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Wildlife Camera » Utility poultry love the free-range life

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Utility poultry love the free-range life

14 September 2007


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wyandotte hen

In the 1950s, the traditional utility breeds of laying poultry produced about 180-200 eggs a year under test conditions. Today’s hybrids lay more than 300.

No contest, you might think. Who would persevere with the old-fashioned Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, Leghorns and Wyandottes when the modern birds are so much more productive?

The answer seems to be that a lot of people are still attracted by the breeds which dominated backyard poultry-keeping half a century ago. They fit very happily into the picture — somewhere between pets and productive livestock — which is the dream of today’s chicken keeper, and they love the free-range life.

The Rhode Islands, Sussex and the other “utility” breeds look smart, enjoy our climate, eat a varied diet including corn from the farm, and are resistant to many common ailments. They grow slowly, are rarely flighty or fussy, and at the end of a laying career the plump hens are well-worth putting in the pot. The rival hybrids are super-productive lightweights, but they have often needed more shelter, an all-pellet diet and generally more care and attention if they are to achieve their potential.

Many of the breeds that we think of as “traditional” or even “heritage” types are themselves comparatively recent creations of the breeder’s art. The Sussex, for example, first appeared on the show bench at the Royal Show just 100 years ago and even then the birds were described as “very irregular in both type and marking.”

The Sussex, which is best known today in its “Light” form, a white bird with black-laced neck and a black tail, was soon standardised and quickly became very popular. The utility Light Sussex was further boosted when it was realised that a cross with the American Rhode Island Red, another all-round meat-and-eggs breed, produced sex-linked chicks which could be separated by their down colour at day-old, allowing egg-laying pullets and meat-producing cockerels to be reared separately right from the start.
 
Perfect chicken

Backyard breeders have always had a perfect chicken in their mind’s eye, a semi-liberty bird which would lay a brown (or at least tinted) egg every day and would taste wonderful when it came out of the roasting tin. Professionals gave up on this dual-purpose dream long ago and created two separate types, today’s hybrid layers and broilers, which they took indoors where they were safe from the climate and from diseases carried by wild birds.

But recently large-scale hybridisers have been tiptoeing back into the garden poultry market with chickens which are not only productive but also adaptable and hardy.

They now advertise breeds which have been proved to lay 340 brown eggs in 14 months, from birds which are eating just 2.25kg of food for every kilogram of eggs in the basket. And while they are doing this, the hens even manage to put on a little weight themselves, going up from 1.6kg when they started to lay at 20 weeks to more than 2kg at the end of their first year. The eggs get bigger too as the months go by. The figures are impressive, and with some of their new creations the breeders even add phrases like “attractive flocks” and “quiet temperament” to make the point that these are not laying-cage leftovers.

The main difference between the old utility breeds and the hybrids, however, is that you can buy both male and female pure-bred Sussex or Wyandottes or Welsummers and can hatch further generations which will also be Sussex, Wyandottes or Welsummers. You become a genuine poultry breeder. The egg-producing hybrids on the other hand – often called something-Star or something-Bar — are a dead end because only females are made available by the hybridists. They will never sell you a male of their productive wonderbird.

And the meaty broiler types, although they are sold unsexed, are the result of such complex breeding programmes that mating the resulting birds together is not nearly as efficient as you might expect — they can turn out to be a surprisingly mixed bunch.

Exciting crosses

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun, once you understand the basics of poultry genetics. You might attempt to devise some exciting crosses of your own, such as blending the prodigious egg-laying powers of modern stars-and-bars hybrids with the virtues of the tried and tested Rhode Island Red. They will be mongrel rubbish as far as the show pen and the livestock auction are concerned, but they could be wonderful birds for your henhouse.

The main technique for improving egg production is selection. If you can identify the hens which lay the most eggs and mate them with males bred from other high-production females, you can improve the figures quite quickly over three or four generations. However, if you do not continue to select the best, the numbers fall away again. Just because Leghorns or Houdans laid well in the 1930s, it does not mean that all their descendants are necessarily going to lay well today.

