In a previous article, I wrote about the free-range egg industry, and how the idyllic image of happy hens scratching in the yard is not always that close to reality (see article here). I concluded that I could not buy free-range eggs with a clear conscience, knowing what goes on in the industry, so I have chosen to cut eggs from my diet altogether. However, there are many that would argue that there is a third option; keeping your own ‘backyard hens’. Backyard hens are quite a controversial topic within the vegan community, with some vegan social media groups banning discussion of the subject due to the arguments it inevitably causes.
The root of the controversy may be differences in people’s personal definitions of veganism. Some people go with the black-and-white mantra of “if it comes from an animal, it’s not vegan”, often arguing that animal products are simply not ours to take. Others follow the more subjective definition given by the Vegan Society:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”
A vegan who follows the latter definition must judge the extent to which any animal derived product involves exploitation or cruelty to animals. To go off on a slight tangent; I recently saw an article about turning dog fur into yarn, and making clothing and accessories from it. The fur is “harvested” from the dog by their owner by grooming, which is essential for many long-haired breeds anyway. The owner can then send the hair off to be made into yarn which can then being fashioned into a warm fluffy hat, or a nice pair of mittens (the makers of these products are quick to assure the consumer that the finished products do NOT smell like wet dog).
It is difficult to see an ethical problem with this; some would argue that it is derived from an animal, and is therefore not vegan, but I think it’s an example which genuinely causes no harm. Another example would be a farm animal sanctuary taking the manure from the paddocks and using it to fertilise vegetables.
(Apparently, samoyed fur is excellent for weaving…)
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Does keeping backyard hens cause harm?
The welfare implications of free-range eggs detailed in my previous article could be avoided by keeping my own flock of hens. I would have to make sure that they were not bought from commercial hatcheries (to avoid contributing to the mass killing of male chicks). The best option would probably be to get rescue hens, perhaps from an organisation such as the British Hen Welfare Trust. One problem with rescued laying hens is they often come from commercial systems, so are usually of the high yielding breeds that risk osteoporosis and bone fractures. However, rescuing these birds should not contribute to the continuation of these breeds.
For an analogy, there’s a difference between buying a puppy from a breeder of a brachycephalic dog breed (dogs with flattened facial features with can cause respiratory conditions, for example, pugs) and rehoming a dog of this type from a rescue shelter. In conclusion, keeping rescue chickens should be no less ethical than keeping any other rescue animal, provided that they are kept in such a way that all their needs are met.
Is it ethical to eat eggs from my backyard hens?
If I was to meet all my hens’ welfare needs, would it be ethical to eat the eggs? I have heard anecdotally from friends who own chickens, and from trawling hen-keeping forums online, that hens often don’t show any signs of distress if you take their eggs, they don’t sit on them and tend to just leave them lying around the garden. This is probably because commercial egg laying breeds have been bred not to become “broody” (a behavioural state where hens will be motivated to incubate their eggs) as broodiness can decrease egg yield . White Leghorns are an example of a breed that very rarely display signs of broodiness due to selective breeding .
Some people say it’s beneficial to feed eggs back to the hens, but what if there are more eggs than your little flock will eat? If I had hens, I would monitor their behaviour closely for signs of broodiness or distress when their eggs are taken; according to hen-keepeing websites the signs of broodiness are very easy to spot (for examples see here and here).
If there are no signs of distress, I would find it difficult to identify anything obviously unethical about taking the eggs (as opposed to just leaving them in the paddock to rot).
Some would argue that taking the eggs is still exploitation, as you are using these animals for personal gain, but on the other hand it could be seen as more of a mutual symbiotic relationship between chickens and humans; the human provides food, shelter from the elements, and protection from predators, while the chicken contributes eggs.
One possible negative of eating eggs from your backyard hens is that it may cause misunderstanding among non-vegans, who may wrongly think that vegans eat eggs, or may see your actions as hypocritical, and thus be less likely to take your beliefs seriously. Personally, although I struggle to see eating surplus eggs from backyard hens as unethical, I am still uncomfortable with the idea of eating eggs after being vegan for so long, and it’s likely that some other vegans would feel the same.
An alternative for a vegan chicken-keeper would be to feed surplus eggs to wildlife (I’m sure the local foxes would be grateful!) or to give them to friends/family/neighbours that would normally buy eggs from the supermarket, thus reducing the amount of income to companies who inflict cruelty on hens.
References Romanov, M.N. (2001) Genetics of broodiness in poultry- a review. Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences 14 (11): 1647-1654 (link)
 Jiang, R.S., Xu, G.Y., Zhang, X.Q., and Yang, Y. (2005) Association of Polymorphisms for Prolactin and Prolactin Receptor Genes with Broody Traits in Chickens. Poultry Science 84: 839-845 (link)