Lottie Hedley

Ba-gerk!

Driven partly by egg prices but also, surely, by the sheer joy of keeping chickens, Gallus gallus domesticus is really having a moment.

Written by       Photographed by Lottie Hedley

When dusk falls at this free-range egg farm in Maramarua, the feathered ladies of Shed 2 tootle in from the paddocks and put themselves to bed. Like a dormitory matron, the farmer, Donna, dims the lights and before long, the reverberating croon of 2000 chickens turns to silence. Vents on the side of the shed, normally accessible to the outdoors 24 hours a day, are closed tonight. Change is afoot. Although they’re blithely unaware of the fact, the tenure of these chooks as professional egg-layers is about to come to an end.

Outside, Operation Chicken Rescue sets up. A mish-mash of hatchbacks, utes and horse floats arrive and a dozen volunteers assemble around Sally Hart, the founder of Franklin Farm Sanctuary. This evening, the team will catch 400 of these chickens, box them up and trundle them away in back seats and trailers.

Hart takes us through chicken-handling 101 before pressing play on a Rihanna track. It’s showtime.

One by one, surprised-looking chickens are passed between a chain-gang of volunteers. First stop: worming and a shot of mite spray, then they’re popped into a banana box with two others before being stacked into a hatchback or horse float. From here, the chickens are driven through the dark to various collection points around Auckland and the Waikato. A whole new world awaits in the morning.

Some free-range egg farms allow welfare groups to rescue their chickens as productivity starts to drop. So rather than being culled, these 18-month-old hens are off to new homes.

Within two hours, the human conveyor belt grinds to a halt; the last bemused chickens disappear into the Maramarua night. Donna closes the shed door. Over the next two nights, the remaining 1600 chickens will be picked up by other rescue groups, before the shed is thoroughly cleaned and restocked with a new batch of younger birds. She’s happy with the evening’s work, much preferring that the chickens go to good homes rather than be culled for chicken stock, as most past-it layer hens are. The birds have a productivity peak of 95 per cent. But at just 18 months old they’re already slipping. “These girls are down to 85 per cent productivity,” she explains. “That means they’re still laying an egg roughly four days out of five, so they’ll be great backyard layers.”

Culling at 18 months is standard in the egg industry, but those that are rescued often go on to live for about five years—one of the chickens that did a stint at this farm is still going strong at 13. Hart believes she could find homes for a lot more rescue birds than she does. But after decades of controversy over the industry, farmers are wary about working with rescue groups (Donna also asked us not to name her farm or use her last name). Hart explains that even when they’ve been kept in good conditions, chickens from farms often look a bit rough compared to backyard hens. “We’re not judgemental about how they look—they come right quickly,” she says. “We just want to get in there and give the chickens a chance at a second life.”

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Ten dozen particularly lucky chickens have been dispatched to the rolling pastures and gardens of the Waikato, and by 11am on Sunday, their adoptive families are beginning to arrive for pick-up at Lara and Dave Connors’ Cambridge lifestyle block. The Connors are a little bleary, having unloaded the chickens after midnight and corralled them all back into crates this morning, but the atmosphere is quietly electric; it’s clear that these chickens are all headed for five-star homes. Putāruru retirees David and Barbara Burns are first in the queue. “Oh look, they’ve paid the bus fare,” Barbara jokes when she sees a couple of eggs in the travel crate. The Burns already have several batches of rescues and explain that while they don’t eat many eggs, they donate several dozen at a time to the local street pantry or pātaka kai. “Rescues are the only chickens for us,” David says. “They start laying straight away so there’s no hassle feeding chicks, and it’s nice to know that we’re saving lives.” Another retired couple takes 20 chickens.

“My uncle had a battery farm and I always felt sorry for them,” Jan Prendergast says. “Some of ours are past laying—we say we’ve got layers and layabouts—but we love seeing them out there enjoying themselves.”

Several family groups arrive with children, for whom naming the chickens is top of mind. “We’ve already got three Sarahs at home and my daughter wants to call these ones Sarah, too,” one mum says, grinning. Some first-time owners are taking an alphabetical approach: “We’ve picked ‘A’, so only names that start with ‘A’,” says Laura Hagger, from a small block in Karapiro. An in-home daycare teacher, Kristie Boulton, is adding to her home flock. “The children eat a lot of scrambled eggs,” she says. “Some of them love the chickens and will climb in with me to collect the eggs, although others are terrified.”

