How Covid-19 has Affected Chicken Keepers in the UK
Lockdown created a surge in demand for hens
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Coronavirus lockdowns created a surge in demand for chickens in Britain last year. Chicken breeders were over-run with requests for hens when the country went into lockdown in March, as shortages of eggs and other essentials became a problem in shops. People were panic buying and supermarkets were struggling to keep up with demand.
“It went nuts!” at Beechwood Chickens
Bill from Beechwoods Chickens in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England, sells young chickens to backyard keepers. Coronavirus had a big impact on their trade when the country went into lockdown in March.
“It went nuts!” says Bill. “Demand soared. We were just about able to supply everyone, but a lot of the buyers were new keepers, so I was giving them advice on what to do. Many new customers asked for different colors of hens, but we sold out of the more interesting and colorful breeds quickly, so some buyers had to compromise and have Gold Stars instead. We can get Gold Stars all the time.
“Gold Stars are our most popular breed anyway because they are the best layers,” he continues. “It’s a Rhode Island Red cross, a commercial breed, and they lay up to 330 eggs a year. That’s why people prefer them. Our other best-sellers are Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and Light Sussex. Some people choose different birds for variety, and for their different colored eggs. Choosing chickens is like choosing dogs — some people prefer pure breeds and some don’t mind hybrids. Many have both.”
Eggs from the different breeds come in a range of colors, and some people will choose a breed of hen for their eggs. “Black Marans lay a dark brown egg,” says Bill. “That appeals to those who like darker eggs. We also sell a Cheshire Blue, a hybrid, crossed with a South American Araucana cockerel — the resulting hen lays blue eggs. Some people choose that breed because they like the color of their eggs. We have various hybrids who lay light to medium brown eggs, as well as hens who lay white eggs. People enjoy having different shades of eggs produced by their flock.”
Has the Coronavirus rush settled down now? “Yes, things are back to normal again,” says Bill. “Over the winter we sell Gold Stars, which we get at 17 weeks. They start laying in 20-22 weeks. We buy the chicks, rather than breed them — a lot of the chickens are bred up north, and in the south, breeders mostly focus on pure breeds.”
“A surge in calls” at Marlow Poultry
Rachel Misra from Marlow Poultry in Buckinghamshire, England, says, “As soon as lockdown was announced I had a surge in calls from people wanting to buy chickens. They didn’t want to go to the shops, for fear of catching the disease, and a few were idealistic and thought the birds would supply eggs immediately. It doesn’t really work like that. Chickens need time to settle in first.
“Some had planned to get chickens in the autumn but decided to bring that forward, while others were starting chicken keeping because of lockdown. I was very strict, making sure that people weren’t buying them on a whim. They had to demonstrate that they were ready and set up. I checked they had everything in place, such as accommodation for their hens and suitable feed, and I gave people advice about hen keeping.
“Gold Stars tend to be our most popular birds,” she continues. “In terms of fancy breeds, we only breed the Wyandottes, but different breeds do seem to come in and out of fashion. Sometimes we get asked a lot for Bantams, like the Pekin, other times we are asked if we keep Orpingtons! There is not a real firm favorite.
“Since the first lockdown in March, we’ve been doing everything socially distanced. I send people pictures of their hens, and they book an appointment to collect their birds. I put each hen in a cardboard pet carrier ten minutes before the appointment time. When the buyer arrives, they take the hen, we have a chat from a distance and I supply food if necessary. I sanitize everywhere.
“One lady bought a big house for her chickens but didn’t realize how much mess they’d make! Hers had to be rehomed. But most people love their hens. They send me pictures of their chickens and their first egg, let me know how they’re getting on and that the hens have settled in well. People still call for advice, but things settled down after that initial rush of demand for hens during the first national lockdown.”
Lifestyle and Husbandry
The accommodation and lifestyle of backyard chickens in the UK varies enormously — some keepers have large plots with lots of free-range hens; others have smaller enclosed spaces with a chicken coop and run. The fact that people with a modest garden can keep hens has made hen keeping popular during the pandemic.
On my daily walks, I have seen small flocks appear in people’s backyards, while smallholdings in the countryside accommodate a large number of free-range birds, along with goats and sheep!
Good husbandry and attention to biosecurity are important during the pandemic, especially if people from different households come into contact with the birds. Cleaning and sanitization can help prevent the spread of disease. When rehoming hens, measures like social distancing are important to prevent the spread of Covid, too.
A new wave of bird flu has hit British shores recently, presenting a new threat. Backyard keepers are advised to maximize their biosecurity measures, using disinfectants, humane rodent control, cleaning footwear before and after visiting the birds, and using disinfectant mats. Some farms have had to cull their flock, and backyard keepers are advised to keep their hens away from wild birds.
The British Hen Welfare Trust rehomes ex-commercial layers. They have been rehoming during the pandemic, and have seen a good level of demand. “The hens are approximately 17 months old when we collect them from farms,” explains founder, Jane Howorth. “They are sent off to slaughter because they are deemed no longer commercially viable as they may be laying fewer eggs.” The Trust intervenes, collecting the hens from the farmer, and rehoming as many as they can. People who adopt hens from the Trust enjoy seeing their scruffy rescued hens grow into confident beautiful chickens, with big personalities! There’s always a strong market for other breeds too, with colorful plumage and different colored eggs. When families get hens, children often like to choose which color hens they like best, and which shade of eggs they want to eat, so there’s plenty of demand for different breeds.
The pandemic has been traumatic, but it has helped some people find new pleasures in hen keeping and a greater appreciation of nature during lockdowns, when everything else is shut.
Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.