22 January 2018 | Online since 2003

13 September 2011

Surge in backyard poultry numbers

The difficult financial climate seems to have helped create a surge in the number of people keeping their own chickens.

NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns believes the number of backyard hens in Britain may now be approaching three million. The British Hen Welfare Trust says the number of birds it re-homes has increased substantially in the last few years and the country’s leading supermarket chain, Tesco, has got in on the act by selling chicken coops. Sales have increased by 180 per cent over the last three years.

Some people think that the increase in backyard hens is symptomatic of a desire amongst people to reconnect with our rural roots at the same time as putting a few eggs on the table each week, but leading figures in the industry are concerned about the potential effect on the UK egg sector. They are not only worried that the growth in amateur hen keeping could have some impact on egg sales, but also that these hens could risk spreading diseases like avian influenza.

Charles Bourns

"I think there is a disease issue," said Charles Bourns. "There is the risk of things like avian influenza, Newcastle’s and everything else that comes along. Most countries have no registration and if you don’t know where they are it makes it so much harder to clear up. If people are going to keep them there should be some sort of registration or licensing scheme," said Charles, who said he estimated that there were between two million and three million backyard hens in Britain.

Across Europe, he said, the numbers were huge. Charles said that about 146 million hens were backyard birds. That amounted to about 28 per cent of the laying flock. "That’s a huge percentage. I know Defra will tell you that unless someone has 25 birds or more there are not enough to present a danger of disease, but I think that there is a risk and it is something that we should be concerned about."

John Retson, chairman of the British Free Range Egg producers Association, said that he had been lobbying for some years about the threat he saw from backyard chickens. He said that they could do huge damage to the industry if salmonella or AI were to break out amongst the backyard birds, yet there was no control over them. "Commercial producers abide by very strict controls on things like welfare and bio security. Someone who buys a few hens for the garden has no training and there are no controls. They just buy a shed from the supermarket and off they go."
John said that as far as he was concerned backyard hens presented a very real risk. "If AI breaks out we will never be able to control it. What that could do to the British egg industry is a very great concern."

Tesco says that sales of chicken coops are booming because more people than ever are keeping hens at home. It says that people have turned to keeping chickens because of recession and it says its sales have increased by 180 per cent in three years. It believes that nearly three quarters of a million ordinary Britons now have hens at home.

"The surge in demand for chickens and coops shows how hens has become a hobby for many as part of the increasing trend of becoming self-sufficient," said Tesco outdoor pet buyer Clodagh Corbett, who said that the prospect of keeping hens and having freshly laid eggs had become more appealing than ever.

Tesco says it is now launching its biggest ever range of chicken coops in its new Tesco Direct catalogue. It says it will stock 11 wooden coops – eight more than before – and features will include removable nesting boxes and perches. Some will have plastic pull-out trays for easy cleaning and all will be fitted with metal locks. A coop can be bought for £140.

Jane Howorth, the founder of the British Hen Welfare Trust, said she had no figures for overall numbers of such hens in Britain, but she did say that there had been big increases in the number of hens she had been able to re-home. "I started in October 2003 and in the last three months of that year I managed to re-home about 400 birds – but that was just me on my own."

The following year she found homes for 5,100 birds, in 2005 11,457 hens were re-homed, in 2006 the figure was 16,060 and in 2007 it was 29,272. Jane is no longer running the organisation on her own, of course, but the big leap in numbers came in 2008 when the trust found homes for 61,236 birds. The following year the number housed was 61,957.

Jane said that in 2010 the number fell slightly to 58,269. She said that the impending EU cage ban had an impact on the availability of birds last year. However, so far this year the organisation has found homes for 34,000 hens.

Jane, whose organisation now has 24 re-homing points around the United Kingdom and works with more than 200 volunteers, said that there had been increasing interest in keeping hens at home. "I think there are several reasons why the popularity of hen keeping has grown so rapidly. The British public have taken to heart our positive campaign to find retirement homes for commercial hens. They particularly approve of our pro British industry stance," she said.

"With the rising cost of travelling abroad, families are electing to spend money on setting up a new hobby which can be enjoyed by all the family and this allows everyone, even those in suburban locations, to enjoy a little slice of the rural idyll."
She said that last year the trust re-homed 374 birds in the centre of London. "We are seeing growth right across the board and you can see from our postbag how people are really taking to it. From grandparents to young children, they really enjoy keeping a few hens."

Jane said she felt that the development was also good news for the commercial free range egg sector. Although people may have a few eggs from their own birds, the interest was also encouraging people to go out and buy free range eggs, said Jane, who said that she was a great supporter of the British egg industry.

However, some people in the egg industry fear that the increase in backyard birds could have an adverse effect on commercial egg sales. John Campbell of Glenrath Farms has previously raised his concern about backyard birds. He told the Ranger that they would inevitably have an impact on the market, and Charles Bourns said that the effect should not be underestimated.
"If you have backyard birds producing two million eggs a week during the summer (they will not be producing that during winter) then that can have an effect. It may go some way to explaining why the market does tend to tighten up during the winter," said Charles. "You cannot underestimate the effect."

John Retson said that the number of eggs that could be produced by the rising number of backyard chickens was not small. At a time when the egg market was in a state of oversupply, an increasing number of backyard birds would not help the commercial producer.


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