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Consider the unpaid logistics behind all this avian-human match-making: Franklin Farm Sanctuary rehomes 7,000 chickens every year. “The work leading up to a rescue is huge—absolutely huge,” Hart says. “It requires hundreds of emails and phone calls.” This is volunteer work, juggled alongside caring for three children, and a retail job. “This is what I want to do with my life,” she says. “It’s my way of making sure I leave the planet better off than I found it.”

Outside of adoption events, Hart reckons a lot of her advocacy work is just conversation. “People genuinely don’t know how poor the conditions are for many of New Zealand’s chickens. The farms we rescue from are top of the line; they do a really great job of looking after their chickens. Those farmers are voluntarily exceeding the MPI [Ministry for Primary Industries] guidelines on chicken welfare. From there it’s downhill—farmers can call themselves ‘free range’ when there’s very poor access to the outdoors, and certainly not the pastures which people envisage.”

Chooks and veges are natural partners—the chickens clean up insects and past-it greens, while their used bedding and manure help supercharge the next round. Waimate township’s Mary Barltrop grows silverbeet especially for her flock.
At the Blessing of the Animals service at Auckland’s St-Matthew-in-the-City, Saunders the chicken seems completely unfazed by the medley of priests, dogs and owners. At home with Kate Ricketts and her son Hugo, Saunders loves snuggling on a lap and watching TV.

There’s a bit to unpack when it comes to how our almost-four-million-strong flock of commercial egg layers functions. A third are free range, a third are raised in barns and the last third, which mostly supply eggs to the hospitality industry, live in cages. These “colony cages” are bigger than battery cages, which were banned last year, but they also house far more birds.

In colony cages, which are tier-stacked inside large sheds, each square metre of floor space can take up to 13 birds, with a maximum of 60 per cage. That’s around an A4 piece of paper per chicken—only marginally more than what they had in battery cages. The cages contain enrichments that battery cages didn’t—a small rubber mat, perches and a nesting area. However, Hart points out, “with 60 chickens, there’ll be a lot of competition for those resources”.

In the egg aisle of a supermarket, deciphering labels can be tricky. Helen Beattie, managing director of Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa, thinks many welfare-minded consumers are confused. “Labels are quite misleading at the moment. Along with varying interpretations of ‘free range’, there’s no requirement to include the word ‘cage’ along with ‘colony’. A label can say something like ‘fresh-laid colony eggs’. Because colony cages are not widely understood, consumers could easily think they’re buying a cage-free egg.”

Colony cages are being phased out in Germany, while several states in the US have now banned the production and sale of all cage eggs. In New Zealand, the labelling issue, at least, will soon largely be moot: major supermarket chains Woolworths and Foodstuffs (a co-operative whose members own New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square outlets) have committed to selling only barn and free-range eggs by 2025 and 2027 respectively.

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Chicken farmers had known for a decade that battery cages were going but for many, it was still a struggle to convert to the new cages. Some smaller setups went out of business. That, on top of inflation and increasing energy and grain costs, meant the supply of eggs became patchy and prices went up. And up. A dozen eggs cost $5.85 in spring of 2022. A year later, they were $9.30. Due to COVID-19, consumers had already had a taste of supply-chain shortages—and we didn’t like it. In the space of two weeks, Trade Me clocked 65,000 searches for chickens and coops.

Harrisville Heritage poultry breeder Casey Patten was enjoying the Christmas holidays with her young family in Pukekohe when the impact of the shortage kicked in. “I had to pull all my advertising as I was suddenly inundated.” Buyers of her fertilised eggs, day-old chicks and laying birds had usually been thinking about getting chickens for some time, with the egg shortage providing the final push. In the year since, business has stayed strong—Patten reckons that if she had time to expand she could easily fill three times the orders she does.

Radiating health and virility, rooster BB King stands hopefully at the door with friends (from left) Mick Hucknall, Freddie Mercury and Axl Rose.
Bruce Jones, on the border between Auckland and Waikato, has three or four of his mega-coops on the go at any given time. When he delivers them, he’s often stopped at petrol stations by people who want to know where they can buy one. Recently he delivered a coop to a suburban house and left with a slew of requests from neighbours.

Clare Burndred is the CEO of Takanini Feeds, which sells poultry pellets across Auckland and Waikato. “There is definitely an uptick in chicken owning,” she says. “At a guess we’re selling 15 to 20 per cent more chicken feed now than we were a couple of years ago.” Again, she thinks it’s most likely due to the price of eggs.

