The delight of collecting eggs from the hen houses each day never seems to diminish even after more than 15 years of keeping hens. In that time we have hardly ever needed to buy eggs. We get the freshest of eggs with beautiful orangey, creamy yolks. The hens get a free range lifestyle relatively safe from predators and allowed to live out their natural life-span.
An additional attraction is keeping traditional breeds in their varied forms and colours, even if they are not the best of layers or the meatiest birds. There are plenty to choose from depending on what takes your fancy and this is particularly important, of course, for those in the world of poultry shows. Another mild thrill is if you have breeds that produce coloured eggs, like the blue eggs of our Cream Legbars. But for many smallholders utility often comes before looks and hybrid variations are more likely to be regarded as good enough.
We have a few traditional breeds but for regular egg production we mostly rely on rescued commercial hybrids - the ubiquitous common brown hens. When we collect the birds they are at the regulatory 72 weeks culling age and are a bit scruffy in looks and uncertain in manner with a seemingly bewildered look.
The advantages of rescued commercial hens is that they are very cheap to buy (sometimes by way of a 'donation'), they are already in lay and, although past their egg production peak, will have many more eggs to lay in the future. There is also the altruistic aspect of saving them from automatic culling after a short life of questionable welfare conditions. Or is there?
Whilst the conditions in which commercial egg laying poultry have undoubtedly improved over the years and 'battery' farming is now outlawed, they are still often intensively reared sometimes on an industrial scale. When taking on hens from this environment it is certainly gratifying to see them feather up and gradually adopt natural chicken behaviour and even individual characters.
I am sure there are many who rescue hens who take them on largely as pets and any eggs are an added bonus. But if it is the eggs you are primarily interested in then it's a bit like American foreign policy. The US Government will intervene on ostensible humanitarian grounds but only if this coincides with furthering US foreign interests.
There is also the nagging reservation that the charitable organisations that arrange the re-homing pay the poultry egg producer for the hens. My understanding is that the price paid, albeit small, is more than they receive from the meat processors who otherwise absorb the vast majority of the 'spent' poultry. However, I don't believe that this has any influence on commercial producers using intensive systems for whom rescue charity acquisitions are a drop in the ocean. But it is right, though, to be mindful of why you are 'rescuing' as well as what you are rescuing the hens from. One final point, I never refer to the hens as 'my girls'.