If you favour heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables, you might be interested in the traditional varieties of fowl as well. Like heirloom crops, these poultry breeds have stood the test of time.
Traditional chickens fed our forebears and serviced a buoyant export market, however recognition of their contribution is lagging compared with our acknowledgment of Merino sheep and cattle breeds like Shorthorn and Hereford. We’re talking here of fowl breeds such as Leghorn, Ancona, Hamburgh and Minorca, Wyandottes, Orpington, Rhode Island, Langshan and Australorp. It is possible to identify their heritage status from records of laying competitions that go back to the Federation of Australia. Popular in their day, the competitions list all the breeds that competed.
A century ago the fowls were purebreds. Their chief asset was predictability. Breeders could anticipate what chicks would look like, their temperament, egg shell colour, whether pullets would lay year-round or just over summer, and the likelihood of broodiness being exhibited. These subtle differences between breeds enabled farmers to select the most appropriate birds for their particular situation.
Although heritage hens are no longer considered top layers, they still have relevance today. Not everyone needs egg machines, nor do they want a hen with such a finely tuned metabolism as an ISA Brown, where feather eating is rife due to inadequate amino acids in their diets (feathers provide a source of sulphur-containing amino acids). These super-laying ISAs are not birds that can make do on table scraps and grain.
Heritage breeds are more adaptable. They have survived under all climatic and management systems. They are also renowned for their longevity – it’s not uncommon for hens to still be laying at the age of seven, albeit with reduced egg numbers.
Best of all is that the heritage breeds are forgiving, so there is more leeway for error or inexperience. They are resilient and adaptable, and will cope with boiled rice for a time if feed runs out, or will take to the trees if their door slams shut.
Fallen from favour
To maintain egg output, it is necessary to continually select the best-laying hens. This has not been undertaken with our heritage breeds so they are often poor layers compared with the past. In the 1930s the Australorp broke egg records. Today they are only average layers. The story is similar for the Rhode Island – and both are largely top-rung show breeds now.
Orpingtons and Wyandottes also enjoyed a reputation as handy layers. Not so anymore; selection for profuse feathering and complex feather patterns has taken precedence over productivity. Both, however, are delightful birds if you only want a few eggs.
Minorcas have faded into obscurity. Previously considered good layers of large, white-shelled eggs, they are now a rare breed.
You can also utilise the strengths of some heritage breeds by crossbreeding. This was popular mid last century and produced birds with extra vigour and egg output. Australorp, Rhode Island and Leghorns were used in varying combinations to produce crossbreds. You can still get these crosses from select hatcheries and they are the more sustainable option to ISA Browns.
There are a number of heritage breeds that should still be considered by home food producers. However, you might want to avoid show bird strains because their egg laying may disappoint. If space is limited, the bantam (miniature) form will be just perfect. Here are my top four.
Australian Langshans are placid but standoffish. Being active and industrious, however, they should never have free run of the garden. For children, bantams are the best option and are a popular choice for school-aged youngsters.
In appearance these hens are elegant, upright, of medium size with a short tail and carry a smallish comb and wattles. They have small red earlobes, dark-coloured legs and lightly feathered feet; plumage is close, soft and glossy. The Black variety is common, but Blue and White varieties are also available. Langshan eggs are brown shelled, with pullets laying around 250 plus each year.
Tip: Watch for broodiness in summer; speedy action should control it.
left: Australian Langshans are placid but standoffish.
(PHOTO: MEGG MILLER)
Anconas are active and edgy but will quieten down if obtained young and quickly become lively pets. They may be too active for small children but will tolerate handling by older children aged over eight. In appearance they are neat and racy looking, of medium size with a full, almost fanned tail. They can be single or rose combed; the large single comb falling to one side. Anconas have long wattles, white oval earlobes and yellow legs with black mottling. Their plumage has a distinct white ‘V’ on each feather tip, with the main colour being either black or red.
Eggs are white/cream shelled, with pullets laying around 200 plus each year.
Tip: Anconas are very economical eaters.
Leghorns are flighty and alert, and fun to keep in low numbers. They are easily bored so need lots to do if confined; their vitality is ideal for orchard areas. They are shy with children but the bantams can be enjoyed by those aged over eight.
In appearance they are medium sized, athletic looking with a long back and tail. They have a large single comb that falls to one side, long wattles, oval white earlobes and yellow legs. Black, Buff and Brown varieties are attractive, or try the feminine White commercial strain. Bantams are more popular in urban areas than large Leghorns.
Their eggs are large and white shelled, with pullets laying 180-250 plus per year, depending on the strain.
Tip: Allow Leghorns a quiet, peaceful environment.
Hamburghs are highly strung and active, but being naturally curious they will soon be eating out of your hand. They are quick and smart, which makes them wary around noisy children and will only endure being handled.
In appearance these chooks are small and light framed with a longish, fan-shaped tail. They have a neat rose comb and small wattles, plus round white earlobes, which add style. Blacks are superior layers, and Spangled and Pencilled varieties (on gold or silver main colour) look truly sensational.
Their eggs are medium sized and white shelled, with pullets laying around 200 plus each year.
Tip: Hamburghs are like lightning – they will be in the garden or even your house before you realise.
First published: December 2012