Many smallholders might not have thought about the therapeutic value of keeping chickens.

When we picture the average smallholding, we presume that there will be a few chickens, either wandering round free-range or kept in a ‘hok’ of some kind. Yet the SA Smallholder’s statistics show that nearly 40% of smallholders do not keep poultry.

The advantages of keeping chickens will be obvious to most ~ fresh eggs, meat for the non-vegetarians, fertiliser and walking pest control.

But there is another reason that has been highlighted by certain programmes, and that is the therapeutic value of having a few chickens wandering around one’s plot.

People suffering from depression or loneliness have discovered that having a small flock of hens to care for has given them a focus outside of themselves. Having to get up and go outside to feed their chickens has had a disproportionately positive effect. They are outside in the fresh air and interacting with uncomplicated, amusing little creatures, each with a personality of her own.

The feel-good effect

Therapy hens
Caring for hens gives people an outside interest.

Anyone who has raised backyard chickens can confirm the feel-good effect hens have on their owners. This is probably due to increased oxytocin. This is a stress-lowering chemical in your body that’s released when you hug someone you love, or pet your dog or cat.

On another physical level, the free-range eggs are a good source of omega-3, an essential mood-boosting fat.

The elderly respond very well to programmes such as HenPower, where small flocks of chickens have been introduced to retirement homes. Men in particular become involved in the care of the hens. In the UK they are referred to as ‘henshioners’.

Other programmes have introduced some hens in the grounds of homes caring for patients with dementia. Terry Golson is the “chicken captain” at just such a programme. “Having chickens in the backyard is like looking at the ocean. There’s a lot of movement and at the same time it feels calming. What could be better for memory-loss patients than this constant ebb and flow in which they can engage? It’s a perfect match.”

Rescuing some battery chickens would add further therapeutic value, by giving one the feeling of having done some creatures some good.

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