Free-range eggs, good company - backyard hens are making a comeback. Jane Dunbar reports.
Thinking of getting a couple of chickens for the backyard?
If so, you're one of a growing number of people who are doing just that.
Local breeders have noticed an increase in number of people buying chickens during the past couple of years.
Why the interest?
Ann Vosloo, of Popular Pets in Spencerville, thinks it's for a range of reasons.
People want chickens not only for fresh eggs but also for pets, she says. There are also added benefits, such as chickens being great weed-eaters. Got a problem with twitch in your garden? Get chickens and they'll get rid of it for you (of course, they'll also eat all your vegetables if you let them near your vege patch).
Vosloo thinks bad publicity about the conditions suffered by battery hens has played a role in the increasing popularity of backyard chickens.
"People don't want to be buying those kinds of eggs. They like to get nice fresh eggs from their own chooks, which they know are well looked after. They also like to know where their produce is coming from - and what's been fed to the chooks."
Nicole Todd, from Hazelgrove Chickens and Clydesdales in Clarkville, also has noticed an increase in interest in backyard chooks.
She says people are buying chickens for eggs and meat; for pets; and to breed them for shows.
"Some people want a pet, and are happy if it lays. Some just want a good supply of eggs.
"And some people come for one chicken and leave with five."
Like everything, there are fashions with chickens, she says.
Last season, orpingtons were the cool breed. "I couldn't hatch enough of them".
This year, French breed faverolles are looking popular.
"They're ideal for city backyards because of their personality, great looks and good egg laying."
Todd explains that chickens come in three sizes:
Bantams, which are easy to tame so make great pets but don't lay so many eggs
Light breeds, which are more flighty but are great egg layers
Heavy breeds, which are dual purpose; ie: they're good for both eggs and meat
Todd says at least a quarter of her business is from city customers, and that she has been surprised by the amount of interest since she set up a couple of years ago.
She says chickens are trainable, make great company and clearly have different personalities. She advises all chicken enthusiasts to read University of Canterbury researcher Annie Potts' book Chicken, especially the chapter Chicken Wisdom, which debunks the notion of chickens being stupid or "bird brains".
Vosloo argues that as well as their ability to feed, to garden and to entertain, chickens can be therapeutic.
"I know a child who was very withdrawn and not doing too great. Then his mother got him some chickens, and she said that this really changed him; he had something to look after."
Vosloo thinks chicks are so good for kids that she started a Chicks for Children part to her business.
"I think children need to get a bit of reality into their lives. Computers, laptops, cellphones . . . they can't get away from them.
"We have boarding kennels here and a lot of people come in; often with children. I show them the chooks and say 'why don't you get two or three chicks and your children could raise them?' You only need a banana box and a lamp (any kind) to give them a bit of heat, and you can keep them inside. Then you have chickens. It's a bit of reality for children; gets them away from TV; and gives them something natural in their lives."
Vosloo sells three chicks for $15.
"I say to the children: You have to give them clean water every day and make sure their box is clean, and feed them. They have a special food at first but, once they're 5 or 6 weeks old, they can start having all sorts of food - table scraps, anything really."
So what are the rules about keeping backyard chickens?
The city council says anyone can keep up to six hens on a property, as long as there are no noise or hygiene issues that annoy neighbours.
Vosloo says one customer brought her silkie pullets back after a neighbour complained about the constant "clucking".
The bigger problem, however, Vosloo says, are next-door dogs trying to get onto the property for a tasty lunch.
While some people are happy to have their chickens wander throughout home and garden, both Vosloo and Todd recommend fencing, so the chickens are confined to a certain area and don't pick the garden to bits.
The space you need depends on the breed you get. Little bantams don't take up much space and you could keep a couple of them in a tiny backyard.
Vosloo says she grew up in Spreydon and her family had chooks while she was growing up.
Then keeping backyard chooks fell out of fashion. Why?
"Backyard chooks have a layoff during the winter and you don't get any eggs.
"And my parents probably thought, 'this is a waste of time; we can buy a tray of eggs for less than it costs to keep the chooks'.
"But now, we're getting into this green thing; we want to know where our food is coming from. I think it has a lot to do with it."
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