It may come as a surprise that most major U.S. cities permit the keeping of backyard hens on urban properties, and now many Canadian cities are following in suit. Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster, Victoria, Burnaby, Nelson, Gibsons, London and Niagara Falls, Ontario, are just a few that have jumped on the clucking bandwagon to join a growing number of North Americans advocating for the right to grow and maintain their own food. Unfortunately however, many municipalities continue to ban backyard flocks despite surmounting research, encouraging statistics and productive action from neighboring boroughs. Sadly, Penticton is one such municipality, whereby the City has established certain residential zoning bylaws restricting the keeping of backyard hens. This then begs the question: if New York, one of the world’s largest, most densely populated cities, permits backyard hens on urban properties, why can’t Penticton, a small rural town with a population of 32,000, not also comply?
The issue is not unique to our city. It is one that has caused a lot of clucking in the mainstream media across Canada. McLean’s Magazine and Canadian Living recently issued articles deliberating the moot point of backyard hen keeping. Many proponents contend that the productive argument for backyard flocks finds root in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (to which Canada is a signatory). They propose that the reality of growing one’s own food in any sensible way is an absolute human right, a fundamental freedom of conscience, thought, belief and expression, and a systemic right to life, liberty and security of person, (as covered in Sections 2 and 7 of the Canadian Charter). This developing right-to-food trial has taken over much of the thought-think of contemporary urban living worldwide, in which a growing number of Canadians now attribute their love of backyard farming as a way to re-engage with nature, control the quality and source of their food and cut the chord of dependence on the industrial food industry. Moreover proponents for backyard hen keeping base their argument on strong ethical objections to commercial egg-producing methods.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency provides detailed descriptions and analysis on how to maintain backyard flocks, humane considerations, how to prevent and detect disease and basic hen care, as well as providing resources for backyard hen owners. The humane treatment of chickens as well as other domesticated animals, is generally defined by the “five freedoms,” as developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, (an advisory body to the British government). These include: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress. It seems the stipulated “Five Freedoms” could be easily facilitated by the keeping of backyard hens in residential zones, provided the urban dwelling hen keepers maintain a level of commonsense and responsibility, (as one should with do with any domestic pet). Ironically, most large commercial and industrial chicken farms and manufacturers across North America do not even come close to meeting such criterion as the “Five Freedoms.” So why not backyard hens in Penticton?
Under Penticton’s zoning bylaw, chickens are only permitted in agricultural structures situated within agricultural zones. The bylaw defines an agricultural structure as a structure used for agriculture and “intensive impact agriculture,” in which the primary production of farm products (dairy, poultry, cattle, hogs, sheep and other animals) is designated as “farm use” under the Agricultural Land Commission Act. These agricultural zones are therefore defined to provide appropriate development within rural areas, while safeguarding against the intrusion of agricultural uses and farm operations on residential zones. Accordingly, the City of Penticton has designated the minimum setback from all property lines for “intensive impact agriculture,” (which includes poultry, game and fur barns) to be 30 meters, and the minimum setback from any urban area boundary to be at least 60 meters.
At first glance, these restrictions and regulations may seem pretty standard. However, upon greater inspection, it is not difficult to point out the shortcomings. What was once standard is now, simply outdated. Penticton’s agricultural and zoning bylaws are not at all progressive by way of contemporary living, whereby the greater part of the population does not live on a farm. Indeed there are several unfitting elements to Penticton’s agricultural and zoning bylaw. Firstly, chickens are classified as “intensive impact agriculture,” the very same classification higher agricultural impact livestock, such as cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and goats fall under. It seems more commonsense than policy, to have a distinctive category for Chickens, (especially those considered for backyard use). Moreover under such bylaws, the agricultural impact of chickens is made equal to agricultural waste storage and agricultural compost (both of which have required setbacks of 30 meters from all property lines), which of course, is grossly inequitable. Backyard hen keeping with a restriction on number and size is not the equivalent to large agricultural waste storage and agricultural compost. But again, this is more commonsense than anything else. Secondly, while the parameters and guidelines of hen keeping (as stipulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency) indubitably comply with an urban setting, why does the City of Penticton designate chickens as “farm use” only? Lastly, backyard hens should not be considered an “intrusion” to residential zoning and residential uses. They are no more intrusive than cats and dogs, both of which require a general knowledge of pet-ownership, maintenance, care and responsibility.
It is a fact that the benefits of raising backyard hens, far outweighs any detriment. Eggs from well-tended backyard flocks are far superior than eggs from factory farmed chickens. In contrast to factory farm eggs, backyard hen eggs have 25 percent more vitamin E, a third more vitamin A, 75 percent more beta-carotene, (that rich orange yolk color) and have significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than their factory farm counterparts. Moreover, eggs from backyard hands are fresh and therefore much more flavorful. And that is only the health aspect of consuming backyard chicken eggs. The positive environmental impact of keeping backyard hens is astonishing. Hens provide chemical free bug and weed control, their scratching is good for the soil, and hen droppings enrich backyard composts, (chickens are known to produce the world’s best fertilizer). Not to mention chickens provide excellent lessons for children and families about responsibility while learning about where our food comes from.
In those Canadian cities that have reformed their bylaws to permit backyard hens, there is little evidence that urban coops have caused problems. This is mainly due to the fact that such municipalities have established sound guidelines; restrictions and registration programs to ensure hen keepers become familiar and comfortable with animal husbandry and veterinary care. The City of Vancouver for example, ensures that its backyard hen policy focuses on protecting the health and welfare of its citizens while supporting the humane treatment of backyard hens. Working closely with Vancouver Coastal Health to guarantee regulations satisfy concerns of health and safety, Vancouver’s Health Authority now concurs with the City’s regulations and supports it’s efforts to increase local food options, which allows residents to participate in the local food system.
So why not consider the proposition: What could be more commonsensical than exercising the human freedom to keep a reasonable number of well-looked-after chickens on Canadian urban properties? Let’s pilot it, do a trial run of backyard hen keeping and generate a citywide survey to get the feedback from our residents. We should seriously consider revising our dusty, old-fashioned agricultural bylaws, to accommodate a new-age philosophy on contemporary living. Legislation that restricts those wanting to enjoy the benefits of raising and producing their own food without having to own a farm is not only counterproductive, it is arguably an infringement on our human rights. The evidence is clear: backyard hens are far more ethically viable, healthier, environmentally friendly and natural than those commercially farmed chickens and are no different in maintenance and care than other domestic pets. So let’s get on it Penticton and make backyard hens a healthy option for all Pentictonites!