But there seems to be something cultural in play, too. Some 15 years ago, the US, in the absence of an egg-price boom, saw a similar rush on backyard chickens. Susan Orlean wrote a New Yorker essay about it: “Right now, across the country and beyond, there is a surging passion for raising the birds. Chickens seem to be a perfect convergence of the economic, environmental, gastronomic, and emotional matters of the moment…”

“When times are tough,” the president of a hatchery told Orlean, “people want chickens.”

Sometimes that cause and effect is clear. Ninety-two-year-old Aucklander John Emery remembers the impact of the Depression. “My mother fed hungry people outside our home in Pt Chevalier,” he explains. When the Depression was over, the family moved to Mellons Bay, East Auckland, where they acquired several hundred chickens and planted vege gardens. “Having seen that poverty, my parents decided we’d never be without the means to feed ourselves.” He thinks COVID-19 has probably raised awareness of how reliant we are on food supply chains. “If you have eggs and vegetables you’re a lot less vulnerable.”

Aurin Templeton (left) and Kristie Boulton gently load one of Boulton’s adoptees to be transported home. Boulton, an in-home daycare teacher, involves her small charges in the day-to-day duties of chicken care. (Bonus: the kids love scrambled eggs.)

Other triggers are more subtle. Instagram right now is full of images of cosy chooks sunbathing, or fluffing themselves delightfully over chicks. There’s a comedy variation: chickens in headscarves, big glasses, pigtails; a chicken wrapped up like a bunch of flowers. And then there’s aspiration. Blue, brown and cream eggs in cartons. Coops with fairy lights and chandeliers. Chickens trailing after urban homesteading goddesses in floaty dresses. Given that the chicken is the closest living relative of the T-rex, it’s an impressive colonisation of our collective modern imagination.

Twenty-nine-year-old acting agency assistant Forrest Denize recently added a chicken set-up to her and husband Keith’s new build in a Helensville suburb. She remembers being “obsessed” with the chickens at her Waiheke Island kindergarten and has always dreamed of having a home flock. Keith, she says, has always known that chickens were going to be part of the deal. For her, it’s more about the avian companionship than the eggs.

“I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I could watch them for hours—they have these complex little chicken societies and they all have different personalities.”

Denize, too, has noticed the influx of chickens on social media, and thinks chickens may be a sort of poster animal for our time. “They’re somehow very comforting—you notice they often end up with nostalgic names like Doris and Gertrude. I think they’re a symbol of domesticity and pre-industrialisation: an antidote to things like busyness, over-reliance on technology, loneliness and isolation, consumerism, that kind of thing.” She’s heard that birds help to calm the human nervous system. “For me, just knowing they’re there is therapeutic.”

To kit out her five chooks, Denize spent around $1,500, which paid for a coop, auto-feeder and drinker, netting and gates, as well as several months’ worth of pellets. “I suppose it’s a lot,” she says, “but a friend just got a purebred puppy. That cost a lot more.” Neighbouring kids have been excited to see the chooks when they walk or bike past, and have knocked at the door with silverbeet for them. Swapping eggs has been a connection point: “I was going to a cocktail party and realised I didn’t have any limes. I put out a post on the local grapevine offering half a dozen eggs for a few limes and I got heaps of offers. I ended up getting a huge bag of limes from someone local who was so thrilled with the eggs. That kind of thing makes you feel incredibly positive about your community.”

As egg prices took off and shortages hit supermarkets, many people decided to climb the supply chain, buying backyard chickens rather than eggs. Others headed to roadside stalls like this one in Kurow, near Oamaru.

For Denize, the rise of the backyard chicken helps to raise awareness of the chicken as a sentient being. “In order to tolerate inhumane farming practices, you have to completely blank out the idea that the animal is real. We’ve been removed from chickens for so many decades now that we don’t really know what their needs are; it’s allowed us to distance ourselves from them. Having more people being exposed to chickens is going to help educate the next generation.”

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There are challenges that come with so many first-time owners. Bruce Jones sells bespoke chicken coops through his milling business, Crackling Firewood & Woodworks. An initial side-shoot of the business, coops have quickly become his main earner. “Demand has been absolutely insane—I’ve had to employ someone else to help me. We crank out 10 or 15 a month and I’ve turned down offers to sell the design for streamlining in China.

