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Keeping hens and mental health

27th January 2020

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We speak to Rachel Bull (aka @thegoodlifeainteasy) and experts from the British Hen Welfare Trust about why keeping hens is good for our mental health

There’s something special about keeping hens. For a long time, only those who kept a group of girls in their back garden knew how great it made them feel. But now the word is spreading that hens are brilliant for our mental health. The routine of getting up to feed them, checking for illnesses and collecting fresh eggs can all help hen keepers to re-connect with the outside world and can also give people a sense of purpose that might otherwise be missing from their day-to-day lives. Learning about their little personalities, earning their trust, and just having some animals to spend time with has also been proven to combat feelings of loneliness, isolation and lift our spirits, especially in the elderly.

Rachel Bull, @thegoodlifeainteasy

We chatted to social media star Rachel Bull from @thegoodlifeainteasy about her group of girls, why she thinks more people should keep hens, and advice for beginners: “I’ve wanted hens for as long as I can remember. When I was 10, our school took us on a trip to a farm and I saw battery hens. I don’t think I was meant to, but that image stayed with me and I always wanted to rescue some birds if I could.
  “I currently have five girls: three ‘posh’ hens and two ex-commercial ladies who have come for a happy retirement. Our top chicken, Willow, is a black Sussex and takes people by surprise with how friendly and inquisitive she is. I don’t think people realise how chickens can be quite similar to cats and dogs in nature. She comes when called and will even fly up to your lap for a cuddle. Then we have Matilda and Miss Honey, and Saffron and Cinnamon our ex-caged hens. Cinnamon is curious and mischievous, while Saffron is my gentle garden shadow. The best thing about keeping chickens is getting to know their little individual personalities. We’ve had 12 girls in total and they’ve all been so different. From the lap chickens, to those determined to sneak into the house or trash the garden in under 30 seconds, they make me smile every day with their little ways. Fresh eggs are a wonderful bonus, but they’re exactly that – a bonus.”
  “I always used to joke that keeping chickens is much cheaper than a therapist. After all, they force you outside whatever the weather. Now, my morning routine is to make a coffee and sit outside with the hens even just for five minutes. This time forces you to slow down and just reconnect with the outside world. I’ve always been a worrier, but 10 minutes watching my little time-thieves always helps to calm me down and get my thoughts in order. It’s therefore no surprise that keeping hens has been proven to help those living with mental or physical health issues – rescuing a shy tatty chicken and nurturing her to grow in confidence is such a rewarding experience.
  “The birth of my son was traumatic and I was in hospital for a while. Every morning, before coming in to see me, my husband would send me photos of the chickens out in the garden. It really made me smile and I couldn’t wait to get back and just sit with them and a cup of tea – a little slice of simple normality that I could focus on while I recovered.”
  “I think making a safe area for your hens is the best bit of advice I can give beginner chicken keepers. We’ve now built the hens a large secure run for when we’re not around which is meshed all the way underneath for peace of mind. If you’re worried about opening/shutting hens in around work there are automatic door openers you can get for chicken coops. I’d also advise getting a good chicken vet before you need one. This goes for all animals, but chickens are no different – join a forum and find your nearest avian vet. While some of them will continue laying for a while and never have any issues, some will be sadly worn out and face health problems. You probably need to be prepared for that, as I naively don’t think I was, and it broke my heart when they started to have problems. Backyard chicken keepers are so important in keeping a demand for various heritage breeds going, but make sure you know the basic laws of chicken maths – however many chickens you plan to have, the number will always be more!”

The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT)

The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT) rehomes over 60,000 hens every year, collecting them from commercial laying farms when they are considered no longer commercially viable and finding new homes for them. Volunteers across the country work hard to rehome these little animals. As keeping pet hens becomes increasingly common in the UK, the charity is hearing more and more examples of how pet hens are helping their owners through difficult times. From living with depression, easing symptoms of anxiety, and even helping them deal with grief after losing a friend or family member, chickens are becoming more widely recognised for their positive effect on people’s mental and physical health.
  Just having a few feathered friends pottering around the back garden can help people unwind and de-stress after a long day at work, as Sarah Walker from Truro can attest to. “I work as a reception teacher at a primary school and when I have had a stressful day I sit in the garden with a cup of tea and watch the hens enjoying life. They are entertaining to watch and are quite vocal if you chat to them! Watching them calmly exploring the garden helps me to slow down and appreciate the little things.”
  Liz Glaves has battled depression for some 20 years and says her ex-bats help her on a very physical level when she finds social interaction difficult. “What I find so endearing is they are so vulnerable” said Liz. “You do get that sense of connection when depression severs connections with other people and the world around you. I don’t know if I would feel the same if I adopted other hens [rather than ex-bats] because you get to watch them growing their feathers back which is so joyful.”
  Andy Norton, who lives with his sister in Shropshire, has also experienced important benefits from keeping hens as pets. Andy lives with significant learning disabilities. He rehomed hens from BHWT in 2016, and his sister, Liz Woodall, says they have given him a huge confidence boost. Liz confirmed that through looking after the hens his self-esteem has improved enormously and he always has a topic of conversation. In addition, thanks to his abundance of freshly laid eggs, he has started to earn his own money by selling eggs to friends, neighbours and fellow church goers. This is the first time in his life that he’s ever had his own money, and his sister says it makes him feel like he belongs in society, rather than someone who has been pushed to the margins. She said: “You cannot believe what an enormous difference these lovely hens have made to Andy’s life.”

To find out more about rehoming ex-bats, call Hen Central on 01884 860 084 or visit the website bhwt.org.uk

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