Researcher Network member, Catherine Oliver examines the rise of backyard chicken-keeping in Britain's cities and considers if the rehoming of ex-commercial hens can challenge the concept of ‘happy eggs’ and lead to compassionate lifestyle changes.
Backyard chicken-keeping is on the rise in Britain’s cities. Although pigeons, rats and foxes are familiar urban animals in the UK, as well as dogs and other companion animals, animals designated as ‘food’ are found more rarely in Western cities. Of course, in many places around the world, the presence of animals in city streets is not unusual. In Delhi, for example, cattle roam the streets where land previously used to graze dairy cattle has been enclosed by the city and pigs forage in informal settlements, reworking the architectures around them. In Cairo, with limited amounts of green space and high levels of pollution, vertical uses of the city have emerged, with gardens and chickens on rooftops. Britain, however, has a more ‘sanitised’ relationship with farmed animals, preferring to keep them spatially distanced from our cities. To understand the contemporary rise of urban chicken-keeping, we must look back over a century, to the late 1800s.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fascinated by chickens and many breeds of chicken now living in Britain can be traced back to Queen Victoria’s love of exotic birds. Prince Albert and his brother had grown up with their own aviary and Albert had brought ornamental birds with him to England when he married Victoria in 1840. Two years later, he remodelled the royal aviary at Home Park, east of Windsor Castle, to house chickens, doves, bustards, storks and pheasants, including a sitting room for Victoria. The Queen’s fascination with chickens grew over the following years and began to attract public attention. As Emelyn Rude wrote for National Geographic in 2015:
… the young monarch was incredibly fond of her royal menagerie, a collection of exotic birds and beasts that was constantly being refilled by her brave British explorers returning from their adventures abroad. In 1842, her biological assemblage was blessed with a gift of seven exotic chickens from the Far East known as Cochin China Fowl.
Victoria’s menagerie led to an explosion in breeding and exchanging birds, a so-called ‘hen fever’, which was mirrored across the Atlantic in the USA (see George P. Burnham’s 1855 book The History of the Hen Fever).
Victorian England was home to a menagerie of animals, both exotic and domestic. Elephants, tigers, lions and hippopotamuses were regular captive animals in circuses and cities themselves still had free-roaming cattle, pigs and sheep, while chickens were homed in backyards. London was home to the world’s largest livestock trade and, as Tom Almeroth Williams writes in the introduction to his book City of Beasts: “No other city in Europe or North America has ever accommodated so many large four-legged animals or felt their influence so profoundly.” The Victorian middle classes were breeding and exchanging exotic – and expensive – chickens, valuing their beauty over their meat or eggs. When this middle-class bubble burst in the mid-1850s, the beauty of chickens quickly became worthless, ushering in chicken and eggs as a cheap food source. At the time when ‘hen fever’ gripped the middle classes, eating chickens was a rarity for the poor urban masses. Although chickens were widely kept, it was primarily for eggs. Rural farm labourers had access to cheap dairy, vegetables and animal meat, but urban workers had little to eat, despite the demands of manual labour and the workhouse.
By the turn of the 20th century, London’s urban barnyard was about to change. In the 19th century, Britain was the “dominant world power, controlling immense global resources, and creating long-distance supply chains of food” (Chris Otter, Diet for a Large Planet, 2020). A ‘Western diet’ rich in animals, processed grains and sugar was connected with ideas of power, but it also relied on using the entire planet as a resource. In the 17th century, the English had practised ‘internal outsourcing’ of food production, using Scotland and Ireland as agrarian resources. Between 1820 and 1914, European food production expanded through colonialism; Britain particularly relied on India, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Uruguay, the latter three of which had over 185 million hectares of arable land by 1910. Producing cheap food was essential to British and European wealth and the whole world became their hinterlands. This ‘nutrition transformation’ saw animal products increase and prices drop. It also saw the sanitisation of cities, as livestock animals were no longer kept or killed on the streets of London. With it, chickens (and other animals) disappeared from the urban fabric but were present in cages and factories in greater numbers than ever before as chicken consumption escalated in the 20th century and continues to rise today (see Karen Davis, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, 1996).
The early pioneers of The Vegan Society were well attuned to the problems of outsourcing and massifying food production, particularly in the years during and immediately after the second world war. Indeed, some of the earliest concerns of Donald Watson and his colleagues were environmental. As Dugald Semple wrote in an early issue of The Vegan News in 1945:
“ … the question of growing health foods is of real national importance, for no nation can be well which ignores the cultivation of its soil. We are taking a long time to learn that although we have a most fertile soil, we are practically a landless people.” Semple’s discussion in this article of land use and urbanisation is concerned for self-sustainability in Britain, arguing that sustainability is at odds with milk production, “ … so long as we use dairy products, we cannot make the most use of the land.”
The connection between soil fertility, horticulture and gardening remained central to The Vegan Society’s communications and practices throughout the mid-20th century, particularly amidst concerns for the future feeding of the Earth’s population in a time of land degradation. As Semple wrote in the Autumn 1947 issue of The Vegan:
“To grow good crops it is essential that we co-operate with Nature and try to understand the relationship between soil fertility and healthy plant tissues”
“ … if we would go to the root of our social and health problems, we must individually live simpler and more natural lives.”
The outsourcing of food from British soil meant not only a loss of connection to nature and production, but also a loss of the ability to know and live with other animals, and thus to respect and love them.
