Thousands of SAR chickens are alive and well because government policy spares from slaughter those kept as 'pets' or for experimental purposes. The Agriculture and Fisheries Department admitted yesterday it could do nothing about large numbers of chickens kept by villagers, mainly in the New Territories, as pets and for private consumption. Government regulations allow people to keep less than 20 chickens for non-commercial purposes without registration, a department spokesman said. 'We don't know how many such chickens there are,' he said. 'We have no power to kill them without their owners' consent because our mandate covers only commercially raised chickens.' But he said there was minimal risk from chickens kept in small barns because the deadly H5N1 flu was likely to develop in large, crowded farms. Chan Kwong-yiu, 54, a retired resident of a Ma On Shan village, declined to reveal how many chickens he kept. 'I am not afraid. I raise and eat my own chickens and I sometimes give them away to my friends and neighbours,' he said. 'Perhaps my friends don't want them anymore.' The Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre in Sek Kong said it was keeping about 1,000 chickens for its gene bank programme to improve breeding. The birds are kept under quarantine at an Agriculture and Fisheries farm, according to centre director Professor Daniel Chan Kwong-on. 'These breeders will be crucial when we restart our local chicken industry,' he said. About eight other organic and educational farms are keeping less than 200 chickens, which have been shielded from the public since the slaughter of 1.5 million birds last month.