Former Convicts find Hope for the Future in Chicken Keeping
A new life for Nottinghamshire's rescue hens
Reading Time: 3 minutes
At Southwell Hostel in Nottinghamshire, England, an ‘Enabling Environment’ project is underway to give ex-convicts who’ve recently left prison confidence, responsibility, and focus as they transition to a normal life. The residents are all on probation, preparing for life in the real world. The project includes gardening, cultivating vegetables, looking after chickens, and keeping fish.
Peter Lister, residential support officer, explains why they decided to get chickens: “We were looking at ways to get the residents to participate in different activities. I’ve got ducks, so I thought that perhaps keeping chickens would be something they’d enjoy. They could get involved with the feeding and cleaning.”
The residents were keen to adopt the hens and eagerly built a coop, run and fenced area in anticipation of the new arrivals. “There were three or four people building the coop initially,” says Peter, “but others came to help and it became a big team project!”
The Day of Arrival
When the chickens first arrived, they were in a sorry state with no feathers. “They were all skin and bone!” said Peter. “The British Hen Welfare Trust told us about their background. The birds were literally destined for slaughter that day, so they’d rescued as many as they could and were rehoming them. The chickens had spent their lives in small cages, being fed and watered by machine. Their eggs were collected by machine. They’d had no human contact at all! They were in terrible condition and were terrified.”
As soon as the residents of Southwell Hostel saw them, they took pity on the hens. “We put them in the coop, but the sun was out and was quite strong. The residents were worried that the birds would get sunburnt, so they went to get a tarpaulin to keep them in the shade.”
The chickens had a big impact on the residents’ mental health from day one. They wanted to protect the birds, make sure they were okay, and give them a another chance at a good life. Their arrival also broke down some of the barriers between residents and staff.
“It’s an amazing effect,” said Peter. “Some of the residents who wouldn’t have anything to do with the staff, started asking questions about what treats they can they give the chickens. It starts a conversation, and then they open up about other things and how they’re doing.
“Also, when the residents don’t want to talk to people, they’ll often go and talk to the hens. One of the residents said he gets a good feeling when he does something to help them.”
Naming the Hens
They had a competition to name the birds. The residents came up with some interesting names to suit the hens’ personalities.
“One’s called Attila the Hen – after the historical figure, Attila the Hun,” said Peter. “Attila likes to keep the rest of the chickens in order. Another is called Elizabeth. We have Yoko Ono and Hyacinth the Clucket – after a British comedy series featuring a character called Hyacinth Bucket. We had good fun naming them!”
One of our residents, Ian, has been at Southwell Hostel for two months. He’s taken charge of opening the hens’ accommodation in the morning, feeding them, and putting them to bed at night.
“At the start they were frightened and wouldn’t come near us,” said Peter, “but they’ll all eat from Ian’s hand now. His favourite, Elizabeth, lets him stroke her. The birds are doing fantastic now. They’ve lost their initial fear and are all feeding by hand.”
Learning About Hen Keeping
“Ian enjoys reading chicken books and is learning new things regularly. He recently read that they can have pineapples occasionally, so he went to the local shop and bought them a pineapple with his own money. He put it in the coop whole, so they had to work for it, and they loved it! Watching the hens is great for his mental health.”
Since arriving in a bit of a state, the chickens have settled in nicely and have become an important part of the project. They help bring out the residents’ softer sides. Some of the residents still won’t talk to the staff, but nonetheless, they love chatting to the chickens!
Peter’s been delighted by how well the chickens have been received. “The residents enjoy looking after the hens, feeding them, letting them in and out of the hen house. By adopting ex-commercial hens we wanted to give the birds a second chance, like the residents are getting second chances themselves.”
One resident, Henry, said chickens helped him to open up. “I love to chat to them, because I know they’re not judging me. When my mental health isn’t great, it really helps. My chats with the hens have encouraged me to talk to the staff as well.”
Resident John said, “Tending to the hens helps us forget about our problems and gives us all something to look forward to. We get them fed and set up in the morning, and they love their treats!”
Originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.