A beginner’s guide to ex-battery chickens

We’ve been keeping ex-battery hens for around a year and have learnt so much that I wanted to share some of that knowledge. This is for anyone considering getting chickens, or anyone completely new to keeping ex-batts. We live in a suburban area and our garden is long and thin, so this will be particularly useful for people looking to keep chickens in small to medium sized gardens.

This is not the definitive guide. There are many ways to keep chickens, but this is what’s worked for us. It will no doubt change over the years with experience and advice from other chicken keepers.

What’s in this guide?

About caged hens

Battery cages were banned in the EU in 2012. Battery farming chickens meant keeping individual chickens in a cage around the size of an A4 piece of paper1. Battery cages were replaced with colony cages, which are larger cages where multiple chickens are kept. They’re supposedly better welfare, but judge for yourself. Each chicken now has the space of an A4 piece of paper, plus a postcard2. Luxury.

At around 18 months, caged hens, who have been intensively bred to lay an egg every day, are rounded up to be killed because they have passed their peak and are no longer valuable to the egg industry3.

That’s why rescuing ex battery hens is so important and so rewarding. You can give them the opportunity to see sunlight for the first time and stretch their wings. To walk on grass, eat worms, and dustbathe. And every hen you adopt is a hen not being sent to slaughter.

Plus, if you’re in it for the eggs, they’re incredibly good layers. We get an average of 4 eggs a day from 5 hens. Even through the winter!

It’s not just hens kept in cages that are disposed of at 18 months though. It’s all commercial hens, free range or organic free range. Some very good organic free range farms will arrange rehoming of their “retired” hens, but that’s very rare, and only on small farms. So if you have the chance to rehome ex-commercial hens from any type of farm, it’s still a very valuable thing to do!

Preparing for your chickens

The run and coop

When we first started keeping chickens, we were so excited to just get started that we used a summerhouse that was already in our garden as the coop and added an outdoor run. About half the run was indoors and half was outdoors. After a year, we learnt that the majority of that indoor space was wasted.

Chickens like to be outside, even in the rain (unless it’s very, very heavy rain), and will only use that inside space to sleep and lay eggs. When they sleep, they snuggle up really close together. Chickens have a high body temperature, but if they’re in a massive space, they’ll struggle to heat it up and stay warm in the winter. Their sleeping area should be cosy, so they can warm it up and keep it warm.

When we redesigned our run, we ended up making a huge outdoor area, with a very small coop that stood on legs in the middle of the run. You can get high-quality coops online for a good price – ours was around £145.

I recommend a coop with a pull-out base, as it makes cleaning so much easier. Lots of people have plastic coops, which are really long-lasting, less likely to harbour things like mites, and very easy to hose down to clean.

Sleeping and nesting

Chickens like to sleep up high (away from predators, if they were in the wild) and they like to roost on bars. So make sure they have rounded poles to stand on for sleeping, as square ones may hurt their feet. Most coops you buy will have these included, but it’s important to remember if you’re building your own.

The bars should be higher than the nest boxes. If they’re both the same height, your chickens will sleep (and therefore poo) in the nest boxes, and your eggs will be dirty.

They like boxes, confined from all sides but one, to lay their eggs in. You may have lots of nest boxes, but the chickens will pick their favourite and probably only lay in one or two of them! We have 6 nest boxes and our hens all lay in the same one.

Sapphire and Hei Hei trying to lay in the same nest box

Where to get your chickens

There are lots of charities and individuals across the UK who arrange rehomings of ex-commercial hens. The British Hen Welfare Trust is the most established charity, and we’ve got all our chickens through their rehoming days.

Check their website for the locations of their rehoming centres and upcoming rescue dates. You’ll need to register your details online, then when they have the next date they’ll ask you how many hens you want. You just have to take along a cardboard box with air holes cut into it, and pay a suggested donation of £10 per chicken.

Other charities I’ve heard of include Fresh Start for Hens and Lucky Hens. There are also Facebook groups for small-scale local rehomings.

What to expect in the first few weeks and months

Although half of our girls were from a free range farm (you wouldn’t know it from the state of them when they arrived), I’ll just talk about ex-caged hens here as they’re very odd when they first arrive!

Take a blanket with you when you go to pick them up, and use it to cover their box while you’re driving home. The darkness calms chickens down, so they won’t panic during the drive.

