In October 2017, the City of Toronto approved a pilot project to allow people to keep backyard hens in four different wards of the city. The announcement was met with excitement from those interested in local, sustainable food systems and urban agriculture, but also with pushback from citizens concerned with the potential hygiene issues and neighbourhood disturbances. The pilot will run for 18 months and allow just 4 hens to be kept at each residence, prohibiting roosters and preventing those that live in condos or apartments from keeping them.
During a recent trip to Europe, I stumbled upon a chicken keeping course on Airbnb’s “experience” page in England. Intrigued to learn more, I enrolled in the course and hopped on a commuter train to Little Hadham, Hertfordshire, an hour outside London. There I met Claudia Audley, who has been breeding chickens since she was 6 years old, and was added to a poultry breeder’s directory when she was only 8. Since returning to Hertfordshire after graduating from university and working in London, she now runs Bury Green Poultry where she raises a variety of different chickens. Her favourite is the Pekin bantam, a small breed that lays smaller, less hardy eggs but have a friendly, docile disposition. Pekin bantams are also much less destructive in gardens. Claudia showed me her many chickens, their beautiful colourful eggs, and gave me a lesson on proper poultry rearing, from egg to chicken.
Claudia educated me on the multiple reasons for keeping chickens. Fresh eggs have many health benefits, and they have a more yellow yolk and less watery albumen than store-bought eggs. Keeping your own chickens is very environmentally sustainable, as it decreases your food miles, and chickens are omnivores that can reduce food waste by eating scraps, their droppings are great for soil, and they turn over gardens at the end of the growing season, reducing the need for pesticides. Raising backyard chickens is a form of ethical farming and allows owners to connect with where their food is from. Not only do chickens provide a sustainable and healthy food source, they are amazing pets. They can provide children with opportunities to learn about caring for an animal and gain responsibility, not to mention it provides them with more time outside. They are incredibly low-maintenance pets that simply need freshwater, food, shelter and safety from pets and predators. All of these things are easily achievable in the City of Toronto.
Chickens need about 2 square feet of space each to thrive. Four hens will likely lay around 24 eggs per week, depending on the breed. Hybrid breeds can lay all year round, but pure breeds require at least 14 hours of light to do so. To keep chickens cool in the summer, Claudia suggests making them corn ice lollies, popsicles made with corn and water, and coating their combs and wattles with Vaseline and keeping them in their coops in the winter to prevent frostbite.
For those worried about smell, noise, predator attraction and disease, Claudia points to a few things that chicken owners can do to combat these problems:
- Owners should regularly clean their hens’ coops, appliances and other products. She suggests plastic coops because not only are they easier to clean than wooden ones, but they provide warmth in the winter and stay cool in the summer. You can disinfect these with DE powder (for mites) and disinfectant.
- Bedding should be changed regularly.
- Hens should be wormed every 3 months by mixing a powder available at the vet into their feed.
- Check your hens for clean and alert eyes, clear noses, bright red comb and clean feet free from parasites or “scaly leg”.
- Make sure the spot you select in the garden for your coop has lots of light, but also has a shaded and sheltered area.
- Planting trees alongside the hens’ area can be good for reducing noise and predators and providing wind protection.
- Keeping feeders and water at the hen’s breast height discourages rats and other pests, and a fence that is 6 feet high that extends 1 foot underground is ideal for keeping out predators like raccoons and foxes.
My experience touring Bury Green Poultry with Claudia was amazing and the level of care and love she provides her chickens gives me the confidence that raising hens in Toronto will be successful. I never expected to leave with the wealth of information and helpful tips that I did, not to mention I now know the difference between a frizzle and a frazzle. The backyard chickens pilot project is a huge step forward for Toronto’s urban agriculture movement. With proper care, raising hens can be a rewarding activity for families looking to decrease their environmental footprint, improve their health and have access to healthy and ethically-sourced eggs.
For more information about chicken breeds and the joy of raising chickens, please go to http://burygreenpoultry.co.uk/ and follow Bury Green Poultry on social media: