A hen’s tale of hope

Ruth Burroughs is one of our volunteers at Team Cornwall. She’s been with us for over six years now and kindly helps out by taking care of some of the poorly hens that we sometimes find when we collect hens from the farm. This month we spoke to her about a particularly poorly hen she connected with — a hen called Jan.

It was a cold grey January afternoon when the phone rang. It was Michelle Boulton, the then coordinator of the Cornwall team asking Ruth if she could take a very poorly hen who would come to known as Jan.

Michelle had the biggest heart and bucket loads of compassion for hens, especially poorly ones, and she would always go the extra mile.

By this time Ruth had been caring for poorly hens for a few years. Many bedraggled girls had found a forever home with her; hens with broken legs, wings, respiratory infections, bumblefoot and very many gorgeous ‘water bellies’ who waddled like little penguins because of the fluid in their tummies.

“I could never resist a poorly”, says Ruth, “To me, they are the bravest, most stoical of hens, determined to make the most of their limitations and it was incumbent on me to help them get back on their feet (sometimes literally) in order for them to enjoy their free-range life as much as possible.” Absolutely crucial to this hen caring is Ruth’s husband Mike, infinitely patient and tolerant of sharing the house with hens, and always willing to take a long car journey at short notice so that a hen could benefit from receiving veterinary attention from the remarkable Marcella Perversi at Winkleigh.

Jan arrived soon after the phone call. “She looks like a dead hen in a box” Mike reflected sadly as we peered into the box holding her little form. Poor Jan had seemingly lost all co-ordination as she had spasms and would lurch backwards before collapsing. She was unable to hold her own head up and her neck twisted uncomfortably. The veterinary conclusion was it was probably something neurological.

Placing Jan gently on her lap Ruth’s heart sank, and she felt despair. “What to do?” she thought.

Ruth tells us, “Jan opened one little eye and looked up at me. I had to do something. Whilst I pondered this dilemma, I passed a tube into her crop and gave her a feed of beaten egg in water.”

 Jan was unable to feed herself and giving her some food and fluid was a priority. Replacement feeds such as Emeraid were not an option then. They did not really expect her to last the night but in the morning there she was; and so, they continued. “I trawled the internet for clues as to what could be the cause of Jan’s symptoms” she tells us. The only one that seemed to fit was a Vitamin E and selenium deficiency. Not much to go on but worth a try in the circumstances. So, to the egg and water feed Ruth added these two nutrients once daily.

Three times a day Jan would be given the tube feed, lots of cuddles and chat, and a little gentle physio.

Slowly, over the next couple of weeks Jan started to show signs of improvement. After a week she stood for the first time. Ruth tells us “We hardly dared believe it.” Her head control recovered and after 12 days she started to peck at some crumb and drink unaided. A little longer and she stopped having spasms and could take a few steps forward.

Happily, and against all odds, Jan went on to make a full recovery. She was able to join the flock outside and was completely normal. She rose up the pecking order ranks to become a very senior hen and was instantly recognisable due to her very loud voice and confident swagger. The hen we thought would not survive the night went on to enjoy two and a half years of retirement with us and made the biggest of nests in Ruth’s heart.


This story is not intended to replace veterinary advice. We encourage you to seek the help of an experienced avian vet if your hens experience issues. Also, whilst all our rehoming teams have poorly carers embedded in the team, there are only a small percentage of hens that pass through our hands that need this level of care and attention. Most of the hens we rehome are healthy and looking forward to their well-earned free-range retirement.

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