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Wildlife Camera » Comeback time for the fancy fowls

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Comeback time for the fancy fowls

21 July 2007


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silkie cockerel
The cackle of hens is being heard again in the showgrounds and auction yards of Britain this summer, and cockerels are crowing in the gardens of country houses. As the bird flu scares have faded, the fancy chickens are making an amazing comeback.

Top-knotted Houdans, cute Araucanas, fluffy Silkies, flashy Appenzellers, and scores of other varieties with names which show their worldwide origins, are thriving again, back with a popularity which their breeders feared had gone for ever as avian influenza hogged the headlines and backyard poultry were bad news.

Last year the Royal Show at Stoneleigh had a “rather pathetic” egg competition and photo exhibit in place of the colour, buzz and activity of real poultry. This year it is back to business as usual and the Poultry Marquee promises to be a hub of interest according to the organisers, who are expecting 150,000 visitors at the beginning of July. Other famous summer shows, such as the three-day Great Yorkshire event at Harrogate in the middle of the month, have dusted off their silver challenge cups and are offering prize money to draw fanciers – there are more than 100 classes for large fowl and bantams, with a dozen class prizes for Old English Game bantams alone on Poultry Day, 12 July.

The dramatic turnaround from the gloom of the past couple of years to the upbeat show season of 2007 is due to the productivity of the chickens. Even the fanciest of varieties can go from bust to boom in quick time thanks to their ability to lay lots of fertile eggs. As one breeder told me: “It takes forever to save a rare breed like the Clydesdale horse, but only a couple of seasons to take an unusual fowl off the endangered list. If one hen lays 100 eggs in a year and you can rear 50 chicks, with half of them hens, and you do the same again for a couple of seasons, you are talking about thousands of offspring from a single pair while you are still waiting for your second Clydesdale foal.

“It’s all about fashion. If people want the birds and they are willing to pay for them, they can be produced in no time at all.”

And what are buyers of fashion’s funky chickens looking for?

Jill Bowis, who breeds many kinds of poultry at Kintaline Mill Farm, Benderloch, Argyll, says: “Most people want healthy pets that lay well.”
 But enthusiasm for pets and eggs has gone beyond the oddball and fluffhead breeds to growing meat for the table. Jill Bowis says: “It’s great to see the interest in meat birds coming back, even if there are so few strains of our pure breeds that have been bred for the table in the past 20 years. Hopefully, it will encourage others to select for good maturing, meaty birds instead of just for their outward appearance. Without strong selection, the strains go to lots of feather and frame and not a lot of meat.”

As an example of the ups and downs of fashion which mark the poultry fancy, the Houdan is a typical case history.

The breed takes its name from the small town of Houdan, in the Ile de France, just west of Paris, and despite its exotic appearance, with globular crest, feathered face and five toes, it was originally famous as a white-fleshed meat breed which could also produce a fair number of white eggs. It was popular in the Paris markets in the 1890s as a milk-fed pullet.

However, by the time it was imported into England it was gaining a reputation as an egg-layer and in the early 1930s it was considered to be on an equal footing with Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons and Sussex as a dual-purpose breed. Some commercial chicken farms had flocks of 100 per cent pure Houdans, all crested, all smart in their black plumage with its white-tipped feathers, all on free range.

Then the showmen got hold of the Houdan, making the feathery crest bigger, the butterfly-shaped comb even more prominent, the markings more flashy, the square-ish body more boat-shaped, insisting that the legs should be speckled like the feathers, and giving show points for all the bird’s virtues except its egg-laying capabilities, which soon ebbed away. It was a standout on the showbench, but from being a commercial success, the Houdan fell out of favour so completely that the breed is now under the wing of the Rare Poultry Society.

However, the Houdan is making its return to popularity in another guise – it is trading on its rather pleasant, ditzy personality. The birds are universally described as “lively, curious and playful”, which is just what the New Wave of poultry-keepers are looking for. A few white eggs – maybe three a week, averaged over the year – are a bonus.

No one claims that the Houdan is a genius among domestic poultry. “Their temperament is amusingly odd,” says one fan. “They’re lively, flighty and startle easily because their hats inhibit their assessment of the environment.” Or as another puts it: “The hens are sweet; they’ll remind you of all those blonde jokes. Houdans only see what’s right in front of them, plus they are not – to be kind – really astute. They’re mostly in their own little universe.”

The cock birds have the same amount of brain, but they are more aggressive and bossy. Keep one, if you must, but enjoy the hens much more without him.

The Houdan is pretty, charming, dim – the “actress, model, whatever” in the world of glitzy chicks — and priced accordingly. Expect to see bidders paying £25-£30 per bird when they come up for auction. As one frequent visitor to poultry sales told me: “If it’s got a daft crest, feathery legs, pretty plumage or lays a blue egg, there’s always someone willing to pay an eye-watering price. There’s real competition for bizarre chickens this season. We’re talking about £50 a pair, no guarantees, no pedigree.”

Some breeds come from nowhere to take the market by storm. A good example is the Appenzeller, a black-spangled white bird which is Switzerland’s national breed but had never been heard of in Britain until comparatively recently. Once on the showbench in this country, it was an immediate star.

The Appenzeller is usually seen in its Silver Spitzhauben form, white with black tips to the feathers and carrying a forward-tilted crest – the “spitzhauben” is a traditional pointed bonnet worn by women in north-eastern Switzerland. Unlike the Houdan, this is a get-up-and-go breed, best on free range and quite likely to prefer roosting in your orchard trees rather than in a boring hen-house. As one owner puts it: “The Appenzeller says quite a lot about you – it means you’ve got space.”

More homely are the breeds from the Orient which sparked Poultry Mania in mid-Victorian times. They are large, fluffy and rather docile, with the added bonus that they are said to be less destructive in the garden, they can’t be bothered with all that digging and scratching. Brahmas and Cochins are typical examples, and the furry-feathered Silkie is a half-size version, famous for its willingness to sit on a nest-full of eggs at any season. Silkies are the foster mothers of the poultry world, just as happy with a dozen ducklings or guineafowl as a brood of their own. Like most breeds, they come in several colourways: take your pick from black, white, “blue” (which is grey) or “partridge” (which is mostly brown) and some attractive golden-buff shades.

The fashion leader for the past few seasons has been the Araucana, the “Easter egg chicken”, which lays blue eggs. The birds and their eggs are a real talking point. The birds because they hail from South America, where they were found by early Spanish explorers, even though there are no junglefowl in the New World from which they could be descended, and the eggs because they are pure blue, through and through, just as colourful inside the shell as outside. Crosses of the mystery fowl with European breeds have created Legbars and other layers of  green, olive and tinted eggs, all of which make big money at auction.

Araucanas are feathery-faced curiosities, typical of the oddball birds which have fuelled the current enthusiasm for garden poultry.

The advice for beginners from expert Jill Bowis: “Visit a few places to see the different breeds you might be interested in, making these visits part of the adventure of your poultry keeping. You will learn so much from each breeder that is not found in books.” And is it more difficult to keep chickens these days?  Jill says: “I’m not sure it’s ever been difficult. There is an increasing amount of misinformation around, but there is also a great deal of great advice available.” - Willy Newlands (copyright). Photo of white Silkie from Lucky Oliver (copyright).


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