SUNDRE — If major metropolitan centres such as Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton can find ways to accommodate urban hens, a small town like Sundre should be able to as well, says a local proponent.
It was among the many points presented to council by Sundre resident Owen Petersen on Monday, Sept. 28 during a regular meeting conducted by teleconference.
“My goal here is to have some chickens,” said Petersen.
“To be very specific, when I say chicken, I mean Gallus Gallus Domesticus, which is the scientific name for what we consider chickens. Even more specific, I am talking about hens. I am not talking about the cockerels, or the roosters — whatever you want to call them — I am specifically talking about female chickens,” he clarified.
“As a resident of Sundre, I must deal with a lot of noises, and I certainly do not want roosters added to that mix.”
Providing some background for additional context, Petersen told council chickens are believed to be among the first four animals ever to be domesticated by humans, meaning people have lived alongside them for millennia.
“Here we are in 2020, and we aren’t allowed to have chickens in a lot of urban settings — specifically Sundre,” he said.
However, he added attitudes have been changing, ushering in a trend whereby more and more municipalities are now allowing backyard hens.
Previously living in Edmonton, Petersen said he and his wife had a couple of chickens that ended up being taken away by a bylaw officer.
“I’ve been to council meetings at Edmonton city council as they went through this whole process years ago to allow urban chickens,” he said.
The removal of agricultural practices from urban settings is among the reasons why chickens are not always allowed within a town or city limits, he said.
“I understand why that happened. We don’t want cows in people’s backyards in an urban setting. Cows come with a lot of neighbour conflicts I would imagine — I’ve never had a cow in my backyard, but I imagine there would be some complications,” he said.
“I’m not here to bring back the cow, or the goat, or anything else to Sundre,” he added with a chuckle.
“However, I think that the chicken got wrapped up as a livestock animal and kind of lost in the middle. Because a chicken is very different from a cow, and a chicken has a place — I believe — in urban settings, because they contribute so much to food and food sustainability.”
Noise, smell and safety
As for concerns about noise, with roosters out of the equation, there would hardly be any disturbance since hens don’t make a sound after the sun goes down. And compared with roaring pickup trucks, lawnmowers, low-flying planes circling overhead and barking dogs, a few clucking hens pale in comparison, he said.
“As far as noise, they do not cluck at night. As soon as the sun sets, they do not cluck — they are silent. We deal with a lot of diesel trucks and dogs in this town making noise, and chickens are very small sound comparatively speaking.”
And while hens produce manure, he said the municipality already has rules in place protecting residents from people emitting awful smells, whether from animal feces or any other reasons.
“It’s really not a big deal. On average, six chickens produce the same amount of waste as two medium-sized dogs.”
Besides, chicken manure is easily dealt with, and can be put in a compost bin, taken to the waste transfer station, or even used as fertilizer in gardens. Unlike feline or canine feces that some residents lament discovering in their gardens, chicken manure is an ideal fertilizer for flowerbeds and gardens, he said.
“And there’s a reason for that, is because chicken feces are really, really beneficial for gardening — they’re beneficial for flowerbeds, they’re beneficial for food gardens, and they’re really high in nitrogen. Whereas there’s other animals that always get in your flowerbeds, but don’t benefit them — I’m looking at you cats!”
Chickens are also very safe animals, with some people expressing concerns about diseases or attracting predators, he said.
But diseases are only a concern in industrial operations with hundreds or thousands of birds packed tightly together. And predators like cougars — which don’t typically prey on chickens anyway — already find their way into town because of the deer, he said.
“Chickens are an incredibly safe animal to have in your life.”
Reconnecting with food supply
Additionally, he said allowing residents to raise backyard hens would strengthen the local food supply that proved vulnerable during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s even more evident in Sundre, even though I feel that we are very sheltered in the world in this wonderful little community of ours. But we all saw empty shelves in IGA this spring as COVID hit. That really punched home, to me, this need for food sustainability, and chickens are just one small part of that — I’m not going to pretend that chickens are going to solve the food security issue.”
Many people have also largely become disconnected with where their food comes from, he said.
