Thursday 10 November 2011

The ideal hen

The ideal breed of hen for crofters, smallholders and domestic poultry keepers has to be one that lays a lot of eggs; over 200 a year, for at least two years. It is also a good table bird with flavour and texture. You could add an ability to be out and about foraging in all weather, a quiet temperament and a degree of broodiness so that you can hatch your own replacements without an incubator.

Modern hybrids are either specialist layers producing 300 eggs a year or they have been selected to grow fast and be killed at less than10 weeks of age for that supermarket pre-packed chicken with the taste and texture of blotting paper. If small scale producers are going to raise table birds for themselves and to sell eggs and meat for local consumption they need a dual purpose utility breed. A recent review of the ecological costs of animal production, "Time to eat the dog: A real guide to sustainable living", R & B Vale, 2009, Thames & Hudson; showed that three free range hens kept for eggs had an ecological footprint of 0.01ha, but dual purpose hens kept for eggs and meat had a footprint of only 0.007ha. Oh..and by the way one small dog has an ecological footprint of 0.56ha, the same as 80 free range dual purpose hens, if my arithmetic is right.

Which breeds meet the criteria above for dual purposeness? Well I keep Ixworths and the French breed Bresse Gauloise The French chicks with their floppy combs and blue legs probably have the edge on the Ixworths they lay more bigger eggs and they grow faster. The Bresse are only rare in British terms in France they are the iconic, gourmet table bird, "Poulet de Bresse" and are kept extensively in Burgundy. Ixworths are truly British, a rare breed and you get a table bird with texture and real flavour in the darker meat ( like the cockerel in the picture), they also make excellent broody hens and very protective mothers, don't mess with them when they have a bunch of chicks. In both cases you can breed and select your own replacements thus avoiding the need to buy expensive point of lay pullets each year.

My Bresse hens came from Germany and Ireland, the French value them so highly they try not to let them out of the country but there has obviously been some active hen and egg smuggling going on. The Ixworths are an early example of genetic engineering created by Reginald Appleyard in the village of Ixworth in Suffolk in the 1930s. He wanted white skin and legs and slightly tinted eggs. Its generally thought that Reginald combined the Cornish Game, White Sussex, White Orpington,white Wyandotte and the white Minorca to engineer his ideal

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