Free Range Versus Free Range

The hens are doing well. Really well. It would help if they would, you know, actually lay eggs, but you know. Well.

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We do have one hen (the white one named Mathilds) regularly laying eggs. You get one a day (and on one day, she popped out two).

She emerges from the hen house once she lays it and stands there, flapping her wings and making insane amounts of noise for a while. It’s really quite funny and I suppose if I squeezed out of my ass something larger than the size of my brain, then I would likely make a big goddamn deal about it, too.

And I love having chickens. I think it’s brilliant – they’re fun to watch, they are startling obedient (out of bed in the morning and put themselves to bed at night), and there’s that whole “I have a flock of hens should the zombie apocalypse come!” I’m all in for chickens and even signed up on a chicken forum for questions (don’t judge).

We were due to get three ex-caged battery rescue hens this weekend from British Hens Welfare Trust. There was a scheduling mix-up, so I’m waiting for the rescue hens now in mid-March.

The reason I am posting though, is this – last weekend we picked up two ex-battery hens from BHWT. The difference with these chickens, though, is that they are ex-free range hens. Chickens are moved on after they are 18 months old as most of them only live to about 3 and farmers expect they’ll start to not lay. Thus it’s off to a new home or a slaughter house, with no other hope of re-homing for the hens.

A rescue is a rescue, so we went to pick them up last Sunday. We were taken to an enormous pen filled with clucking hens, volunteers, and people re-homing one or two hens. The volunteers there asked if we could possibly take anymore and we said no – I am keen to take home two ex-caged hens so that they have a nice, happy retirement, and any more hens would have put me in crazy cat lady territory. A large number of chickens would be facing slaughter at the end of the day, and I knew that, but I can’t rescue them all. I know that too. I can’t be a charity, even though I want to save as many as I can (all of which turn out to be non-layers, as it happens).

We took home two hens, happily named Henry (the black one) and Rapunzel (the ginger one).

And here’s the thing – they’re free range hens from a free range farm. I only ever buy free range eggs.

But the hens weren’t in the best shape.

They had feathers missing here and there. They had pale, flopped over combs. They stunk to high heaven.

And we have now understood that free range eggs you buy at the shop, it doesn’t always mean that the hens really are happy hens. It just means they’re intensively laying in a much better environment than a cage. All this time I’ve banged on about free range eggs – and I still will because I think the hens have a better life than caged hens – but it didn’t mean the animals really do get the best care.

There are the high end organic free range eggs that do ensure the hens have a happy life, but the eggs cost an arm and a leg and this household is filled with egg lovers. We eat a lot of eggs. Kings’ ransom eggs couldn’t work here.

And I think the ultimate lesson in all of this for me is if you want to be sure that you have happy eggs from happy hens, you need to have your own chickens. Which isn’t possible for everyone, I know. But I guess I envisioned happy hens prancing through fields, producing eggs which they popped out of healthy, nourished bodies. I thought our only rescue hens would come from cages, but instead we have brought home two hens that really did need some rescue.

I’m not lecturing here, or preaching a hen-living life for all, please don’t think that. People make the choices they make based on economy and availability most of the time. But if you can pay a bit more for the eggs, and if you can try to aim for the happy hens ones…well, let’s just say that poorly hens are a very sad sight.

One week on and the hens are looking much better. They’re not laying any eggs and maybe never will, but they’re here to stay. They’re sweet, they’re curious, they no longer stink, and they look much better.

I guess I really am a charity, after all.


12 Responses to “Free Range Versus Free Range”

  1. Charles says:

    We all strive to do what we can to make a difference. You and your family seem to do more than most. For that I thank you.

  2. Betty M says:

    I’ve always wondered myself about the large vs medium egg issue too given that the eggs I’ve had from back garden chickens always seem on the smaller end of medium. I kid myself that large eggs are just ones from huge chickens but maybe not.

  3. Teri says:

    I agree; we try to buy eggs from pastured chickens at our farmers market from a farm we feel good about or more recently from a friend who has urban chickens in the middle of the city and provides us with eggs and meat. The taste cannot be compared to regular grocery eggs/chickens. So much better! If we’re going to be carnivores, at least we know these birds had a good life, such as it was.

  4. Donna says:

    They are supposed to cluck after they lay, that’s how you know when to go gather them….and when one does, then the rest get busy…weird creatures chickens.

  5. a says:

    Chickens are surprisingly interesting…

  6. Moira says:

    Watch out for foxes!! We have lost all the chickens in our street in past 2 months :( Its not just media hype, London is full of foxes but am sure there are some in more rural areas too ;)

  7. April says:

    Do you have glass eggs in their nesting boxes? When I was young, my great-grandmother in TX used to keep chickens, and she had these beautiful glass eggs that she kept in the nests – she said that they would keep producing more if they had one of those in their nest. Not sure if there’s any truth to that.

  8. They’ll probably come into lay, don’t worry; it’s early in the year yet. My biggest problem is a hen that lays consistently with paper-thin shells, so the eggs instantly fracture and soak the straw – and any other eggs! – with Yuk. She is aging and that’s just what some of them do when they’re getting on a bit, but I don’t have the heart to cull her. I keep hens for someone to talk to, I think!

  9. John says:

    Oh Wow! Welcome to the club – not that i am that sort of clubby bastard you understand – but what I mean is Welcome to Chicken Farming!
    I have a flock of 33 hens and one rooster. The rooster’s name is Che’Son, his dad’s name was Che’ Guevara.
    They are free range Pastured, soy free and GMO free fed. And the eggs are fantastic! We also raised 37 meat birds last fall with half in freezer right now! LOL@the ‘zombie Apocolypse!! That is why we did it too! :)
    Though we started 2yrs ago.
    I would love to send you a few links on chicken info.

  10. Judi says:

    More chicken pictures please. Want pics of Shannon’s fowl.

  11. Shanna says:

    Chickens are sensitive little things. So give them all some time to get used to having a happy life, finally and getting enough food with little competition as well as less stress in their lives. My friend has 160 free range buggers and she changed who she bought her feed from and the only difference between the two was one was pellets and one was loose feed and her chickens went from 90 eggs a day to 40 in less then a week. So let them get used to being loved and eventually they will give you some delicious breakfasts. ;) One thing my dad always did when he was raising laying hens was to add oyster shells to their feed. They need the extra calcium to make the shells. Standard laying feed includes it but if your chickens were having a rough time before you got them the extra calcium won’t hurt and might help a bit. Good luck and look forward to more chicken stories. ;)

  12. Melody says:

    Not sure if you’ll get this, or if the post’s just too old and you’ll never see it, but here goes:
    ~ Hens lay more eggs when there’s a rooster around. He will make more noise than an American in a mosque, but you’ll get more eggs.
    ~ Missing feathers: this often comes from having a good chicken sex life – especially if they are missing feathers from the back of the neck and on the back above the butt.
    ~ You gotta love the healthy orange yolks of free-range eggs.
    ~ If the egg shells become fragile or even soft, the chickens need more calcium – usually this is available in the form of ground up shells, of all things.

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