More than 25,000 hens have been saved by a Purbeck family after they set up Chicken Rescue UK less than two years ago – and they have big plans to take that up to another level.
Martina and Phillip Reynolds and Jade Cooper of East Stoke, near Wareham, have been rescuing commercial chickens which have come to the end of their egg-laying lives day in, day out, since March 2022.
Martina Reynolds, right, with another batch of rescue chickens ready to be rehomed
Rescuing up to 1,500 hens a time
So far a staggering 25,000 chickens have been found new forever homes thanks to an army of volunteers who join the team on their Mission Impeccable to give poultry farmers an alternative to killing chickens at the age of just 18 months when egg production slows down.
Working alongside farmers, they will set out to farmyards before dawn, catch up to 1,500 hens at a time, put them into crates and drive them to locations around the country where their supporters have arranged to pick up their new pets.
But the operation is so much more than a version of cluck and collect – all of their clients need to be checked out to ensure that they can provide a safe new home for the hens and a database of thousands of names needs to be coordinated to make sure that not a single chicken gets left behind.
In addition, the rescued hens need to undergo a health check, be rested, fed and watered before going to their new homes, and any injured chickens will find their way to a special care unit at Hazel Lodge, where the family flock is getting bigger by the month.
And with more volunteers, a growing number of farmers willing to work with Chicken Rescue UK and new database software which could cut admin time by 80 percent, they are confident of saving even more birds in 2024.
Commercial egg laying chickens are kept for 18 months before slaughter, but can live for several years more
Sent to slaughter at 18 months old
Martina Reynolds said:
“The main problem is that chickens have a very short egg producing life, the farmers have them from the age of six months and they generally get sent to slaughter at 18 months but they could easily live another three or four years.
“At 18 months they go through their first moult, so all the energy and all the nutrients go back to growing new feathers, which drops the egg production and for a commercial farmer, that is deadly.
“The majority of farmers send them to slaughter and they get made into baby food or pet food and cheap pies – there is not much meat on egg layers, they are not bred to be eaten.
“That’s where we come in, like other rescue centres as well, we try to persuade the farmers to give them or sell them to us rather than send them to slaughter, and we try to find them new homes.
“It’s not at all cloak and dagger in the middle of the night, we negotiate with the farmers and many are happy there is an alternative, but still only about one percent of all egg laying hens get saved – and there are about 39 million egg laying hens in the UK.”
The Chicken Rescue fleet of drivers are always ready to spring into action
Rescue teams set out at 3 am
The volunteer team at Chicken Rescue UK will look for new homes through its website and Facebook pages, where people are asked to provide photos of where they will keep the hens to prove that the hens will be safe and well cared for.
Then on the morning of the rescue, teams will set out from East Stoke as early as 3 am, for while there are some Purbeck farms which work with the group, others are as far away as Bognor Regis in West Sussex.
Up to a hundred volunteers can be involved in the catching, cleaning, feeding and distributing process, or as administrators, or helping with a clean-up operation when the team gets back to Hazel Lodge at the end of a very long day.
It is not unusual for more than a thousand chickens to be rehomed in one day, and at the height of summer Chicken Rescue UK can be called into action two or three times a month.
Chicken Rescue is always on the search for new homes for their birds
“Want them to go to lovely retirement homes”
Martina Reynolds added:
“It is a lot more complicated than just handing a chicken to someone. We need more volunteers, that would be amazing, They can come to the farms with us, or be based here to unload the hens, feed them and check them over, then recapture them to pass them on to the rehomers.
“Or if people don’t want to be involved in the bits that are muddy and smelly, but still want to be part of it they can still join the admin group – you don’t even need to be local for that. We are looking for anyone who thinks they can contribute something.
“You would have thought everyone down here must have a chicken by now, but new people still keep coming forward!
“We ask people to take a minimum of three at a time, because they are flock animals, so you get families, people with allotments, or those who have large gardens and have always wanted to keep chickens.
“We won’t just hand them over, we do ask lots of questions and take the welfare of these animals very seriously and want them to go to lovely, lovely retirement homes.
“We ask for a £3 minimum donation per hen, but that goes to buying crates, travelling expenses, food, health care, it all goes back into rescuing chickens.”
The ‘ginger ninja’ Lohmanns are the labradors of the chicken world and love attention
Special care unit for the injured
Almost all of the rescued chickens are brown Lohmanns, which Martina describes as the labradors of the poultry world – friendly, intelligent, attention loving and good with children.
Although most of the rescued chickens are healthy, most rescue missions will involve one or two which will need to go to the special care unit at Hazel Lodge under the watchful eye of Jade Cooper.
They include those which are blind, brain damaged, have deformed feet or suffer from cross beak, where the hen’s upper and lower beak do not align, making it hard for them to eat.
One of the flock, Wonka, has found international fame after launching her own Facebook page which already has 250 avid followers, most recently featuring in Hungarian publication Prove and in the pages of Le Matin in France.
Jade Cooper with Wonka, the special needs chicken who has become a media star
Waiting to be fed – Wonka knows exactly where to go to for attention
“Now she gets so much attention”
Jade Cooper said:
“People really don’t understand how smart and affectionate chickens really are, they all have different personalities and can communicate well, they even recognise and remember up to a hundred different faces.
“When we found Wonka there was nothing of her, she was skinny and on death’s door, we didn’t think she would last the week, but she is now coming up to six years old, she is hand fed and has doubled in weight to 1.5kg.
“Now she gets so much attention, people love her! She loves sitting on your lap for a cuddle and will bring herself to the door to get fed – she has even found her way into my bedroom when I was having a lie-in to get her food!”