The backyard chickens of Springwater Township are here to stay.
Township council voted Wednesday night to make the backyard chicken program permanent following a three-year pilot program, allowing residents who meet all of the licensing requirements to keep a maximum of four hens.
It didn’t come without a warning.
“Avian influenza is a serious concern — it can really wipe out people’s livelihoods,” said Coun. Phil Fisher, who supports the program, but is also seeking assurances that it can be done without risk to people or flocks.
“It’s a serious concern for farmers," he added. "I’ve researched it through the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and they all agree that backyard chickens and the socializing of flocks with migratory birds can actually spread avian influenza.”
To mitigate the risk, Fisher recommended there be a registry so the township can track any issues and make their findings public.
“If there is disease, dead birds, we can track it and isolate it for farmers,” he added.
Council had three options to consider.
The first option was to implement a permanent and township-wide backyard chicken program and present a bylaw for consideration at the Sept. 20 council meeting.
The second option was to end the backyard chicken pilot program and revert to backyard chicken prohibitions in place prior to the pilot program, and then advise residents that applications will no longer be accepted in anticipation of the end of the pilot program on Oct. 7.
The last option was for staff to reinstate backyard chicken prohibitions, advise residents that applications would no longer be accepted in anticipation of the end of the pilot program on Oct. 7 and provide some flexibility to those who participated in the program by allowing them to keep their hen(s) until they die, as long as they adhere to several township requirements.
Over the course of the three-year program, township records show there were 18 applications and 13 licences issued. Of the 13 licences issued, there are currently three active renewals and only one of the applicants renewed in both 2022 and 2023. There were also five complaints received — all five for owners who did not have a backyard chicken licence.
Springwater officials say they know there are unregistered flocks across the township and are willing to create an "amnesty period" for those chicken owners to become part of the program, simply because it’s better to know than not.
“I think it’s good for us to know where the chickens are, so I would suggest there should be an amnesty period moving forward so those people can come into compliance and get a permit,” said Deputy Mayor George Cabral. “I also think anyone with the permit has to comply with and adhere to it. There should also be a mechanism for permit-holders so the permit can be revoked.”
Recognizing this decision may have some effect on local poultry farmers, Springwater has decided to cap the number of licences to 25 per year.
Public support for the program, which was launched in November 2020, has been divided.
The township posted a backyard chicken program survey between July 20 and Aug. 15 this year. The survey had 156 respondents — 120 who supported keeping the program and 36 who did not support the program.
Interestingly, there were 21 respondents who said they participated in the program, yet the township issued only 13 licences.
People in favour of the program claimed to have participated in the program, had neighbours participate, or thought they might like to participate. Some commented it was a learning opportunity for children, a satisfying hobby, developed feelings of pride and empowerment that comes from being self-sufficient, as well as the environmental benefits of waste diversion — feeding the chickens leftovers.
Many of the people who are against the program reported witnessing or experiencing an influx of rats, coyotes, and wildlife to the area as a direct result of a neighbouring property having chickens. The local agricultural community raised concerns about avian bird flu and how this could impact their farming operations. Concerns about Avian Bird Flu have led other municipalities to end/suspend their backyard chicken programs.
Additionally, animal rights groups have protested these types of programs, noting they are not in the interest of the chickens.
Across Simcoe County, backyard chickens do not receive equal rights. Of the 16 municipalities in Simcoe County, eight do not allow backyard chickens — Barrie, Collingwood, Midland, New Tecumseth, Penetanguishene, Adjala-Tosorontio, Tay, and Tiny. Three — Innisfil, Oro-Medonte and Bradford — permit backyard chickens, but under very strict conditions. Clearview, Orillia and Severn allow backyard chickens while Ramara is hosting a pilot program.
Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BarrieToday.com