When you get home, put the box in their run and leave them alone for a bit. They may not want to come out of the box at all because they have no idea what to expect beyond it. After a few hours, you may need to give them a bit of a friendly shove (which for us meant having to tip the box up until they fell out. Sounds mean but they were never coming out otherwise!).

They’ll be very slow to get used to their new surroundings, so be patient with them. Watching them is such a joy though. You get to see so many firsts. Ours were a bit tentative about the grass in their outdoor run, but once they were used to it, their first dust bath in the sun was the most wonderful thing to witness.

Chickens do look a bit like they’re dying when they sunbathe – so don’t panic!

Bloom, on the right, demonstrating the collapsed-chicken-sunbathing-look.

They may lay an egg or two when they first arrive, in odd places, while they learn where the nest boxes are. Then they may stop laying while they get used to their new home. Ours didn’t start laying again for around a month.

Don’t worry about them finding their nest box or roosting up high – these are instinctive chicken behaviours and even though they’ve never been able to do those things before, they will learn quickly. On the first night you may need to show them where to sleep. Move them when it’s dark as this is when they’re most relaxed.

I’ve heard people say that their ex-batts have never learnt to lay in their nest boxes. If that’s the case, don’t worry. That’s also very normal.

Their feathers should grow back really quickly, and their pale, floppy, sickly looking combs should start reddening up and standing up straighter. Some hens can take years to grow their feathers back, or never do, so again, don’t worry too much if you’ve got a couple who are taking longer than the others. Our girl Annabelle is very happy and healthy, but 8 months later and she’s still as bare as on day 1.

Annabelle rocking the bare-chested trend.

Ex-caged chickens will be tentative about everything when they first arrive – it’s all completely new to them. They may be suspicious of things like salad leaves, even though in a few months they’ll devour them before you can blink twice.

If you want cuddly chickens, you’ll need to pick them up lots in the first few weeks. Not too much, as you don’t want to stress them out. Just little and often, and they’ll get used to you.

Pecking order

Chickens will need to establish a pecking order. This means there may be a bit of fighting and pecking for a while. Although your chickens came from the same farm, it’s likely they were in different cages so they may have never met before. Sometimes the behaviour will be quite upsetting, as you want to keep all of your chickens safe.

They should sort things out among themselves, but if they don’t and you’re worried about the health of your hens, you may need to isolate one or more of them. This means having them in a separate area of the run so they can still see and hear the rest of the chickens but can’t touch them. The hope is that with a bit of time outside of the pecking order, when they’re reintroduced they’re slightly lower down and less likely to be a bully. Or they might just get lonely and learn their lesson. The British Hen Welfare Trust has some more information on isolating chickens.

We have a second hand rabbit run that we found cheap on Facebook marketplace as our isolation unit, although luckily we’ve never needed to use it.

Food and drink

Caged hens are fed on a diet of layers mash, which is a complete chicken food mixed with water. You’ll need to buy some of this to start them off on, as it’s what your hens are used to.

But over time, it’s good to adjust them to eating layers pellets and water separately (imagine that – they’ve never drunk water on its own before!).

The feeder should always have a good handful of oyster shell grit in it. This is what helps chickens break food down in their crop, and it’s also a source of calcium.

If your run is rat proof you can leave food out overnight and just top it up when it gets low. If not, you’ll want to bring the food inside overnight or keep it in a rat proof container.

Apple cider vinegar for chickens

Apple cider vinegar is great for chickens’ health. There are 3 main reasons for this4:

  • It helps to regulate the pH of their gut, keeping it healthy and more able to combat bacteria.
  • Used regularly, it makes their gut an inhospitable place for worms to be. It won’t kill all worms, so worming with a medical wormer occasionally is still important.
  • Its acidity makes it a mild antiseptic and antibiotic.

You’ll need the unpasteurised stuff, which you can get from a farm shop or online – we get ours in 5 litre bottles. The vinegar in supermarkets is usually pasteurised and much more expensive.

Our girls really enjoy a mix of layers mash and apple cider vinegar. We try to give them a portion of this in a little pot around once a week. We mix in oyster shell grit as the vinegar breaks down some of the calcium and tricks the girls into eating even more calcium.

Calcium deficiency in chickens

I read on a forum once that ex-batts are always teetering on the verge of calcium deficiency. And that summarises things pretty well. That’s because no chicken should realistically be laying an egg a day (which is roughly what our girls do). And creating a whole egg every day is a monumental task that’s a huge drain on their body’s resources. They have to eat a lot of calcium to keep producing healthy shells.

