Fresh Start for Hens
Volunteers Dedicated to Rehoming Hens in England and Wales
Fresh Start for Hens is a British not-for-profit organisation, run by volunteers who collect hens from poultry farms at the end of their commercial lives, and find them new homes with people who want to keep them as pets.
In the UK, commercial poultry farms dispose of their hens after about 72 weeks. The hens come into their first moult at that age and stop laying for 4-6 weeks. That’s when volunteers go to collect the birds.
Mike from the Wendover branch in Buckinghamshire, explains: “We go to farms and ask the farmer if we can take the hens for him, instead of him sending them to slaughter. When a farmer agrees, we share the information on Facebook in a private group, along with the collection date we’ve agreed with the farmer, and the farm’s location. We have an estimate of the total number of hens at each location. We collect them, bring them back to our locality, and rehome them.”
Fresh Start for Hens operates across England and Wales, but not in Scotland at the moment. Enthusiastic volunteers like Mike take on a variety of different roles.
“We visit farms on Saturdays, collect chickens in crates and bring them back to local collection points,” he continues. “We advertise our collection dates in advance and the number of hens available for rehoming, then people put in requests to adopt them.
“The reservations team logs how many chickens are available and adopters request how many they want in which locations. We have an amazing administration team who put all the reservations on a central database. They also sort out who’s a worthy adopter, and if someone’s asking for a lot of hens, it raises alarm bells. No more than 25 hens are allowed to be rehomed at a time, unless we have a specific request from a reputable source. For example, we had one big order from Animal Antiks, a children’s therapy farm in North Marston.
“The administration team vet each potential adopter, asking about the size of the coop and the roaming area. They ask to see photographs of the set up and they even check the images supplied against Google pictures, so we know it’s not been taken off the internet.”
Impact of covid
Demand for hens increased dramatically during lockdown. “Lots of people got dogs and cats. I guess they liked hens too! We had a backlog of hens waiting to be rehomed because the lockdowns restricted people’s travel and our ability to rehome them.
“We had big pens delivered to some of our volunteers, so they could look after a large surplus of hens until we were able to place them in their new homes. It’s very useful to have this extra capacity and it’s rewarding rescuing and rehoming the birds.”
Adopting a bird
When someone reserves a hen they are asked to give a donation of £2.50 per hen, although some give more. The administrators record where the adopter wants to pick up the hens. Mike gets a list of who’s adopting and the time slot allocated for each collection.
“Each adopter gets a ten minute slot,” he explains. “They pay online in advance of their collection, then turn up at their allotted time and take their hens home. They bring suitable boxes or carriers for their chickens. I’ve got some boxes if what they bring is unsuitable.
“All the rehomings are done on private properties – some people arrange collections from their homes, others from allotments or even workplaces. I’ve looked after hens for between three and five days for people, if they’re unable to collect right away. Collection is always very seamless.”
The morning on the farm
“We start at four or five in the morning on a Saturday. Volunteers who have driven a long way, book overnight accommodation near the farm so they can do an early morning pick up.
“The barns on the farms typically contain 2,500 hens. We go in at 4am, pick up each hen, carrying them in twos and fours, and take them into the hen carrying crates. We put ten in each crate. The welfare of the hens is our priority. All drivers are given guidance on fresh air and stopping. We tell them not to stack the crates too high or too close together.
“Our volunteers separate any hens that are being picked on, so they don’t get bullied in transit. We try to make the most of the journey by arranging three to four different stop offs on the way home, where we can drop some hens with their new adopters.
“Some people have long drives back to their homes with the hens, and some are still moving hens out to adopters at 8pm. It’s exhausting when you’ve been up at 3am, but they smile and do their best, because they’re very committed.
“I always drive no more than an hour from home, and my latest rehoming time was 3pm. It’s nice to relax afterwards, feeling that it’s a job well done.
“If we don’t have adopters lined up for all 2,500 hens in a collection, we’ll take them all anyway. Some people who’ve agreed to take six might be willing to have eight. We’ve got some people who take loads. If we can’t rehome them all on the day, we’ll relist the remaining ones on the website. There’s always a handful of rehomers willing to take extra hens.”
The volunteers try to keep costs as low as possible; their biggest cost is the collections. “We sometimes have to hire vans and then there’s petrol, and some people drive for hours to reach a farm to collect the chickens. Any overnight accommodation that we need to book is basic, and if we have any money left it goes back into the organisation, to buy crates and things, because they do break sometimes.”
“It’s lovely to watch the transition from commercial hens to pets. A lot of people like the featherless ones because it’s rewarding to watch them grow into beautiful feathered birds; the transition is amazing and it only takes four to six weeks before they look like a normal hen. They’ve all got great characters.”
Mike keeps nine hens of his own, plus a cockerel called Phillipe. “He’s a real gentleman!” he says. “Fresh Start for Hens does offer help with cockerels as well. We have a lonely hearts page on our website for cockerels!
“Our volunteers are incredible, putting in lots of time and effort. Some of them are full-time working parents. The highlights are when people collecting are excited, if they’re adding to their flock or they’re first time adopters.
“We also pick ducks up from farms about once a quarter – the farmer loads the ducks into the crates, so all we have to do is pick up the crates and drive off.
“We rehomed 100,000 hens last year. They can live long lives. My oldest hen is 8 years old!”
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.