“We’re getting a lot of enquiries from first-time chicken owners. Some will do the homework and they’ll be fine, but we are concerned that others just don’t have a clue about chickens, and they won’t necessarily be suitable owners. We’ve seen some pretty rough stuff.” Bruce built one coop on-site for a TikTok star who followed him around with a camera. He left the job feeling anxious about how the chickens would fare. Within a week, he’d received a phone call asking for alterations because Mr TikTok “wasn’t going in there” to deal with the mess. Bruce doesn’t expect this to end well. Bruce’s wife, Kirsty, is a vet nurse and tries to direct people to specialist websites—not Facebook groups—to learn about worming, feed and health needs. “It is a concern when we see people getting chickens purely because they think they’re going to save money,” she explains. “Having chickens is not really any cheaper than buying eggs.”

Poultry vet Sam Hurley, who with his partner, Jemma McLean, runs telemedicine service Avian Empire, echoes concerns about the lack of “decent, practical knowledge” among many new chicken owners. “People can be very naive about what they’re giving to their chickens and oversimplify based on the idea that free-ranging chickens are always going to be happier. Of course, free-ranging is great but it’s just one aspect of good care.”

Many owners don’t have any kind of backup pen they can use as an isolation ward for off-colour chickens, he’s found—and chickens can be off-colour fairly often. Responsible owners will also learn to keep a bird warm, hand feeding, and offering pain medication if it’s unwell.

“People latch onto all sorts of remedies on the internet—apple cider vinegar is one that you see a lot,” Hurley says. He’s also seen people advising each other that if their chickens are free-ranged, they won’t need additional feed. That’s not true. “There are some really uneducated influencers out there.”

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Taranaki is at its shimmering best when I visit Freyja and Allan, a retired couple with a mission to save that most deified yet dispensable animal—the rooster. Five years ago, the couple traded in careers in radio and publishing to open a rooster sanctuary. (Demand is so high that we’ve agreed not to publish the couple’s last name or precise location for fear desperate owners will start throwing roosters over the fence.)

All 50-odd of their enormously loved roos are named after rock stars. “Here, boy,” calls Allan, rattling the feed bucket for Paul Simon and Freddie Mercury and their multicoloured, comb- and wattle-shaking buddies. Despite the fact that I arrive well after daybreak, there’s plenty of crowing at the sanctuary, but there are periods of quiet and, surprisingly, only the merest hint of a schoolboy-style scuffle. Roosters settle down as soon as they realise there are no hens, Allan explains. “There’s nothing for them to fight over so they just team up in little gangs and hang out together.”

Her niece Sophia Davis-Hagger stays regularly and adores the chooks, finding any excuse to be outside with them.

“They’re just wonderful to have around,” Freyja says. “They hang out and talk to Allan while he’s fixing the car. Some of them know their names and come to us when we call them. They even bring us trinkets and stones as gifts. It absolutely breaks my heart that they’re so underestimated and undervalued.”

In the egg industry, for every female chick that is hatched, a male chick also hatches—and is culled. “If there are four million layer hens in New Zealand, that means another four million roosters were killed as day-old chicks,” Freyja says.

Still, many of the people getting into raising backyard chickens want to start at the cute stage, with fertilised eggs, new fluffy chicks or just-fledged pullets. Roosters aren’t allowed in urban gardens; even in rural areas they can be difficult to manage. But most chickens can’t be accurately sexed until they’re at least six weeks old.

So poultry groups on Facebook are overflowing with people looking to offload the fluffy chicks that turned out to be roosters. Unlucky roos end up in the pot, or dumped on a roadside.

“We regularly receive calls from friends of friends begging us to help,” Freyja says. “People tell us [the roosters] will be killed if no one can take them but we can only take so many. I get really grumpy.”

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Twelve weeks after the great chicken-farm clearout, I call into Laura Hagger and Alex Gudsell’s farmlet in Karapiro. One of their rescue chickens has died, but the remaining seven are feathering up filling out (one scrawny neck now sports a spiffing mullet). They’re very tame: “they’d move in with us if they could,” Hagger says. She calls them all “Mama” while she broods on possible names.

The couple both whakapapa Māori, Hagger to Ngāi Takoto, Gudsell to Te Aroha. They say te ao Māori informs their nurturing approach—they’re aiming at self-sufficiency, but really, what they’re doing is building a better life, for the animals as well as people. “We see this as their space as much as ours,” Hagger says. “We talk to the chickens and tell them there’s no pressure on them.” The hens are laying daily and sometimes twice—something Hagger has read is a sign of a very happy chook.

“Chickens are a lot of work,” says Laura Hagger (left). “But they bring a real peace.” They also bring eggs: about 50 per week, from this flock of recent rescues. Hagger’s allergic to eggs, but loves baking for others and giving eggs to friends, who often bring kitchen scraps and gold coins to cover feed.