This is the reason that backyarders have to keep turning to the professionals for their stock. If you breed from “that hen with the pretty speckles on her back” and “the nice friendly one”, you soon find yourself with lovely hens and not many eggs.

Identifying the super layers among hens in single laying cages is easy, you just count the eggs as they roll down the wire floor and into the catcher trough at the front of the cage and keep notes.

Finding the productive females among a free range flock is not at all easy – a “trap nest” system has to be set up. Each nest-box has a flap-down front, triggered when the hen steps into the box to lay. Checking these trap nests needs time and labour – once you start checking and releasing 200 or 300 hens, making sure that each one’s ring number is credited with today’s egg, you are heading for a full-time job.

There are two incentives which have pushed commercial poultry breeders towards today’s free-range birds – the supermarkets and the fast-growing ranks of garden chicken keepers.

Niche market

The supermarkets want to put the “free range” label on their eggs. Even if most customers think the best egg is a cheap egg, no matter where it comes from, there is enough demand from welfare sensitive customers for the supermarkets to pay a premium for eggs from “happy chickens”. And to have profitable happy chickens out on grass in the wind and rain, you need to breed birds which can cope with these conditions rather than the cosy but confined life in a laying cage.

Secondly, there is the niche market for point-of-lay pullets to put in the henhouse in the garden. Many thousands of Black Rocks and Speckled Stars have been sold to enthusiastic amateurs, and the good news about these backyard poultry keepers from the commercial breeders’ viewpoint is that they are not going to argue too much about the cost of half a dozen birds. There is an attractive profit margin.

The mega-breeders – Hubbard, Warren, Ross, Isa, Babcock, Shaver and others – sell their day-old chicks by the million to growers who take them on to point-of-lay at 18-20 weeks. Until very recent times, it was difficult for the small-scale buyer to find anyone who would sell half a dozen of these pullets. The minimum order was 1000.

Today there are advertisements in monthly poultry magazines and local free-ads newspapers which extol the virtues of Meadowsweet Rangers, Piggott’s Silver Links, Bovans Neras, Speckledy Hens, Cotswold Legbars and many more, all with very pretty names and all for sale in half-dozen lots with delivery usually possible throughout most of the UK.

In the middle of all this good news, there is one small cloud on the horizon.

Among the reasons that poultry farmers were so happy to take their flocks into expensive, controlled-environment houses in the 1950s was that they had more control over diet and disease risks. Taking the flocks outdoors again is exposing them to wandering flocks of starlings and other birds, often freshly arrived from the Continent, which may be harbouring all sorts of unfriendly viruses.

It’s easy to forget that the good old days when almost everyone had a few hens in a pen in the garden are separated from today’s golden age of backyard poultry by a long bleak period when almost all movements of chickens — and certainly all poultry shows — were completely banned by Government vets.

We just have to keep our fingers crossed that some ailing starling does not drive the nation’s poultry back under cover. In the meantime, both the stars-and-bars and the heritage utility breeds are looking good in the garden.– Willy Newlands (copyright)

Photo of Wyandotte hen by Christine Nichols, 123RF copyright.

FACTS & SOURCES: Meadowsweet Poultry Services (agents throughout the UK): 0845.1651.532, www.meadowsweetpoultry.co.uk
Piggott’s Poultry Breeders, 16 Wivelsfield, Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire LU6.2JQ: 01525.220944.
Legbars of Broadway: 01386.858007, www.legbarsofbroadway.co.uk
Kintaline Poultry, Benderloch, Oban, Argyll, PA37 1QS: 01631.720223, www.poultryscotland.co.uk
Utility Poultry Breeders’ Association: www.utilitypoultry.co.uk
Black Rock agents can be contacted via www.theblackrock.co.uk
Poplar Poultry, Derbyshire (coloured hybrid egg-laying hybrids) 07944.616.590
Homestead Poultry (Light Sussex): 07850.372.893.
  


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