Susan is the founder and organiser of LittleHill Animal Rescue and Sanctuary. She cares for 35 horses, 50 cats and 30 dogs and in recent years, she has branched out into another aspect of animal welfare work; rescued ex-battery farmed hens. She currently has over two hundred hens at the sanctuary, and this week, when the weather turned cold, an important task needed to be tackled. Many of the rescued hens are bald, and to stop them from catching a serious chill, they need to be dressed in custom-made jerseys to keep them warm.
Susan’s work with rescued hens has become a major part of her annual calendar. She was shocked a few years ago when she discovered the facts behind commercial egg-laying hens. Young hens are bought in groups of several thousand at “point of lay” when they are around 4 months of age. They are kept in cages, housed in large sheds, with carefully controlled light, heat and nutrition to maximise their egg production. They lay an egg once daily for a year, and then they go into their first moult. At this stage, their egg production decreases for three to four weeks. In nature, this is part of the normal cycle of life, but in the commercial world, it’s seen as an inefficiency. It’s cheaper for a commercial egg producer to slaughter the year-old hens, replacing them with new, young point-of-lay birds. The alternative of waiting for a month until the hens start to lay again sounds reasonable, but in the hard business world of mass egg production, it’s less profitable, so it doesn’t happen.
When Susan heard about the unnecessary slaughter of these young adult hens, she decided to do something about it. She offered to buy four thousand hens from the farmer, at €2 per head, rather than allowing them to go to slaughter. It’s less convenient for the farmer, but he is happy to work with Susan and her team. Over a ten day period, a team of six volunteers visit the poultry farm three times a day, gathering hens and putting them into carriers. They then transport them to their new homes are rapidly as possible. Susan uses social media to alert people that the hens are being rescued, and she has rehomed them all over Ireland, from Donegal to the Aran Islands to County Cork. She uses vans and horseboxes, moving batches of hundreds of hens at one time, meeting people at pre-arranged locations to pass the birds on to their new homes. Susan asks for a minimum donation of €5 per head to cover her costs. The hens are ideal as backyard chickens: once they have had a few weeks rest and recovery, they start laying again, and they will continue to do so for several years.
The rescued hens are healthy, but their appearance is shocking at first sight. The combination of a year of continuous egg production with their first feather moult means that they have a bald, bedraggled appearance. While they would be able to cope in the summer, the extra chill of winter weather is a challenge. Susan’s team of volunteers have come up with an innovative answer to this problem: knitting custom-designed jerseys to keep the hens warm. A special knitting pattern, with holes for the wings, has been posted online to allow new hen owners to knit their own hen jerseys.
Do you want to keep a few backyard hens? Contact Susan’s team to find out more.
- Rescued ex-commercial hens can continue to lay eggs for years
- If hens have suffered feather loss, they need extra insulation to keep them warm
- To find out more, visit LittleHill Animal Rescue and Sanctuary on Facebook