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Domestic chicken-keeping surged in popularity during lockdown. Then avian flu happened.
Words by Catherine Oliver
In a London suburb, a woman heads out to the end of her garden, where she slips into a small enclosure with a coop at one end. It’s early morning and she’s heading out into her garden to give her small flock of seven chickens their breakfast, and open the coop door so they have room to stretch their wings.
The coop is outdoors and opens onto a small, covered run. However, these birds aren’t free-ranging like she wishes. The avian influenza outbreak means they have to be kept indoors. Although she’s been keeping chickens for years, the measures to protect her birds are making life more difficult: “they’re not very happy with me at the moment because they’ve been stuck inside for months.”
Her story isn’t unique. According to a 2021 survey, chickens are the fourth most popular “pet” kept in Britain. But the surge in domestic chicken-keeping has unfortunately coincided with the worst avian influenza outbreak in history, resulting in millions of birds culled and more at risk. Now, hen charities are struggling to keep their operations afloat and domestic chicken keepers are struggling to keep their hens happy under strict biosecurity measures.
Though on the rise in Britain for at least a decade, backyard chicken-keeping peaked in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown. Some flocked to get backyard hens as a hobby. Others were looking for a way to shield themselves against perceived supermarket shortages of food. Most domestic chicken-keepers keep hens for eggs in small flocks, but also see this practice as a way of reconnecting to the land, their food and offering a “good life” to chickens. As one keeper, who keeps thirty chickens and runs a business educating people on keeping hens, told me: “we learn new skills, live the country life in the city, and get the best of both worlds.”
Many of these backyard birds today are hens who are no longer of use to egg-laying operations, sent to retire in backyard gardens rather than being slaughtered. This is facilitated by a range of charities who work with farmers and domestic keepers.
As avian influenza outbreaks have become more frequent and severe, government officials have put stringent biosecurity measures in place, causing many hen rehoming organisations to pause their operations for months to assess the risks of spreading the virus.
The biosecurity measures require that all poultry must be kept indoors and separated from any interaction with wild birds. Clothing should be changed before and after interacting with poultry and disinfection and cleaning should become more frequent. A mother and daughter hen-keeping duo who currently have three hens in South London, talked about the frustrations of the measures: “it’s a bit like the pandemic, you have to follow the law even if you don’t think there is any risk in your area.”
One volunteer who has a dedicated hen micro-sanctuary in her East Anglia garden, said, “it’s been the worst thing for the charity as we haven’t been able to rescue birds at all. I’ve been so sad.”
For hen rehoming organisations and charities, then, avian influenza poses multiple operational challenges. First and foremost, farmers are now far more hesitant to allow people onto their premises to collect hens for rehoming.
Secondly, because rehoming often takes place at animal sanctuaries or private dwellings where domestic chicken flocks are already kept, adding new birds poses a risk to existing home flocks.
Finally, the organizations have a responsibility to inform domestic keepers of the stricter measures, and this can be off-putting to people with less space or who are first-time rehomers. On top of that, many existing hen rehoming operations are effectively put on indefinite pause during outbreaks of avian influenza. Together, these impediments create a threat to the entire rehoming sector and – most importantly – to the possibility of rescued hens living out a peaceful retirement rather than facing slaughter.
While chicken rehoming has seen a boom over the last few years, the threat of avian influenza is not just to human and/or animal health but is also affecting the ability of organizations working to help hens. During avian influenza outbreaks, strict housing measures are accompanied by regulations for introducing new birds to flocks, meaning willing keepers may not have the means to rehome new birds, even if they wanted to. On top of this, complex and strict biosecurity measures make chicken-keeping more difficult in the winter months, with no intervention in sight at a policy level.
When there is an avian influenza outbreak on an intensive farm operation, the farmer must kill every bird on the premises. The exact same biosecurity rules apply to small flocks, but for people keeping rescued hens as “pets,” the threat of their birds being culled isn’t an economic one – but an emotional one. When you lose a hen, a long-term keeper and chicken rights activist said, “it’s devastating as they’re so special, such unique characters.”
In interviews with people who keep domestic flocks, avian influenza repeatedly charted at the top of their concerns. One keeper in London with a large flock of over a hundred birds told me that “protecting the chickens from the risk of catching the various strains of bird flu is like a military manoeuvre.” Another family keeping a small flock of just four birds said “we won’t rehome any more birds because of these avian flu outbreaks.” Finally, a vet working in the West Midlands who has recently begun specializing in pet chickens at his local practice has been banned from seeing chickens for treatment during outbreaks.
The impacts of avian influenza are not straightforward, and have far-reaching consequences for chickens beyond the commercial sector. Rehoming, enrichment, and even veterinary care have become difficult, with hen rehoming organizations having to rethink their operations to work within these new constraints.
One hen professional who runs poultry courses told me that avian influenza outbreaks make hen-keeping that much more difficult and expensive — “people don’t want to or aren’t able to keep their chickens inside 24/7 without transforming their set-ups, often at significant cost.” That’s a problem for the hen-keeping hobby. “We’re now seeing a backlash,” she observed — chickens being abandoned as people come to realize the complications of caring for these creatures.
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