SURREY — Kate McMaster sits on her deck sipping tea, affectionately gazing down upon her South Surrey backyard.
“We call it our urban farm,” she says proudly.
There are bee hives to the back right and a greenhouse in the middle. A miniature field of cabbage and various lettuces sits to the left and across from that are plant beds full of every kind of veggie you can imagine.
“We can feed ourselves all summer,” McMaster says.
In the midst of it all sits a coop with two hens inside.
This is not your average chicken coop, McMaster points out with a chuckle. In fact, this may be the coop of all coops.
“It’s pretty rockin’,” says McMaster, who urged the City of Surrey to start a new backyard chicken program that’s almost finalized.
“My husband has built me the uber coop. It is completely 360-degree wired in hardware cloth. It can actually hold up to eight hens. They have a party in there.”
It even has an automatic food door that runs on solar power – it opens to feed the fowl at the crack of dawn and shuts itself when the sun goes down.
And no chicken wire here. McMaster explains that stuff just isn’t strong enough and the holes are too big.
“It’s more expensive,” McMaster says, “but it’s worth it. We can go away for two weeks and not worry about them at all.
“But do your research,” she urges those who want to get their own hens. “Build a predator-proof coop and enjoy. They’re great fun and are really easy to take care of.”
Though she’s had hens for years, she only took the idea to create a backyard chicken program to city hall after a neighbour threatened to report her.
“I was a bit of a rogue chicken farmer,” she says cheekily. “I did a power point with some help and presented it to the agricultural committee. They adopted a one-year pilot, which turned into two, and now here we are.”
It turned her into Surrey’s advocate for backyard chickens.
“Although many came before me, I was the only one who made it through the gauntlet,” says McMaster of her efforts at city hall. “I just think that it’s really important that we have some sovereignty over our food security.”
She started the group, Surrey Backyard Chickens & CLUCK Surrey on Facebook. (CLUCK stands for Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken KLUB, in case you were wondering.) She did so, she says, to gauge the response from the community. So far the Facebook page has 460 followers.
McMaster is thrilled that now, two years later, the City of Surrey is about to make the pilot project permanent.
If approved, backyard chickens in Surrey will be allowed on lots that are 7,200 square feet and over – as opposed to 10,000 in the pilot – and the program will allow for up to four hens on such properties. But McMaster holds out hope the city will further reduce the minimum lot size to 6,000 square feet.
The city’s zoning bylaw currently prohibits the keeping of chickens on lots less than an acre and about 3,000 residential lots in Surrey can keep chickens. If the new changes are adopted, an additional 50,000 Surrey properties will be eligible to participate. Right now, the city says there are 34 registered “urban chicken farmers.”
Some concerns have arisen around avian flu, as well as nuisance issues for neighbours such as noise, smell and rodent control, animal care concerns and property value impacts.
Councillor Mike Starchuk (pictured left with McMaster) is chair of the city’s Agriculture and Food Security Advisory Committee.
He said to address concerns over avian flu, urban farmers will be required to register with the province’s poultry identification program so the city can track the chickens in the event of an outbreak.
There’s no cost to register, Starchuk added.
“As much as this is a bylaw, it’s really a tool if somebody is curious in having their own,” said Starchuk, adding the program gives residents all they need to know to get started.
It’s expected city council will finalize the “Chicken Keeping Bylaw” later this month.
Other Lower Mainland cities such as Vancouver, North Vancouver, New Westminster, Delta, Port Coquitlam and Maple Ridge allow backyard chickens. Richmond allows chickens on lots larger than half an acre while in Burnaby they are limited to agricultural lots.
On the other hand, several Lower Mainland municipalities have either tabled or denied citizen-led requests to permit urban chickens, including the Township of Langley, Pitt Meadows and Abbotsford, mostly over concerns surrounding avian flu.
Many other Canadian municipalities have backyard chicken programs, including Victoria, Edmonton and Whitehorse.
Even some major U.S. cities allow chickens in backyards including New York, Chicago, Portland and Seattle.
Back in Surrey, the city is also looking at changes to allow beekeeping on smaller lots.
Some want the bylaw changed to allow hives on smaller properties, from 10,000 square feet to about half of that.
Starchuk said there’s a UBC study underway exploring different lot sizes for beekeeping. That forthcoming report will likely influence Surrey’s decision, he said.
Though proceeding cautiously on changes, Starchuk emphasized he wants to support urban farming any way he can.
“It’s about local sustainable farming and having less of a carbon footprint – not having to go to the store to get your eggs and honey,” he continued, noting a productive, healthy hen can be expected to lay about five to six eggs a week. “People want to get back to the future – back to nature – to the way we used to do things, the way our parents and grandparents used to do things.”
For more information on Surrey’s program and how to get started with your own backyard chickens, visit surrey.ca/community/13805.aspx.
For tips on predator-proofing chicken coops visit communitychickens.com.