If they don’t have enough calcium, they’ll lay soft-shelled eggs, thin-shelled eggs that crack easily, or eggs without any shell at all. None of these are pleasant for the hens to lay, and could lead to wider health issues.

We do these things to keep calcium deficiency at bay:

  • Keep the egg shells, mash them up into tiny bits and feed them back to the girls. You want to make sure they don’t resemble whole eggs in any way or your girls will start eating their eggs too. Some people do this by baking them in the oven for a bit before crushing them, but we don’t bother.
  • Provide plenty of oyster shell grit in their food and in different places throughout the run.
  • Top up their food with egg shell improver if the eggs become soft shelled.

Treats

Layers pellets are a complete chicken food, so they have everything your girls need to maintain a healthy diet. But giving your hens treats is good for keeping them entertained, good for using up certain kitchen scraps, and feels pretty nice too.

Also, if you have them free ranging and want to be able to quickly and easily get them back inside, you can train them to come to certain sounds, like corn in a scoop.

Chickens love green things like lettuce and chard. These are quite good for them, so you don’t have to be too strict. They’re also very easy to grow at home, so you could have some very cheap chicken treats always on hand.

They absolutely adore corn, but the more corn they eat, the fewer pellets they’ll eat, and this means they’re not getting the most balanced diet. So feed it sparingly, and try not to do it every day.

If we get any soft-shelled eggs, we stop giving the girls corn for a few days to ensure they’re eating the most balanced and healthy diet possible.

If you’re a gardener, chickens are very useful in their capacity as slug eaters. They love those too! When I do my morning check for slugs in the greenhouse, I take them all to the coop and the girls make quick work dispatching them. Just be aware that the more slugs they eat, the more likely they are to get worms, so keep up the vinegar and worming treatments.

Our girls’ favourite thing is grapes. I’ve heard some horror stories about grapes getting stuck in crops and hens even dying from it. They’re also very high in sugar. So we only feed grapes occasionally, and when we do we cut them up into eighths so they can’t get stuck.

Chickens can eat most things, but just do your research before introducing something new.

Enrichment – keeping chickens entertained

It’s important to keep your girls entertained – not just for their welfare, but also for their health. The reason chickens pluck each others’ feathers out in commercial environments like cages is because they’re deathly bored and it’s really the only thing to do.

If you want your hens’ feathers to grow back quickly so they start looking like real chickens again, you’ll need to make sure they don’t get bored!

There are lots of forms of entertainment you can provide, so it’s worth doing some wider research on this, but these are some of our favourites:

  • Corn pecker toys.
  • Swinging treat holders – fill them with fresh greens from your garden like chard, lettuce, cauliflower leaves. They love all that! I grow chard just for the chickens – we don’t really like it.
  • Mirrors – they’re very vain.
  • Levels – things to jump up and climb on. Benches, perches. All of this can be done cheaply and easily with wood offcuts, anything you have lying about really!
  • Plenty of ground to scratch in – a lovely thick layer of wood chip will do the trick. Keep this freshly topped up.
  • Dust baths – if there’s nowhere good for a dust bath in your run, use a big plant pot and regularly top it up with fresh, dry dirt.
Fresh greens in their favourite swinging toy.

Just be adventurous and experiment with things – when you first get your girls the very outdoors will be enough to keep them entertained. But add to their enrichment over the weeks and months.

Note: if your girls free range most of the time, you won’t need so much enrichment.

Cost

We found a local poultry supply shop before we got our girls and did an initial shop for feeders, drinkers, bedding, food, grit, diatomaceous earth, red mite and louse powder and Verm-X – basically everything we needed to kickstart our chicken keeping. This shop cost us £126.88 in total (I kept the receipt – my hoarding came in handy!). See my beginner shopping list at the end of this page for more information.

The setup of a good, safe, foxproof run and coop in your garden is the biggest cost of chickens. Our 8-chicken coop was £145 new. You can get chicken coops second hand on places like Facebook marketplace and Gumtree. We buy almost everything second hand but decided not to with this because we wanted something long-lasting and 100% free of mites.

The actual run that the coop sits inside is pointless to calculate because everyone’s will be completely different. I’d say set aside another couple of hundred to build something really secure.

But the good news is that the ongoing cost of keeping chickens is very low. A bag of feed can cost from around £8 to £15, and lasts us about a month (for 5 chickens). A bag of bedding costs around £7.