So, what does this history of urban animals, and their removal from cities, have to do with the contemporary rise of urban chicken-keeping? The urban environment has long been viewed as a space that is made by, and for, humans. Yet, as recent research shows, cities can offer opportunity as well as danger to other species, with urban animals being framed as residents, commuters and outcasts in urban space in the BBC documentary Cities: Nature’s New Wild. Urban animals are often understood as tools for humans or as immigrants, despite, as geographer Nigel Thrift’s recent book argues, cities being the cause of mass violence, displacement and death for animals. As sociologist Marie Carmen Shingne writes:
“ … urban animals [have] a claim to the urban space that was previously blocked by those who have held capitalist and neoliberal power in the most recent understandings of the city.”
The city is, and has been, a contested and dangerous space for animals, but also one filled with possibility. Where animals can be rudimentarily categorised as pet, pest or profit (which, of course, fluctuates across societies and cultures), the latter of these still remain hidden or excluded from urban space.
There are about 36 million laying hens in the UK and about 45% of these hens are “ … in cages with no grass beneath their feet, no breeze gently ruffling their feathers and no sunshine on their backs” (Howorth, The Vegetarian Society, 2020). In the UK, chickens can be purchased from chicken retailers who sell both pure-bred and hybrid hens, but there is also a huge demand for ex-commercial laying hens. Geographers Jennifer Blecha and Helga Leitner’s 2014 research on urban chicken-keeping in the USA found that chicken-keepers raise chickens not “ … simply to save money or to pursue an eccentric hobby, but rather as an explicit effort to promote and enact alternative urban imaginaries.” Backyard chicken-keeping enables people to think differently about food production systems and the human–animal relationship itself.
In the UK, domestic chicken-keeping has been on the rise for many years. Ten years ago, Karabozhilova and colleagues’ study on backyard hens in the Greater London area cited chicken numbers of about three million. Their work revealed that keepers were concerned with welfare and offered higher standards than commercial farming, with birds “ … generally provided with a living environment allowing them to perform their natural behaviours such as scratching, pecking, foraging, nesting, roosting and dustbathing.”
One London-based chicken-keeper I interviewed for my research has kept chickens for 14 years and began doing so following “ … questions I was asking over where my food came from and what I’m feeding my small children … the food provenance and the food system here in the UK [is] pretty broken.” The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a huge surge in demand for backyard chickens. Rehoming organisations received unprecedented numbers of requests to rehome hens. Sellers of both pure-bred and hybrid chickens reported ‘selling out’ of hens during 2020. The rise of pandemic chicken-keeping has overlapped with a lower demand for animal meat, pointing towards shifting priorities and attitudes towards animals as food producers and ‘business-as-usual’ attitudes.
The reason behind this rise of urban chicken-keeping during the Covid-19 pandemic is thought to be two-fold: (1) people who are interested in chicken-keeping now have more time to do so; and (2) they presume that if they keep hens, they will have access to a supply of fresh eggs in the face of any supermarket shortages. Backyard urban chicken-keeping raises critical and important questions from and for vegans about the continued exploitation of animals in these spaces arising from the expectation that hens must ‘earn their keep’. Although chicken care and welfare has been of prime importance to the chicken-keepers I have interviewed, with ample space, nutrition and love given to them, this sits uneasily alongside their position as, ultimately, producers for human sustenance. There is certainly an alternative imaginary being realised in the urban barnyard, one that co-exists in conflict with, and complementary to, veganism, dependent on human perspectives.
During the interviews for this research, I spoke with vegan chicken-keepers who have rehomed ex-commercial hens and are actively involved in rehoming organisations as volunteers. Their insights are invaluable to understanding how keeping chickens, especially ex-commercial rehomed hens, can lead to transformations of ethics through these close relationships.
I was always an animal lover, was always a vegetarian, and volunteering with the chickens made me go vegan. I was like oh, I think I just like chickens. I don’t know why, but garden space meant chickens, that would be a good thing to do. We started off with posh new girls because although we’d always rescued dogs, because rescue is what you do, I didn’t really know that you could rescue chickens. About a year later, I signed up to be a volunteer and I liked it. I just thought, chickens deserve a chance, I can help some chickens that I wouldn’t otherwise. (Vegan chicken-keeper based in Greater London Area).
Originally, we wanted to just get three chickens. We got ex-battery chickens from this rehoming place. Over the years we've gone from that to volunteering with that place. The welfare of hens basically turned us both vegan. When we first got them, we were both vegetarian for a while and then we were both basically vegan for a while, but we still used to eat the eggs from the chickens. That was the last thing to go because, and I still believe this, I would say the least harm of any kind of veganism is eating eggs from your own backyard hens. But actually, it almost became a philosophical thing where it just felt wrong. I think there's not that many people in the world who can understand, but it's almost it’s my interaction with those chickens is not transactional. Even if I did want to eat the eggs, I wouldn't because they're not there for that they're there because we've rescued them because they’re part of our family. (Vegan chicken-keeper based in East London).
Urban chicken-keeping presents an opportunity for vegans to create spaces of sanctuary for ex-commercial chickens in domestic space. In bringing chickens closer to humans, it also opens space for people to question their relationships with other animals and, as exemplified by the two chicken-keepers quoted here, change their lives accordingly. Chickens and humans (and other animals) have long, entangled histories, but in many urban cities, our lives have become distant from those of other species. Although the rise in urban chicken-keeping has raised issues of welfare, regulation and expectations of labour, there is also hope that it will show people the individuality and joy that living with animals, including ‘farm’ animals, can bring. Notably, the rehoming of ex-commercial hens can challenge perspectives of ‘happy eggs’, leading to people questioning the ethics of their consumption, a sure first step towards changing their lifestyle.
Catherine Oliver, The Vegan Society Researcher Network
The work in this blog is funded by European Research Council Horizon 2020 Grant Number 759239.
All images copyright to Catherine Oliver (2021) unless stated otherwise.