.

Little Hen Rescue - Small hen re-homing charity based in Norfolk.

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Common Health Problems of an Ex-Battery Hen -

Considering what they have been through, ex-battery hens don’t usually have too many health problems and with a little extra tender loving care than will make the adjustment to their new life quite easily.

You will probably have an image of tatty, haggard and barely feathered ‘oven ready’ birds as we see in the media, but in fact many Ex-Bats do still have feathers, the camera looks for the worst ones to take pictures off. Feathers do regrow within 2 to 3 months though – so don’t let a bald bird put you off re-homing the hens. Some say the bald hens are the better layers because they are putting all of their energy into egg production. This makes sense when you consider that hens normally stop laying when they moult (lose feathers) and regrow them again. Feathers are 80% protein after all and guess what most of your egg is made up of, yes you got it – protein.

When you first get your ex battery hens, there are a number of minor health problems that you may have to deal with. As your hens recover, there can be a small number of ongoing problems. There may be some losses in your flock but if you read through this article, hopefully, you will be well equipped to spot some of the common health problems sooner rather than later.

Stress - Chickens are creatures of habit and are nervous to change. Stress is a problem for chickens and can cause them to stop laying at best and turn them into feather pulling bullies. Battery cages are said to increase stress and aggression levels in the birds. Removing them from this environment, the only environment that they know can be even more stressful for them, even though to us, it seems that what we are doing for them is good. Remember the birds you take home will probably not have been in the same cage together so they will need to get used to one another and establish themselves as a flock again. Do not force your birds out of their house or run. It is best to let them find their feet gradually, starting off with the inside of the hen-house.

Osteoporosis - Keeping battery hens in cramped and barren conditions isn’t without a serious cost to their health. Highly productive hens have a high demand for calcium in order to produce strong egg shells and combined with a lack of exercise, this can lead to a painful condition known as cage layer’s osteoporosis which increases the chance of breaking bones. Care must be taken when handling Ex-Bats hold them securely and do not let them flap uncontrollably. They should not be given high perches initially until they have had some months to recover with proper exercise and increase calcium levels. Most ex-battery hens are very tame and easy to catch and will not run off but if they are out of reach, it is important not to catch them by holding a leg because it is surprisingly easy to dislocate or break a leg.

Overgrown Beak or clipped beak problems - A chicken’s beak will grow, just like the nails on our own hands and battery hens have usually been debeaked so may have very mismatched beaks. Chickens that can free range will usually wear their beak down as it grows naturally but battery hens don’t have an opportunity to do this. Charities that rehome battery hens will usually trim their beaks before you get them but if they don’t have time to do this for you then you will need to do this yourself. You will need a pair of dog nail clippers to do this. Trim a sliver off at a time and do not overdo it, taking care not to cut through the ‘quick’ a blood vessel that runs down the beak or slip and injure the bird or yourself.

No Eggs / Stopped Laying - Hens living free range in the UK without additional lighting over the dark winter months will moult and stop laying over the shortest days of winter, starting again when daylight hours increase in the spring. This is perfectly natural and wild birds only lay in the spring. Battery hens have been bred specifically for producing large numbers of eggs so they will usually come into lay before pure breeds of poultry under natural conditions, however, like all chickens they will not normally lay during a moult. Chickens moult to replace their feathers usually once per year but battery hens have been kept under constant ‘mid-summer’ lighting conditions to keep them laying. Once removed from their cages, they will take a little while to moult and regrow their feathers, they will probably stop laying whilst they replace their feathers. They may have also been starved, birds destined for slaughter usually are and farmers won’t pay for feed if they do not need to.

Strange Egg Shells - Sometimes eggs can be soft, thin shelled or wrinkled. Eggs that are laid without a shell, are held just inside the membrane which is soft. This usually happens when hens are at the start or end of a laying cycle. Just about every strange egg condition is described in the Egg Problems section.

Overgrown Nails, damaged or injured feet: A chicken’s nails will grow, just like other animals and the nails on our own hands and may get damaged or ripped on cages in the battery farm. Free range chickens don’t usually need their nails cutting because they are continually wearing their nails down in their environment but battery hens cannot do this living in a cage. Nails can be trimmed with a pair of dog nail clippers. Trim a little off at a time, taking care not to cut through the blood vessel that runs inside the nail. If you cut the blood vessel, it is hard to stop the bleeding. A styptic pencil can be used to stop this. Styptics are a specific type of antihemorrhagic agent that work by contracting tissue to seal injured blood vessels.

