Written and Reported by Matt Skoufalos (editor)
Fans of backyard chickens could see local government ruling on the first nearby test case of the subject soon.
With a report on "The Backyard Chicken Initiative" finalized by the Haddon Township environmental commission Wednesday evening, the recommendation to allow egg-laying hens to be kept as pets in that town will now proceed to commissioners for review.
Backyard chicken advocate Gwenne Baile of Sustainable Haddon Township said she felt the process “was kind of a win” because the committee didn’t say, “no way in hell do we want chickens.”
Although Haddon Township is one of the first inner-ring suburban municipalities in Camden County to consider the question of backyard chickens, Baile, a certified Camden County master gardener, said that residents of Cherry Hill, Runnemede, Bellmawr, Haddon Heights, and Audubon have all contacted her for information about sustainable farming in their communities.
“It is a big thing,” she said. “We may hit many more hurdles with having to go through planning and zoning, but we won’t let this die.”
Baile also said that the township vetting process has been instructive to her group by raising some specific objections to the long-term scope of the chicken issue.
One such common question is the idea of what to do with hens that no longer lay eggs. By rule of thumb, most chickens live only six to seven years, Baile said, only about half of which time they may be productive.
Once they’re no longer laying eggs, she said, a group like Sustainable Haddon Township could work to build and staff a chicken coop or chicken tractor for "retired" birds at the township community garden.
Even after their prime years are behind them, chickens are useful pest deterrents, provide manure for fertilizer, and can be used to turn over fallow earth in gardens, Baile said.
Although opponents of the measure have pointed out that failed chicken farmers might dump the animals on animal shelters—none of which in Camden County would accept the birds—Baile argued that the majority of people who would take the trouble to invest in a backyard hen operation wouldn't be so quick to abandon the animals.
“I don’t think they’d even go that far if they really thought that was an issue,” Baile said. “I think the dumping tends to be people who don’t think this through.”
If it became a concern, she said, her group “could come in almost as rescuers,” and help adopt out the unwanted hens to 4H clubs and farmers throughout South Jersey, or, as a last resort, butcher them for food.
“For most people, at least in our group, I don’t think that’s going to be an excuse to kill your chicken,” Baile said, “because they become pets. Farmers have a different mindset because it’s a double benefit to having chickens. But for pets, it’s not.
“We stressed this in our report that I think we have a pretty cohesive chicken group now,” she said. “We even said we’d take turns babysitting.”
Although the issue is a regional one, Baile said that she is comfortable with her group helping to take the lead on it.
“We’re Sustainable Haddon Township,” she said. “Not every community is a certified sustainable community. We should be at the forefront of this whole thing.”
The number of signatories to the pro-chicken petition now exceeds 250 residents, Baile said, and the group may present that to township commissioners as a caucus in the future.