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Case for backyard hens resurfaces as pandemic continues

Potential food supply disruption underlines importance of local sources

SUNDRE — As COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions endure and frailties of the food supply are exposed, some people are advocating a return to prioritizing local sources.

In Sundre, where for brief periods of time the grocery store intermittently struggles to keep eggs — among other supplies — in stock, the years-old issue of allowing backyard chickens is resurfacing.

“With all the food uncertainty, and IGA running out of eggs a few times in the last weeks, it sure makes me fond for the times that my little backyard flock used to provide food for us every day,” wrote Keegan Smith in a March 30 post shared on the Sundre Backyard Chickens social media page, which has about 160 members.

“On social media and with the people I speak to, I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for something like this in town,” said Smith in an interview with The Albertan.

Many years back before his time in Sundre, the council of the day had discussed the issue but decided against directing administration to develop a bylaw that would allow people to raise backyard chickens.

“That’s changed now, I think,” said Smith.

“Especially with this COVID thing, there’s really some renewed interest in people bringing some of the their food production closer to home…even if we’re not saying, ‘Hey, we’re all gonna go live on a hippy commune and produce every last scrap of food we eat,’ I think a lot of people are saying, ‘You know, I could grow a bit of a garden and that would be a bit of food security for me and my family.’”

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To a small degree, such an effort could reduce dependency on imported food and on food systems that, while generally good and reliable in Canada, have shown a degree of frailty during the pandemic.  

“I get my eggs from a local producer who lives outside of Sundre, and she’s been unable to keep up to the demand for people wanting some local eggs, and wanting some eggs that are arguably healthier than commercial production, and arguably more humanely raised,” he said.

Of course all of that being said, Smith also recognizes there are legitimate concerns about raising hens in town, but nothing that can’t be reasonably addressed.

“With any pet or animal that’s kept in town, there are a few legitimate concerns, noise being one of them, odour and waste management being another,” he said.

“Those are mostly what I’ve heard people voicing concerns for. I wouldn’t dismiss them — those are legitimate concerns. Nobody wants their neighbour to have a hobby farm next door to them that keeps them up all night and smells bad all the time.”

However, the hundreds — if not thousands — of municipalities throughout North America that allow backyard chickens impose bylaw restrictions in terms of numbers, usually capped at half a dozen or so, he said.  

“Like with any other pet. Is it a problem if your dog barks all day and night? Well, yes it is. But I don’t think that means nobody should be allowed to have dogs,” he said.

“Most people are responsible pet owners.”

And in rare circumstances where it is a problem, there are already rules in place that address such concerns.

“As far as noise, chickens are far, far, far less noisy than a dog ever would be,” he said, adding most municipalities that allow chickens do not permit roosters, which he fully agrees with.

“And the waste management, you can backyard compost quite safely and without creating odors, and we also have municipal compost pickup.”

Plus, chickens are fun pets for children to have, and builds a connection with where food comes from, he said.

Another argument against backyard chickens that he’s heard is that they might bring predators like cougars into town. But in a community imbedded on nature’s doorstep with deer wandering everywhere, that’s already happening, he said.

“I can’t imagine that a chicken is any more of an attractant to cougars than a cat or small dog,” he said, adding the bylaw could also outline requirements for how sturdy a coop would have to be.

Recognizing that administration has its hands full not only with other priority projects but also coping with the pandemic, Smith said he does not want to pile more work on their shoulders. However, he added it doesn’t have to be a huge project.

“We don’t need to re-invent the wheel,” he said, adding bylaws are already in place in many municipalities and that templates exist.

Mayor Terry Leslie said when contacted later that day that he would welcome a presentation to council for a discussion on the merits and how to address the concerns, and that a final decision would hinge largely on the community’s support.

“As council members, you have to be open to persuasion,” said Leslie.

“I can’t make my mind up right now, because I haven’t seen anything,” he said, when asked whether he would support allowing backyard chickens.

“You can’t make your mind up ahead of time. I’m open to hear what folks have to say. Innovation, creativity, COVID-19 — we’ve all got to have ourselves open to things that we might not have considered in the past. We’ll see how strong a push there is, we’ll see how much support there is in the community. It’ll be an interesting discussion I think.”

The Albertan contacted the towns of Innisfail, Carstairs, Olds and Didsbury to see how regional municipalities are approaching the issue. Carstairs and Innisfail do not allow backyard chickens. In the absence of a bylaw specifically pertaining to backyard chickens, residents in Didsbury can raise them. In Olds, which is reviewing its animal control bylaw, backyard chickens are not allowed, but not specifically mentioned in its bylaws.