We try to buy everything in bulk from local farm shops (I don’t mean fancy places where you buy local artisan cheeses and expensive chutneys, I mean proper farm shops where actual farmers buy their supplies). Just make sure if you’re buying in bulk you have somewhere airtight and ratproof to store the food. We keep one bag in a plastic bin in the chicken run and the rest in the house.

The only big cost of chickens once you’re set up is vet bills, and this is a really important thing to consider before getting ex-batts. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get pet insurance for chickens. We’ve not found anywhere that will offer it yet. But ex-batts get sick. They have lived a really hard life of intensive laying and frequently have health issues. Our girls are our pets, and we treat them to the same love and care that we do our cats. That means taking them to the vet when they get ill.

And vets are expensive. Bloom was bitten by a fox on a Sunday, and we had to take her to an emergency out-of-hours vet. They gave her a few stitches, some antibiotics and pain relief, and it cost us over £300. If your chickens get sick in working hours it’ll be cheaper. But please make sure you have the money set aside to be able to give your girls this kind of care if they need it.

I don’t recommend prolonging a chicken’s life if it’s in pain or lacking quality of life, but you’ll never know that for sure without taking them to a vet first to get their professional opinion.

Red mite, lice, worms and cleaning out your coop

Red mite are one of the main pests that you need to watch out for. They are small mites that feed on chickens’ blood. They can live in the cracks of your coop, and they come out at night to feed. If you have an infestation, it can cause significant stress to your girls, reduces their egg laying, and in severe cases can cause them to become anaemic and die5.

Chickens can also suffer from lice, which can appear as small clumps around the base of feathers.

Your main defence against these issues is good cleanliness of your coop. We do a daily poop scoop, then a more thorough monthly clean. This includes:

  • taking out all of the straw and bedding
  • spraying everything with disinfectant, getting into all the nooks and crannies (this is where red mite like to hide)
  • letting it dry then covering everything with diatemaceous earth, using a small brush to get it into all the cracks
  • putting in fresh bedding, with a dusting of lice powder.

As mentioned in the food section, we give the girls a regular portion of layers’ mash and apple cider vinegar to prevent worms, and occasionally we use Verm-X too.

Keeping rats out of your chicken coop

Rats are attracted wherever there’s food. If you think you may have rats it’s important to take the chickens’ food in every night and keep it somewhere ratproof. But chickens are messy animals and their food ends up all over the floor throughout the day. So just taking their food in doesn’t mean you’ve got rid of all food sources.

Our first run was half outdoor, and half summer house. The summer house was made of wood that was getting quite old and rotten, and the rats easily chewed through this wood to get in. No matter how many holes we patched up, they always chewed another one.

Our new coop is entirely contained within the run, which has a roof and wire skirts. There is no way for rats to get in, which was how we designed it so we could leave the food out all the time.

I’d highly recommend thinking about ratproofing your setup before you begin, because once you’ve attracted rats it’s very hard to get rid of them.

When we had a rat problem, we noticed they were living in the compost bin – warm, and lots of fresh food! We replaced our traditional compost bins with solid metal ones that had a base and no way for rats to get in – just a thought, if your compost bin is close to your coop.

We also got ourselves a cat, which definitely helped the issue. Although he’s a bit of a useless hunter, he definitely makes the garden a pretty inhospitable place for rats to be at night.

We don’t have one, but you could consider investing in a treadle feeder. The chickens stand on it to open it and eat their food. Then it closes again when they get off. This is a good way to contain their food and not have to take it in every night, but they can be quite expensive.

Foxes

If you’re in an urban or suburban area like us, foxes are going to be a big issue for you. We only learnt this many months into having chickens, when a fox bit one of our girls, Bloom, while she was free ranging in the garden at 11am. We were both out in the garden, standing only a couple of metres away.

Despite taking her to the vet and doing everything we could, she died later that night from internal bleeding. It absolutely broke our hearts.

We knew there were lots of foxes where we lived – a family of foxes lives on the green in front of our house. We frequently saw them running through the garden in the evenings. Once, I switched off the lights to go to bed and a fox was staring through the back door at me.

We never used to let the girls out to free range unless we were in the garden at the same time. We just never thought a fox would be so brave as to bite a chicken with us right there.

I don’t tell you this story to scare you, but so that you know what you’re dealing with. There is such a high population of foxes in urban and suburban areas and early in the year they are very hungry.

Our solution was to build a much bigger run so that the chickens don’t need to come out to free range, although we hope one day they can again. It’s the best way for chickens to live! Please also bear in mind that lots of people keep chickens in suburban areas and have never had a problem like we have. Just be vigilant.

