What's the beef with backyard chickens?: Saskatoon researchers ask

A researcher at the University of Saskatchewan is looking at ways to produce more food in Saskatoon, including keeping backyard chickens.

Rejection of urban hen pilot project sparks U of S research

The Bridge City Chicken group in Saskatchewan is hoping to win over the hearts and minds of Saskatoon residents and city council. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

An urban agriculture researcher at the University of Saskatchewan says keeping backyard chickens can help people better understand where their food comes from. 

Earlier this year, Bridge City Chickens proposed an urban hen pilot project in Saskatoon. But the proposal, which would have allowed 30 households to keep urban hens, was rejected by city council.

That sparked a new research project by the social science research lab at the U of S. It looked at three things: understanding why people support backyard chickens, exploring the concerns of those who don't, and identifying barriers and restrictions in Saskatoon's current bylaws.

What's the beef with backyard chickens?

In May, the group conducted phone interviews with nearly 400 people in Saskatoon.

According to project researcher and Bridge City Chickens' member Wanda Martin, more than half of the people surveyed were in favour of allowing three to five chickens in Saskatoon backyards. 

Wanda Martin, member of the Saskatoon Bridge City Chickens, is also an assistant professor at the U of S College of Nursing. Her work involves the study of urban hens. (Victoria Dinh/CBC)

Martin added that most people softened their opposition once the pilot project was explained to them. 

She found some people falsely assumed you need to have a rooster to have eggs. She said, unlike their notoriously loud rooster counterparts, hens are the same decibel level as people talking. 

Martin said some of the people they surveyed think of "large, loud, smelly barns with hundreds of chickens," which she said is "drastically different than three to five hens in your neighbour's backyard." 

However, she cautions chickens are not something you get and forget about.

"There are responsibilities, such as maintaining a comfortable living space, feeding and waste cleanup," she explained. 

National trend

Martin said there is a national trend around urban livestock. 

"People are starting to make those connections with what's happening with our climate and what's happening with the areas that are growing our food and maybe there will be more attention to 'what can I do in my backyard?'"

Backyard chickens are permitted in a number of Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Victoria, Whitehorse and some areas of Montréal. (tbfoodstrategy.ca)

Martin said there is a growing interest in food sovereignty and for people to be more connected to where their food is coming from. 

She is concerned most of the fruits and vegetables eaten in Saskatchewan are grown in other places that may be subject to climate change-related problems, and she sees growing more of our own food as a step towards greater food security.

Martin's next step is working with Saskatoon city planners to find out what would be involved in changing the bylaws the allow for urban chickens.

With files from Samanda Brace