Why did the chicken cross the road… down under?

Raising backyard chickens is a hot-button issue in Vancouver, but as Senga Lindsay observes firsthand, it's just a way of life in New Zealand

Credit: Senga Lindsay

Debate on keeping backyard chickens is a hot topic in North America, but it’s nothing new Down Under

I thought as an interesting twist to blogging for GardenWise I would try an at-the-scene reporting on some of the garden strategies that our friends Down Under have been into. I have been pleasantly surprised to see that what we think is new and cutting edge in North America has already been adopted in other countries.

We arrived in New Zealand on Sunday morning after a 16-hour flight and were met by my husband’s cousins David and Bronwyn who are graciously hosting us for part of our three-week journey. Knowing I am a landscape architect, they gave us the full tour of the gardens before our luggage was even whisked into the house!

Backyard chickens in New Zealand

Dave and the chucks
Dave and the “chucks” go for a walkabout
each day in the yard

They live on a typical subdivision street on less than a quarter-acre lot in a typical New Zealand town. A soft “cluck, cluck, clucking” could be heard coming from the bottom of the garden and I immediately head that way.

Four laying hens (a.k.a. chucks) came to greet us as we went to investigate. Just when I thought Vancouver was pretty progressive in considering the keeping of backyard chickens in the city, I find the New Zealanders are well ahead of us.

The chickens are kept in a simple meshed fenced area with a shelter designed to look like a camper van (so typically New Zealand). Their composter is kept in the middle—additional food (think worms and bugs) for the birds to feed.

Once a day the birds are let out to wander the yard. They follow Dave around as he leads them around in search of additional treats. Even the family cat takes cover when they are out. And in return, each hen produces one egg a day, with the freshest most golden yolk eggs you will find—a result of birds that are allowed to wander in the fresh air and eat a varied diet of greens, insects and worms.

And to be truly sustainable, chickens can be kept in a “chicken tractor.” These are bottomless mobile pens that can be set up on an area to be reworked by the chucks. This works well for raised vegetable beds that have been recently harvested. The birds go to work cleaning up old vegetable matter, digging and scratching the soil surface, and in return depositing fertilizer. It takes about two to three weeks to finish a typical 2’ x 6’ area. And then the bed can be replanted for another crop. This is permaculture in its truest form.

chicken tractor signchicken tractor
The Chicken Tractor – Permaculture in action. The tractor is placed on a harvested
vegetable bed for the chickens to clean up and fertilize at the same time.

There are many ways you can chic up your chucks dwelling. Since investigating the whole backyard chicken rage, I’ve found options ranging from condominium style living to dwellings with green roofs.

Some chicken coop styles: customize your own from green-roofed variety to
architecturally designed.

Photos (left to right) courtesy: seattletimes.com | shedstyle.com | infotube.net

And there is no shortage of pedigreed chickens that can complement the look. Hey! I am a designer—we actually think this way!

Brown Shaver chickenblack chicken
Designer chickens for your urban garden – I foresee a nice red-trimmed hen house
as part of the Brown Shaver chicken’s house! The black (Heinz 57 variety) chicken
will go perfect with our post and beam house with painted black trim!

Backyard chickens a no-brainer

The most amusing part is that in New Zealand there is no over-analytical hoopla over the “to keep chickens or to not keep chickens” question.

When I queried as to how long it took for council to approve this bylaw and what did they have to go through to get this all allowed, I was met with puzzled looks as to “why they wouldn’t allow it?”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and New Zealanders being isolated islanders are naturally self-sufficient.

backyard lamb
Better catch up, Vancouver!
Lambs in your backyard are the
latest for urban agriculture.

And where sheep outnumber the locals (by about 6:1!), it may come as no surprise to learn that one is even allowed a lamb on their property. Lambs are often outsourced to local schools and literally “homeschooled” at children’s homes.

Whereas X-Boxes, Twitter and TV help disconnect our kids from nature, this is a hands-on way to help get them reengaged in with nature. An important pillar of sustainability.

(As a footnote, after the chickens our cousins attempted to keep a goat on their property. Alas, they were busted by council for having a goat in their front yard one day. Their thinking was that a ready-made lawn mower in return for milk and cheese seemed like a good idea… Well, maybe Vancouver council may want to get a jump on that one!)

Are backyard chickens right for you?

1. Find out your City’s bylaws on keeping chickens
2. Ask yourself: do you have the time, interest and money to make an investment? Do you have the space and desire to manage this long term? What if something goes wrong (chickens can get sick or just not lay eggs)—what is your back up plan?
3. Do your research and make sure you are fully outfitted before bringing your first chucks home.

Don’t underestimate the responsibility

I can’t express enough that these are living creatures which will solely depend on you for care and are not the latest eco-accessory you can forget. These are living beings that are not disposable commodities.

Useful links

City of Vancouver – further information on the impending Vancouver approval on keeping chickens in the city

City Farmer News – a Vancouver-based website that promotes growing food at home

Keeping Chickens – an informative e-newsletter that provides general info on the subject