Abby Johnson has a number one hen and she’s not afraid to name her. “Lila is my ultimate favourite,” says the 36-year-old Brighton resident of the chicken of her dreams, who lives with Abby’s mum back in rural Maryland.
The “part-time house chicken” spends her time flitting between the Johnson family homestead and scratching about for insects in the garden, bobbing her head and fluttering her snow-white feathers as she goes.
Each morning, Lila shows up at the back door and waits to be invited in. She’ll have some treats by the fire before hopping up on to a seat and settling down for a bit. Abby recalls how Lila was the perfect companion for her late father – she’d sit with – or rather, on top of – him each morning as he read his paper.
And since Abby’s dad died, Lila has become a source of companionship and strength for her mum, too. “She basically runs the household,” she says.
Johnson, who grew up with chickens from the age of four in her native US, now has 68 hens of her own, who live happily on a farm in Kent. That is, when they’re not being rented out via her excellently named HenPals exchange.
Set up in July 2020, the scheme encourages people to hire a pair of hens for a few weeks at a time, along with a coop and the necessary hen-keeping kit, letting the feathered friends into their homes and, all too often, hearts.
Business is booming for Johnson, who is a one-woman machine – splitting her time between taking bookings, answering customer queries, delivering hens (and all their paraphernalia) to their new temporary homes and teaching people how to look after them. Demand is so busy there’s currently a waiting list.
Britain’s love affair with chickens has taken off with all the extra time we’ve spent, ahem, cooped up at home. In March 2020, the rehoming charity Fresh Start for Hens received a whopping 52,000 requests for pet hens.
Helen is one of the Brits who has taken to chicken rearing like a duck to water. With her husband Tom and their two boys Henry, five, and George, two, they’ve just finished a four-week hen hire programme in Dorking, Surrey.
“I really wanted to have an activity to involve the children in over the Easter holidays,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Both boys love visiting farms, animals and being outdoors but with most attractions still closed due to Covid restrictions, I thought the hire scheme would be an enjoyable experience for us all.”
She spotted an ad for HenPals on social media and decided to give it a go – you hire a pair of hens for four or 12 weeks (at £195 or £380) and if you then become besotted with them, you have the chance to buy them outright.
Many do become attached, Abby notes, with roughly one in three customers keeping their hens for good. People like Karen Steadman, 56, from Maidstone, who had been considering getting hens for a few years but had worried about the commitment and expense, especially as she’d never had a pet before.
Steadman and her husband Mark took in two hens for 12 weeks, which they named Betty and Dora. “Betty is the noisy one and Dora is the one who will push and shove for food,” says Karen.
The “girls”, as she calls them, are always on hand for company – and to cause trouble. “In the autumn, not long after they had arrived, Mark was sweeping leaves on the lawn and every time he turned his back, one of the hens would be on the neat pile, kicking and scratching them back over the lawn,” says Steadman.
The keen gardener also had to make peace with her pansies being destroyed. “They will scratch at any bare soil, bark, or gravel and are especially fond of pansies,” she says. “I learnt the hard way with a couple of pots and borders.”
Some bits of the garden are now fenced off as “chicken no-go areas”, but they do have a “hen spa” area in a sunny corner under a plant with dry soil where they like to sunbathe and dust-bathe, she says. And if it’s not obvious, the Steadmans couldn’t bear to give their hens back at the end of the 12 weeks – so Betty and Dora are now permanent residents in their garden.
It’s no surprise many end up keeping their hens when they bring so many benefits: not only do they guarantee a plentiful supply of eggs, but they are excellent insect eaters and a source of joy to watch go about their daily business. Hens are good for getting you outdoors and bring a sense of purpose and routine – you have to wake up to let them out of their coops, feed them, and give them time to run around (supervised) for at least an hour a day.
They are also a great way for kids to learn about food production and the responsibility of caring – it’s this welfare aspect which is hugely important to Johnson and one of the reasons she set up HenPals in the first place.
In Dorking, Helen’s family cared for two brown hens, which their son Henry happily named Digger and Sausage. “From the off, Henry, who loves digging around in the dirt himself, was won over by Digger’s interest in bug hunting – a champion worm finder,” says Helen.
“Henry would dig the dirt and Sausage and Digger would be there scratching around and gobbling up worms. Then an afternoon dust bath was in order, which Henry was in awe of and naturally had to join. The hens were so comfortable with the close contact of small children and very tolerant of being handled and stroked.”
When Johnson had first dropped off Sausage and Digger, she taught the family how to hold them, feed them and, crucially, keep them safe. The next morning, the delighted family woke to their first egg. From then on, each hen laid an egg a day.
“Henry gladly took on the responsibility of opening up the coop in the morning and egg collecting,” Helen says. “6am every morning, he was out there.”
More people working from home is a big reason why Johnson believes hen hire has taken off. Helen says she would often sit outside with a coffee and the hens would “run over to say hello”. “They are an excellent reason to take a break and get outside in the garden rather than working through breaks,” she says.
While Digger and Sausage have since returned to the farm in Kent, she says it’s been a great experience for the boys and given the whole family a confidence boost. “We are now determined that keeping hens is in our future,” she says.