Fox proofing the run

Your run needs to be made of a thick, durable material that foxes can’t rip through. Foxes are also very good at digging, so you need to prevent them from being able to dig under the walls of your run. Some people do this by placing their run on top of concrete.

Our method is the chicken wire skirt. This involves attaching a piece of chicken wire or mesh to the bottom of your run and pegging it out along the ground. Foxes get to the bottom of the coop and if they can’t dig there, they give up. They don’t think to move backwards a foot and try digging there. Over time the grass grows back up through the mesh and you can’t see the skirt at all. It’s worked really well for us so far.

A strip of mesh about 25cm wide is stapled to the run and attached to the ground using tent pegs. We’ve placed paving slabs on the wire to keep it extra secure while we wait for the grass to grow back through.

Sick chickens

Sick chickens are often quite easy to spot. They look despondent, depressed, uncomfortable or lethargic. They might be refusing to eat or disinterested in treats. If their tail is down rather than perky and up in the air, that could be a sign too.

It’s hard to tell in a static photo, but in real life Clara was moving slowly, disinterested in food, hunching her neck into her body and staying close to this wooden board for support. Luckily she was just struggling with an egg and got better a day later, but we were worried enough to take her to the vet.

There’s not space here to go into all the causes of a sick chicken, but there’s lots of information online if you Google the symptoms, ask a chicken-keeping forum or call the British Hen Welfare Trust’s hen helpline.

The British Hen Welfare Trust estimates that ex-caged hens will live on average 1 to 4 years after you’ve adopted them. So you must be prepared for this when you start your chicken keeping.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your girls’ poo, eggs and general behaviour, as these can all give you indications of a chicken that’s not on top form.

Letting hens out to free range

6 happy chickens with free rein over the garden.

I was worried our girls would run off when we first let them out, but they’re far too interested in their immediate surroundings to do something like that.

Having said that, I have heard lots of stories of hens running off, so it’s a good idea to make sure your garden is fenced in so there are no holes under fences your girls can escape through.

You may also want to train them to come to a particular noise, for example the shaking of a bucket or the sound of corn in a scoop. This will mean you can quickly get them all back when you need to.

Always be wary of foxes if you live in a suburban area. I wouldn’t let my girls out of their run without also being outside with them.

If you can afford it, you may want to look into having an electric fence put in around your garden, or fencing off a portion of your garden with it. I’d really love to do something like that, but the cats wouldn’t be very happy with us!

Advice

Although traditional vets aren’t often experts on chicken health, there are lots of really useful resources on the internet. Some of my most used:

A beginner’s shopping list

  • Layers mash
  • Layers pellets
  • Oyster shell grit
  • Mixed corn
  • 1 water feeder (you may need more depending on how many birds you’re getting)
  • 1 food holder (again, may need more – chickens have very exact pecking orders and if you don’t have enough feeders the bottom hens may not end up getting any food)
  • Delousing powder
  • Disinfectant (eg Smite) and a pump spray bottle for it
  • Diatomaceous earth – an absolutely incredible product – it’s essentially a very fine dust that’s like razor blades to tiny bugs like red mite and makes it impossible for them to live in your coop
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Straw for nest boxes
  • Some kind of absorbent bedding – our favourite is called soft chip
  • Purple wound spray
  • Verm-X or other worming product

Nice-to-haves

  • Nest herbs
  • Toys like the pecker blocks and hanging caddies
  • Benches and perches

References

1 – https://www.viva.org.uk/faceoff/eggs/laying-hen-factsheet#:~:text=Previously%2C%20the%20barren%20battery%20cages,unable%20to%20spread%20their%20wings.

2 – https://www.bhwt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/All-Cooped-Up-resource-pack.pdf

3 – https://www.viva.org.uk/faceoff/eggs/laying-hen-factsheet#:~:text=All%20worn%2Dout%20hens%2C%20whether,this%20is%20around%2072%20weeks.

4 – https://poultrykeeper.com/health-suppliments/apple-cider-vinegar/ and https://www.farmfowl.com/guide/apple-cider-vinegar-chickens/#:~:text=ACV%20helps%20to%20reduce%20the,reduce%20internal%20worms%20in%20chickens.&text=In%20addition%20to%20these%20benefits,are%20beneficial%20to%20your%20chickens.

5 – https://poultrykeeper.com/external-problems/red-mite/

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