By Linea Volkering
Balancing a jug of steaming water in one hand, and a pellet-filled container in the other, John Wimberly is an unlikely sight in front of his north-end home. He barely hesitates as he squeezes between a car and his house, lurching over a snow bank left over from Wednesday’s snowstorm into his backyard. He unlocks the latch of a snow-covered creation of mesh, wood, nails and wire. Past the enclosure’s gate, Wimberly pushes up a plank of wood. Three beaks poke into view.
This is Wimberly’s chicken coop, built from scratch out of repurposed materials. It is home to three unlikely urban residents: hens.
Hatching an interest
Wimberly’s interest in keeping hens began around two and a half years ago, when his father offered him an old brood intended for slaughter. Intrigued at the idea of hen keeping, Wimberly took on the birds. Since then, he has become an active advocate for urban hen keeping in Halifax.
“When I started raising hens, I was really enthusiastic to push it further and I wanted to get people together,” Wimberly says.
The egg industry
Wimberly uses “disconcerting” to describe factory farming because of the small amount of space given to the animals. He views this process that brings eggs to supermarkets as unethical and unhealthy for the birds involved. Instead, he encourages like-minded citizens to support local henhouses, as they provide an alternative to the system.
“It also creates a conversation in your neighbourhood, some sort of understanding of where your food comes from,” says Wimberly.
Wimberly reaps the benefits of having at least one of his chickens lay an egg per day. However, the best part about this is it happens for free.
As the eggs can last up to six months when refrigerated, Wimberly finds that they build up over time. Rather than selling these ethically sourced products, he uses them for cooking, or trades them for local garden-grown goods. For Wimberly it results in a cheaper grocery bill, but most importantly, he values the opportunity to be independent and sustainable.
Launching a social platform
The world of urban chicken keeping is riddled with difficulties because of negative public perception, as well as poor legislation. There has also been mass controversy in Halifax over the keeping of hens in an urban and residential setting.
In an attempt to unify and educate the community on the facts surrounding chicken management, Wimberly founded the Facebook page HFX HENS in February 2013.
“Mostly it was created because there needed to be some sort of outward facing focus here to push for that political change and also to make sure people had the information they needed.”
The page, operated and curated by Wimberly, exists as a forum for chicken owners, as well as those who are merely curious about the idea. To date, there are 189 members.
Wimberly says that groups he participates in, such as Halifax Chickens, who cater to current chicken owners, are valuable. However, he hopes that HFX HENS will serve as more of a resource where any level of chicken enthusiast can find mentorship, educational opportunities, and information on proper keeping techniques.
Education and outreach in the community
Wimberly, through HFX HENS, often holds educational events such as this Saturday’s Intro to Hen Keeping where guides those in attendance through an interactive session, complete with hen handling to build confidence and understanding. Wimberly mentions that necessary things such as wing clipping are an example a of a particular demonstration he would give at an event like this.
The outreach done by HFX HENS has been popular, according to Wimberly who will have taught over 100 people about hen keeping by the end of the month. Among those in attendance are children, seniors and young adults from several different backgrounds, including experienced farmers.
Wimberly says parents “realize that this is a really good way of building responsibility with their children.” He notes that by having chickens as a pet, parents are “teaching their kids about food and where food comes from and just instilling a lot of really healthy values.”
Wimberly hopes to help people in the community overcome the stigma of hen keeping by teaching people how to keep the animals in a way that is not a nuisance to others.
Common hen keeping misconceptions
“The big things are noise, odour, and vermin,” says Wimberly.
The problem of noise, Wimberly says, is avoided by not keeping roosters. Often loud and energetic, roosters are the most likely to upset neighbouring households with their calls. Additionally, they are not needed in order for hens to lay eggs.
Wimberly has found that odours can be eliminated with proper cleaning and bedding techniques.
As for vermin, “it’s not a chicken specific issue, it’s just whether you leave a food source out,” says Wimberly. By limiting the amounts of available open food and using a hanging feeder that is inaccessible to rats, vermin problems are easy to be rid of.
As Wimberly mixes the hot water with the pellets into an oatmeal-like substance, he points out that the cost of chicken upkeep is cheap. With a chicken’s ability to eat almost anything, they act as a living compost bin and produce highly coveted waste for fertilizers.
Wimberly finds the upkeep of a henhouse to be a very minor time-commitment, needing only two quick visits a day for feeding and some casual cleaning. As long as a nesting box and a roosting beam are included, the animals make themselves at home.
“You just make something that kind of fits those characteristics and they will just go straight to it.”
Wimberly says that his landlord is comfortable with the setup, so long as space is used appropriately. Even Wimberly’s neighbour seems unabashed, giving him a friendly wave as she appears briefly on her back porch before disappearing back into the house.
The Halifax Regional Municipality examined the land use bylaws in 2009 surrounding the keeping of hens on non-agricultural designated lots. It was discovered that, although the regional land use bylaw prohibits chickens on residential lots, it was not listed as specifically prohibited on the Halifax Peninsula.
In a 2011 report done by municipal staff, a survey was conducted asking participants to state on a scale of one to five whether they were for or against urban hen keeping. The average score was a 4.3 in favour.
The report also mentions that 84 per cent of the people who took the survey thought that “laying hens” should be allowed.
“I don’t disagree with the notion that it’s agricultural. I just disagree with the notion that anyone should restrict a harmless, at worst, and wildly beneficial, at best, activity,” says Wimberly.
In 2013, it was announced that chickens would be allowed on the properties of those residing on the Peninsula.
As the conversation surrounding chickens in the HRM is far from over, Janet Bryson, senior communications advisor for the HRM, encourages those interested in hen keeping to contact the city’s planning department. By knowing a neighbourhood’s specific set of rules or bylaws ahead of time, nasty fines and surprises can hopefully be avoided.