With a garden of tomatoes, onions and radicchio as their backdrop, Emily and Sophie gingerly move across the back lawn of a bungalow, peeking in and out of their makeshift coop.
It’s a regular fall scene at this North Toronto property. After all, the backyard is home to these two full-sized chickens.
Homeowner Josie, whose spacious backyard gives Emily and Sophie plenty of freedom to roam, smiles as she watches her pets peck about on a cool October day.
“Emily, Emily come over here,” she calls, encouraging the pair to come eat some of the leftover food scraps she has laid on the ground.
Named after Josie’s grandchildren, Emily and Sophie are fruitful companions, producing brown eggs almost daily in the summer months.
Though neighbours on the quiet cul-de-sac where they live seem unperturbed by the backyard fowl — Josie says she hasn’t had a single complaint in the three years since she adopted her pets — Emily and Sophie’s living arrangement is indeed illegal in Toronto.
But that could change as early as next year, when a report on backyard hens is expected to hatch at council.
Director of the Toronto Environment Office Lawson Oates confirmed that his office is preparing a report for the city’s municipal licensing and standards committee that will carry recommendations to revise the prohibited animals bylaw and allow residents to keep backyard hens.
The revision, Lawson says, would be part of the evolution of the city’s relatively new Urban Agriculture Policy, which outlines rules and regulations for everything from community gardens to local food production.
Councillor Joe Mihevc, who says he knows of a few residents in his ward who have backyard chickens, is all for a bylaw change.
The Ward 21 councillor says the current law is incongruent with the growing local food and urban agriculture movement.
“Provided that they are kept clean and are well taken care of there’s no reason why we should be saying no to it,” he said of backyard fowl. “Most cities around the world allow hens.
“We are Johnny-Come-Latelys to this issue.”
Indeed cities including Brampton, Niagara Falls and Vancouver allow backyard hens. Some municipalities that allow backyard hens have restrictions related to lot size and most do not allow roosters.
The issue was first raised at city hall with a request for a report on urban agriculture before the park and environment committee back in June 2009. Staff was expected to investigate the feasibility of raising chickens in an urban setting.
One Toronto backyard hen advocate says a change in the bylaw is a long time coming.
The St. Paul’s resident, who goes by the moniker “Toronto Chicken” on her website to avoid city inspectors at her door, owns three chickens that reside year-round in her backyard.
“It’s seems like it’s taking forever,” she said. “I got my chickens in 2007 and I thought it would be like a year before the law changed and here we are in 2011.”
Toronto Chicken says she uses every egg almost as they’re laid, and is making arrangements to add two more chickens to her brood of three as to avoid last-minute runs to the grocery store.
Her family loves the taste and quality eggs produced in her coop, she says.
If there is dissent to a bylaw change, Toronto Chicken thinks it’s because there is a misconception of owners keeping large number of chickens in residential areas.
“When you have large quantities of chickens, there is going to be a smell and there is going to be noise,” she said.
Which is why the report coming to the standards committee will recommend a cap on the number of hens a person is allowed to keep, Lawson notes.
While Josie says she would have no problem getting rid of the chickens were bylaw inspectors to crack down, Toronto Chicken says she would fight to keep hers.
“I think it’s a basic right that we should be allowed to produce in a responsible manner our own food wherever possible,” she said. “Whether it’s an apple tree or growing tomatoes or having a few hens in the backyard.”
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