“We interact with chickens on a daily basis — the vast majority of us in town. And we interact with chickens by eating them — we eat their meat, we eat their eggs, a lot of us do. Yet we are very disconnected to an actual chicken.”
Matter of zoning
“This is the big one,” said Petersen, highlighting a section of Sundre’s land use bylaw pertaining to accessory buildings.
“There’s one line that says no accessory building may be used for sheltering livestock or poultry. So, as far as I’m aware, this is the only thing inhibiting me from having poultry,” he said.
Acknowledging municipal staff’s recent work to review and update bylaws, he said, “I really just don’t like that line.”
An option could be to create a new bylaw similar to the ones outlining regulations for cats and dogs, but addressing the issue could be as simple as removing the reference of poultry from the land use bylaw, he suggested.
“We’re not coming here today to ask to reinvent the wheel,” he said, adding template bylaws are available in places that already allow backyard hens.
“Some now allow for chickens. Most notably, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, New York City — they all allow chickens,” he said.
“I really think it could work here, as we are so small. We don’t even have half the problems that the big, big municipalities have.”
Passion for poultry
Expressing a passion for poultry, Petersen candidly admitted his adoration for chickens.
“I do not say love loosely. I have loved chickens since I was a child — I’ve lived on farms, I really adore them. And I think I adore them because they provide me with two things: not only do they provide me companionship, but they also provide me with food, which is a really big focus of my life, has been food.”
Recognizing that the introduction of backyard hens has been a controversial issue in some municipalities, primarily because of people’s varying experiences with chickens, Petersen said the top two concerns typically expressed are manageable.
“Limiting the number of chickens in the municipality and the elimination of roosters can kind of mitigate some of those negative experiences that some folks may have with chickens,” he said.
Coun. Rob Wolfe was curious as to what type of enclosures Petersen proposed.
“That’s a good question — there’s a lot of ways to do this,” said Petersen, who recommended a flexible approach.
Some municipalities develop very restrictive bylaws, but Petersen doesn’t think it has to be complicated.
“My preferred chicken enclosure is called a chicken tractor,” he said, describing a moveable apparatus akin to a small rabbit hutch with an open bottom so chickens can feed on fresh bugs and grass every day.
“And they kind of move around your lawn so they’re not ruining a certain space.”
Some people opt to put a coop in a garage with a cat door type access to the outdoors. Either way, the municipality’s existing land use bylaw pertaining to accessory buildings should suffice, he said.
“If you’re going to build a giant chicken coop for your four chickens, you still have to abide by all of the accessory building zoning rules. Whether you put chickens in there or put your lawn mower in there, it doesn’t really matter.”
Bonus: pest control
Chickens can also help green thumbs control pests, he said.
“If any of you folk are gardeners, you will know that we had an amazing year of slugs. And an hour of a chicken in your garden — one chicken in your garden — and you will help mitigate a lot of your pest control.”
The town has been focused a lot over the years on Communities in Bloom, and chickens could play a role. Used properly, chickens can help people have a more beautiful garden and have more nutritious food to feed their families, he said.
Council asks questions
Imploring council to direct administration to research the possibility of allowing residents to raise a limited number of hens — but no roosters — Petersen said a little more than 30 people had signed their names in support.
“There are a lot of folks in Sundre that would like to have backyard chickens, (and) a lot of folks in Sundre that don’t want backyard chickens, but are in support of their neighbours having them,” he said.
Coun. Cheri Funke asked Petersen whether he would be willing to participate in any public open houses that might be held in the future.
“Yes. 100 per cent,” he answered.
Council proceeded to unanimously carry Coun. Paul Isaac’s motion directing administration to further research backyard hens along with input from Petersen, and to report back with recommendations on the next steps.
“If big centres like Edmonton and Toronto are allowing these with some restrictions, I don’t see why we, as a smaller municipality, couldn’t support this initiative as well,” said Coun. Rob Wolfe.
Mayor Terry Leslie, who supported the motion, invoked a few laughs when he said, “I’ve been sitting on council on and off since 1984, and the issue of urban chickens date back to the time when many of you weren’t born yet!”