Autumn is now showing its colours, and with the days beginning to draw in all too quickly, it is important to pay close attention to your hen’s autumnal welfare needs. Fortunately, our Head of Operations & Welfare, Gaynor Davies, is on hand to offer her expert advice and many years of hen-keeping experience.
On one of those rare sunny days which catch us by surprise this time of year, I was walking down my paddock with feed bucket in hand heading towards my flock of 12 girls. As usual, my approach generated a flurry of feathered-activity, with a rush of ginger bodies heading towards me at breakneck speed. However, one of the little girls had not jumped up to attention, but instead continued to sit beneath the shelter of an apple tree.
After many years of hen keeping and welfare, caring for these delightful creatures, you get a gut feeling that something is not quite right, so I investigated. As I picked up Harriet, I could immediately see that she had something protruding from her vent; it was a papery piece of broken shell and membrane. I teased the broken shell out piece by tiny piece very slowly and with great care until it was all out. I placed Harriet on the ground and she immediately ran to the feeder to get her share. Harriet had suffered from Soft Shell eggs, a condition not uncommon at this time of the year, and something which you should be aware of when providing for the best possible hen care and welfare in the autumn months.
Often leathery, and pliable by touch, soft-shelled eggs have a thin layer of shell surrounding the yolk and egg whites. There are a number of causes to be aware of:
- There may be a lack of calcium in your hen’s diet, meaning the hen is not able to form a solid egg shell. A balanced diet is vital to avoid the condition, ensuring that as well as enough calcium, the hen is also getting a healthy amount of proteins and vitamin D3
- Social issues including stress, henpecking, or bullying can also lead to soft shell eggs
- Hot weather is known to have an impact on the laying process
- The age and overall health of the hen can also be a factor, with both younger and older hens being more prone to soft shell eggs, as well as overweight hens
In some cases the shell might break inside the hen just before laying; this can result in shell fragments being retained and / or a partially laid membrane hanging out of the vent. If you feel confident, make sure your hen is relaxed then very gently tease the fragments out. As you very gently pull a millimetre at a time, your hen will realise you are trying to help and pulse her vent muscles to help excrete the fragments. If there is resistance when you pull or any blood is seen stop immediately and contact our Hen Helpline. On successful removal, your hen should bounce back and feel better almost immediately.Gaynor Davis, Head of Operations
How to combat soft-shell eggs in hens
Our hard-working girls often go through a moult or partial moult in autumn to get their feathering in tip-top shape for the winter. To grow these new feathers, they need to divert calcium away from egg production, as a result, shell quality suffers. Each egg requires roughly four grams of calcium to produce and hens will only have a reserve of 40 grams in their skeleton. To help your girls through this period avoid giving them too many treats and stick to a high calcium and good quality layer feed. We recommend Allen & Page Free Range Layers Crumble. You may also want to use liquid calcium supplements like Zolcal D, which is easily administered in drinking water and quickly absorbed by your hens.
Moulting hens in autumn
For any first-time hen rehomers, seeing your flock moulting can be quite an alarming sight. But you shouldn’t worry, though your yard or coop may be awash with feathers, this is perfectly normal during the autumn months. Your girls, and indeed any cockerels you may have, are just preparing for winter with a fresh set of feathers. As noted above, this may impact their egg-laying, as energy and nutrients is directed towards the moult.
Just as you would with soft-shell egg issues, continue to provide a balanced diet with healthy levels of protein and calcium to help your girls [and boys]. If you have already clipped your hen’s wings you will need to do this again once they have finished moulting, but please do not do it until they are done with the new feathering up process.
Coop maintenance and care
Coop maintenance should be an ongoing priority and you should always be on the look out for any holes or weaknesses in your fencing and coops. With autumn and winter comes not only intensified weather, but also pests and predators. You may wish to reinforce some areas of your hen’s home to combat these issues, while also ensuring that the inside is clean and comfortable for all of the occupants.
With the nights growing longer and the temperature dropping, you want to ensure that your hens are as comfortable and safe as can be. This guide on autumnal hen welfare will hopefully help you to achieve this, but if you have any questions or concerns, please visit the British Hen Welfare Trust website and social media pages for all of the latest advice and guidance, or get in touch with our team.