The Urban Chickens of Vancouver Island
Without a doubt, many Canadian cities and towns on Vancouver Island are enviable models of urban agriculture at its best.
Without a doubt, many Canadian cities and towns on Vancouver Island are enviable models of urban chickens at their best.
When you think of Vancouver Island, on British Columbia’s Pacific Coast, what are some of the things that come to mind? Perhaps you envision the architectural grandeur of British Columbia’s Parliament Buildings, with the bright colors of the summer flowers, in the city of Victoria. Maybe your mind wanders to miles of untamed, rocky coastline, numerous fiords, deep blue lakes, rain forests, mountains, small farming valleys, or the beautiful, small towns and cities dotting the island. But most people don’t think of chickens and ducks in well-maintained backyard flocks; yet in many municipalities, this is the reality. Urban agriculture is alive and well on “The Island,” as the locals call it. Numerous cities and towns have by-laws and codes allowing for ownership of a few chickens or ducks. The city of Victoria even allows geese to be kept on parcels zoned for backyard poultry. Without a doubt, many Canadian cities and towns on Vancouver Island are enviable models of urban agriculture at its best.
For those who are looking to convince their city councils to approve backyard poultry-keeping ordinances, many towns on Vancouver Island are wonderful examples of highly desirable communities that have successfully integrated allowances for small-scale poultry keeping into their municipal zoning laws. Cities on the island allowing small-scale, backyard poultry keeping include the capital city of Victoria, Saanich, Nanaimo, Oak Bay, the City of Duncan, Esquimalt, Port Alberni, and Cobble Hill. These communities are good illustrations of how a few backyard chickens can fit nicely into well-maintained, highly sought-after neighborhoods within a city.
Nanaimo Is a Great Example
One of the best models of successful urban agriculture and backyard poultry keeping is in the city of Nanaimo, on the eastern edge of the island. With a current population of just over 103,000, Nanaimo is the second-largest city on Vancouver Island. As a center for arts and culture, Nanaimo has a large business district, shopping, well-maintained neighborhoods, several universities and colleges, and two seaports. It is also a forerunner in setting reasonable guidelines that encourage families to engage in urban agriculture and simple joys, such as owning a few chickens or ducks. City bylaws currently make it possible for many residents to keep a few birds, even with limited lot space.
Nanaimo residents with lots less than 450 square meters can keep four birds (hens and/or ducks). Lots larger than 450 square meters but less than an acre can keep up to six birds. Parcels one acre or larger don’t have restrictions on the number of birds or type of birds kept including turkeys, peafowl, and geese. All bird owners are expected to apply common-sense health guidelines.
There was a thoughtful process that led to so many municipalities approving and enacting rules for backyard poultry ownership over the past ten years. Dave LaBerge, Bylaws Manager for the city of Nanaimo, pointed out that ten percent or less of all food consumed on Vancouver Island actually comes from the island. Separated from the mainland by two major ocean straights, the cost to bring in consumer goods, including food, comes at a significant transportation cost. While there are numerous, gorgeous farming valleys scattered across the landmass, there is still not enough food produced to make a significant impact on local diets. Forward-thinking residents on the island began to realize that food security could become a very real issue. Calls for urban agriculture allowances were brought before city councils, and, fortunately, many council members listened to their constituents and shared the same concerns.
Benefits of Backyard Plots
As a small-livestock and poultry owner himself, Dave understands the interest and desire that many families in the city have for a little backyard agriculture. Through Dave, I was introduced to Lindsay and Dianna Fitzgerald, who have built and incorporated a beautiful and productive urban mini-farm into the backyard of their small city lot.
When Lindsay (hailing from Australia), and Dianna, (from British Columbia), were 14 and 13 respectively, they became “Pen Friends” and wrote letters to each other for several years. Lindsay had the opportunity to travel to Saskatchewan on an international agricultural exchange program in the mid-1980s. Once in Canada, he wasted no time meeting Dianna in person, and the rest was history. The two were married in 1990 and today work as a team, pursuing their love of gardening, poultry, and bees. Lindsay says that the chickens belong to Dianna, and the bees belong to him. Besides poultry and bees, the couple has an incredibly beautiful and well-planned vegetable garden in the backyard, along with trellised grapes and other fruit. Lindsay, a carpenter by trade, has built an enclosed yard and coop for the chickens. According to him, the bees have greatly increased vegetable and fruit pollination. Lindsay’s and Dianna’s property is just another example of how backyard agriculture is improving lifestyles in Nanaimo.
Poultry keeping on the island is certainly not limited to just backyards within the cities and towns. Numerous small family farms can be found interspersed throughout the bucolic valleys and rural areas of the island. Many of these small farms raise poultry, supplying eggs and meat to their retail customers.
On my wanderings across the island, I met a young mother, Tara Howard, who is forging her life-long dream of operating a small poultry and egg farm in the Cowichan Valley. Growing up, Tara was raised in the suburbs of the greater Victoria region, on the Southern tip of the island. Her dream as a young girl was always to have her own small farm. Some 20 years ago, Tara’s parents purchased and moved to a small piece of land in a rural section of the small town of Cobble Hill, in the Cowichan Valley. As often happens in young adulthood, Tara decided to move back to the city. She soon realized that a crowded, metropolitan area was not what she wanted and she yearned for country life once again. One obstacle facing her (and many other families on the island as well) is the exorbitant price of real estate. Over the past few years, home ownership on Vancouver Island has become an unobtainable goal for many, as buyers retiring from the mainland have pushed prices to stratospheric levels. Undeterred, Tara decided to move back to the small family homestead she had left. Today, while working as a social media manager and events planner, Tara and her eight-year-old daughter are now living her lifelong dream on their “Made From Scratch” homestead.
Egg Production Quota System
A major issue also facing anyone raising chickens in Canada is the government quota systems. In the province of British Columbia, anyone owning over 99 hens for egg production must buy a quota from the government and register as a farm. Currently, Tara is holding her laying flock at about 50 hens, plus a few egg-laying ducks. She sells to regional customers as she lays plans to slowly expand. Competition has become stiff in the area as larger farms are cropping up. Still, she is forging ahead with her dream.
Obtaining replacement stock is also a challenge on the island. Canada does not have as many large hatcheries serving smaller customers as are found in the United States. Shipping live chicks to more remote areas of Canada can also be problematic. Consequently, there are several local breeders on the island who run small hatchery operations that serve regional customers. These chicks can be expensive, making them disadvantageous to purchase for small, commercial production. Because of this, Tara has also become a small-time production breeder in her own right. She breeds, incubates, and raises her own replacement layers from her highest-producing birds.
Today, many municipalities on Vancouver Island are some of the best examples anywhere of how small agricultural pursuits can be incorporated and zoned into urban settings. Common-sense allowances permit families in many towns to enjoy a little country life within municipal boundaries. Our hats are off to our friends and neighbors in this region of Canada for their forward-thinking approach to bettering the lifestyles of all their citizens.
DOUG OTTINGER raises chickens, ducks, and geese on his small hobby farm. Doug’s educational background is in agriculture with an emphasis on poultry and avian genetics. Doug recently lost his wife and companion of 40 years following her long battle with Multiple Sclerosis, and he is continuing writing and working from his small hobby farm in far-Northwest Minnesota.