Rural Ontario residents are bewildered by strict statutes

The chicken pictured here was one of several that Greg Robert kept on his property in Pembroke, Ontario before moving to the Madoc community.  (Submitted by Greg Robert - photo credit)

The chicken pictured here was one of several that Greg Robert kept on his property in Pembroke, Ontario before moving to the Madoc community. (Submitted by Greg Robert – photo credit)

Greg Robert’s home in the township of Madoc, Ontario is closer to the cows that graze across the street than it is to some of his nearest neighbors.

But here, on the large country estate about 40 kilometers north of Belleville, Ontario, backyard chickens are forbidden.

“I’m confused as to why,” Robert said. “Especially considering how agrarian it is.”

Robert moved last year from a smaller property in the town of Pembroke, Ontario where he kept a few chickens, a cow and some pigs.

If they can raise chickens in downtown Toronto, why can’t we? – John Stopa, Parish of Admaston/Bromley

It was only after he moved that he learned that Madoc statutes required rural residents to own at least six acres of land to raise chickens. Such a plot would be roughly the size of seven and a half Canadian football pitches.

Anything below that threshold and you can’t keep a single laying hen.

Even as the city of Toronto moves toward a permanent urban hen program, some rural communities in eastern Ontario do not allow residents to keep backyard birds.

A patchwork of statutes across the region means chickens are allowed in one community but banned in the next, and some residents in the strictest communities are pushing for changes.

Submitted by Greg Robert

Submitted by Greg Robert

People are more likely to grow “lawn and no food.”

Seeking solutions, Robert renewed an online petition published nearly three years earlier, urging the community to allow residents to “breed a small number of backyard hens/chickens, subject to appropriate controls and regulations.”

Although the community has just over 2,000 residents, the petition had collected more than 1,100 signatures by the time it was published.

The original petition was started by Susan Hetherington in April 2020, shortly after she moved to Madoc for the “specific reason” of keeping some chickens and some rabbits.

Hetherington’s property is large enough to house a barn, but at around an acre it’s still well below the minimum size required to keep chickens.

“It’s all farmland where we are,” she said. “It is ridiculous.”

Submitted by Susan Hetherington

Submitted by Susan Hetherington

For proponents of politics, backyard chickens bring numerous benefits. With food costs rising at their fastest rate in decades each year, chickens could be a way to save some money on eggs.

For Robert, they would also return a degree of self-sufficiency and control over his food supply – something supporters say is particularly valuable in rural communities where food options are often limited.

“We now tend to grow turf and not food,” Robert said. “We could all be a little more self-sufficient, a little less dependent on food.”

But others are more skeptical.

Longtime Madoc resident Shannon Banfield said she has no problem with the chickens, but in her experience they can “get a little out of control”.

Banfield said a neighbor once kept about 30 chickens on the property, and the birds wandered into her yard to dig up her flower bed.

Banfield worries that more liberal bylaws could result in less compliance — and in turn, more conflict between neighbors.

She said she would be open to a bylaw change if it were enforced through something more than neighbor complaints, such as a registration system for the birds.

Madoc Township Mayor Loyde Blackburn did not respond to a request for comment.

Spectrum of statutes in the region

Matt Walker ran for (and lost) mayor of the municipality of Madoc in the last election on a platform that opposed what he saw as overly restrictive statutes – including rules on chickens.

Walker said statutes in eastern Ontario range from “reasonable restrictions” to outright bans on chickens.

“You just open the card and [bans] are here,” he said.

The statute is based on a complaints-based system, Walker said, meaning some residents could choose to flout the rules entirely, but it would only require one complaint for authorities to take action.

At one end of the bylaw spectrum, the nearby community of North Frontenac provides a special zone exemption for backyard chickens, allowing up to six chickens for a property between 0.2 and 1.2 acres – and more for larger properties.

In nearby townships without such exceptions, some residents are pushing for lowering the minimum property requirements.

Submitted by John Stopa

Submitted by John Stopa

John Stopa, a minister in the parish of Admaston/Bromley, about 34 miles south of Pembroke, reached out to every candidate in the last local election to ask their stance on backyard chickens.

Stopa hopes to keep about five chickens on his half-hectare property. The municipality’s current bylaws, he said, require that he have two acres before he can keep chickens.

“I think what they had in mind when they thought of chickens was someone with a chicken farm,” he said. “If they can raise chickens in downtown Toronto, why can’t we?”

Admaston/Bromley is currently conducting a survey to gather public opinion on this issue.

Rural property minimum requirements ‘unreasonable’

Urban communities across Canada are engaged in a similar debate. Regulations in urban centers range from permissive, as in Victoria, where backyard chickens have long been allowed, to restrictive, as in Ottawa, where the birds are banned.

Wanda Martin, a University of Saskatchewan nursing professor who has studied backyard chickens, said the birds are more likely to bother neighbors in cities than in rural areas.

“When you have an acre or more, it seems unreasonable that a person wouldn’t be able to set up a stall,” she said.

According to her research, Martin says urban resistance often stems from a misunderstanding of how small urban chicken farms differ from larger farm chicken farms. People may also not trust their neighbors to take proper care of the birds, she said, leading to noise and odor concerns.

More “dogmatic” opposition, she said, could stem from a belief that chickens belong in the country – not in the city.

But as Robert has learned since moving to Madoc, chickens can be banned even in the countryside. He said he would likely draft a proposal to Madoc Local Council calling for a minor revision of the existing by-laws.

“It’s not going to be in my favor whether I’m self-sufficient or owning a home,” said Robert. “But it’s nice to know where some of the food comes from to be able to regain some control.”


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