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Tips on Re-homing Ex-Battery Chickens

Whilst ex-battery hens are just as easy to care for as any other chickens, these very special ladies do require some special consideration and treatment after the ordeal they have been through. Remember that whilst it is a big day for you, it is an even bigger one for your girls. Up until that day, their lives will have consisted of a cramped wire cage with no natural sunlight or fresh air. Absolutely everything they encounter from now on will be new and scary and the birds will easily panic and flap about.

This is a list of tips for getting your hens safely home and looking after them till they settle in:

1. Use well lined sturdy boxes with air holes or cat boxes or similar to transport your new hens. I line mine with straw.

2. Newly freed ex-batts do not know where home is and will have no fear and will wander off and hide in corners or under bushes so they need to stay in their coop and run until their home is imprinted on them, this generally takes 3 or 4 full days and they will need to be monitored when you let them free. They will naturally establish a pecking order but this can seem quite a brutal process and human intervention can sometimes prolong it. There are a few things though that you can do to help it along: Pop them all in the coop together when they are asleep, so that they wake up together.

3. They have no knowledge of night and day having been exposed to 18 hours artificial light so will need encouragement to go into their coop at dusk. They have also never roosted so will need to be taught. This is just simply lifting them after dark till they grip the perch and settle. Hens naturally want to perch and a few days on good food and a few practice runs will soon see them happily roosting at night.

4. Their legs will be very weak from lack of use so try to make the ramp less steep by making it longer. Use another piece of wood or even prop it on a sturdy stone if it appears too steep. Or physically put them in the coop each night until they are steadier on their legs. They will recover quite quickly.

5 Your girls will have come from a temperature controlled environment so will need to be kept warm or cool as necessary. Make sure the coop is draught free and bedding is extra soft, as sore pecked skin needs extra care.

6. Cover part of the run so they have shelter from the sun and rain. They will obviously be unaware of weather and will stand out in the rain, oblivious, at first if not protected. Also that naked skin is very delicate and will burn easily, so shade from the sun is just as important.

7. Food and water - don’t change their food abruptly. Use a commercial feed mash until they are strong then change to pellets or introduce wholegrains and grit gradually. Smallholder Ex-batt range is recommended by the BHWT. It provides all the nutrients the birds need and more importantly it is similar to what they have been fed in the cage.

8. Patience – In a few weeks they will be normal happy chickens, just give them the time to make the adjustments themselves, be gentle with no quick moves and remember the best way to any chickens heart is through its stomach.

Your little chickens have had a hellish ride through life so far and the odds are that the less feathers they have, the more hellish that ride was. So introducing them all to each other will be quite a trauma for them.

Chickens are attracted by blood so you want to avoid that if at all possible. Make sure there are plenty of feeders and drinkers around so the dominant hen doesn’t hog them. Hand up some tasty greens for them to peck at.

a recovered battery hen in my fields

Image above - An ex batt after recovery, happy and free range

Free ranging one of the reasons for re-homing ex-batts, to provide a happy retirement to some hard-working hens. The million dollar question is how far to let them roam. Half of me wants them to be in the run and completely safe from predators, whilst the other half thinks they have spent long enough in a confined space, they need freedom to roam! Foxes are everywhere and no matter how hard you try, I don’t think anything is 100% fox proof. So I made the decision to let my girl’s free range in my secure garden during daylight hours. I introduced it gradually as a big garden can seem quite daunting to a little hen. Now, they have breakfast in their run, trash my garden during the day and then are locked up again well before dusk.

Ex-batts and other animals - Don’t be fooled by their frail stature, ex-batts are very capable of looking after themselves when faced with a family and some enjoy a game of ‘harass the cat’ I would however, take much more time introducing a family dog to the chickens and never have him/her off lead in the garden until you are completely sure of their reactions. Include children in this section as well, they need some time to adjust to the hens as well.

Ex-battery chickens are the most amazing educator for everyone, and learning where your food comes from – collecting eggs is a great treat – and they feel the benefits of caring for another creature. It also highlights the evils of intensive farming in their minds, children are the future after all

Contrary to appearance, ex-batts are not unhealthy, they are merely unfit. They have had the full quota of vaccinations whilst in the battery farm and have been checked over by a vet on rescue day. However, standing in a wire cage 24/7 means their legs are weak and they are unused to exercise, so introduce it gradually.

Re-homing a few ex battery hens is an incredibly rewarding experience. Battery hens have never been able to express some of their most natural behaviors; like foraging, scratching the ground or nesting to lay their eggs and seeing them able to do this for the first time is certainly very satisfying. After a few months, these poor, scruffy looking hens that you’ve re-homed will have re-feathered and be on the lookout for worms in your back yard and getting a few fresh eggs along the way.

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