Chooks play an important role in recycling food, fertilising the garden and cutting down on food waste. Here’s why we all need a touch of poultry in our lives.
I GREW UP in a mini-farm in the midst of suburbia. We had twenty or more chooks, two ducks and plenty of vegetables. Eggs from our hens were a staple on the breakfast table, and we wouldn’t consider living without our chooks. Now, twenty years on, as an inner-city dweller with a busy job and a rented house the size of a postage stamp, I still manage to keep two hens.
So why do I keep chooks?
Chooks are the most useful pets that you can have. For starters, they are the ultimate food recyclers and can help you cut down on food waste in your home. We currently waste more than $1.1 billion in fresh fruit and vegetables every year in Australia. In landfill, this decomposing food produces methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas twenty five times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. But, if every Australian recycled their own food waste, we could reduce waste output by one tonne per person every year. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
This morning, for example, my hens enjoyed my leftover porridge, some sardines from last night’s dinner and a large bunch of silverbeet that was overgrowing from the vegie patch. Yesterday I treated them to crusty bread soaked in water, and leftover chickpeas and barley. As I write this, they are strutting around the backyard looking very full of themselves.
Chooks do a lot more than just recycle food waste. Eggs are one of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can eat. And the ones produced in your own backyard are even better. Chickens living off a natural diet of leafy green vegetables, bugs, grubs and grains have been shown to contain nutrient-dense eggs filled with more health-promoting omega 3 fats, important fat-soluble vitamins and healthy antioxidants. And this is why backyard eggs are so much better than store-bought ones. You can feed your hens the ultimate diet for next to nothing and reap the rewards of the best quality eggs available.
From a taste perspective, nothing comes close to the flavour of a fresh egg compared to something that has sat on a supermarket shelf for a period of weeks. They are lighter, brighter and easier to poach. For no other reason than taste alone, it is a wonderful reason to keep chooks.
You don’t need a lot of room to keep chickens, and you don’t need a lot of investment to get started either. To make our chook-house, we used an old shipping pallet that had been discarded and left out in the street two doors down from us. My partner nailed on some chicken wire to the front, hooked up a perch and inserted a state-of-the-art sliding door (with some help from our friends at the local hardware). It wasn’t hard, and the whole exercise cost us less than $30.
Our vegie patch also loves our hens. They scratch around and pick up all the snails. We use their droppings and leftover straw as fertilizer and mulch for the plants. Any excess leafy greens (which now grow prolifically) are pulled out and given to the birds. They love it, and we love them too.
In my view, a sustainable future in Australia won’t just involve carbon-saving light-bulbs, energy efficient insulation and water-saving dishwashers, it will also be about how we use all the resources that we have. Sure, I love rose-filled gardens and sparse green lawns where I can lie down unencumbered by chicken poop or overgrowing vegetables. But the reality is, we cannot continue to be so wasteful. Suburbia in Australia is an untapped resource of unused land and sprawling green lawns. It needs to be harnessed for its true potential: keeping chooks, growing vegetables or planting fruit trees. Not only will we be living a lot less wastefully, we will also be much healthier for it too.
Arabella Forge is a dietitian, food writer and author of Frugavore: How to Grow Your Own, Buy Local, Waste Nothing and Eat Well