What is a Heritage Breed?
We’ve all heard the saying “what’s old is new again.” This is as true in the chicken world as on the fashion runways. The chickens that turned over great-great-grandpa’s compost before settling their eggs into straw nests are now returning to do the same for our backyards and farms. Heritage breed birds, and other livestock, were developed to fit into the environment and needs of their regions. Each locale chose and developed traits to create breeds with what vineyards call “terroir.” This reflecting and being of the earth in which the chickens were bred ensured birds that had vigor, sustained production (usually dual purpose – we’ll get that later) and the ability to live in a locale with minimal help. The obvious perfection of such a breeding system created chickens that were not only beautiful, but had livability, disease resistance and, drum roll …contained the genetic diversity necessary for all of those other things to happen. Heritage breed birds are foragers, carry the genetic lineage to resist disease and parasites, withstand weather and produce over a long lifespan.
What happened to grandpa’s chickens?!
Industrial farms emerged after World War II and slowly made family farming financially impossible. As small farms disappeared, so did the specialized breeds that were raised there. The “modern” cry for faster and bigger spurred the creation of line breeding for animals and plants that could “produce” without regards for those traits crucial to success at the family farm. People are realizing this was not all it was…well, cracked up to be. None of our heritage birds are obsolete. In fact, breeds like the “Old Colonial Dominickers” the Dominique – or the Buckeye, are the perfect choice for backyard flocks and farms. All heritage breeds are dual or triple purpose (exhibition, meat, egg and yard ornament). Can you think of a better conversation piece than your own flock of Apenzeller Spitzhaubens? Of course not. And your neighbors will love the elegant raven feathered Sumatras flying into their yard. These are the chickens to make any poultryman proud.
That’s what happened to grandpa’s chickens (and tomatoes, and corn, and…). To put the situation in perspective, if we take the old barnyard standby, the endangered New Hampshire Red, and considered the number of birds in breeding flocks, which would be roughly 5,000 – this would not even equal the number of birds in a single industrial factory farm. Information explaining what these numbers mean can be found on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Conservation Priority Poultry Breeds list 2014 (updated regularly). The numbers for an ancient Spanish egg-layer, the Andalusian states that less than 5,000 birds exist, period. We have lost half of the farm animal breeds in the last century – poof, gone, extinct.
What you can do to help
Choose heritage breeds to populate your flock. Having the birds that graced ancient Rome, walked amongst the pyramids, watched the American Revolution unfold, honored a Native American tribe or endeared themselves to Queen Victoria are living history. Below is a very short example of the exciting birds available. There is an endangered breed for every interest, mission and taste. Visit hatchery sites, like eFowl (which lists the birds’ status), to read about the different breeds. Travel to your local poultry show, talk to breeders and click through breed clubs and rescue groups such as The Livestock Conservancy (formerly ALBC), the American Poultry Association (APA), and heritage sites such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Shaker Village in Kentucky.
Example Heritage Breeds
• Wyandotte: Bred in the late 19th century in the region of the Native American Wyandottes, this deep-bodied bird is instantly recognizable by the prominent lacing of the feathers (the white and the Columbian have no lacing). Whether you chose golden, blue or the traditional silver, this hardy egg layer is a calm and exceptionally elegant creature. They are good winter layers and the rose comb keeps frostbite issues at bay.
• Salmon Faverolles: Bonjour. The national fowl of France is a sweet and unique looking bird with muffs, beard, feathered legs and five toes. The docile and striking, stout breed is a good layer and served French city markets with fresh eggs. The Faverolles is renowned for its rarity and its beautiful soft dense ruddy and beige splashed plumage (the males are highlighted with black areas). This is a “talky” breed and fond of a good snuggle. This bird is one of the author’s favorites – you can’t match their funky and open personalities.
• Brahma: This magnificent bird is the second largest breed of poultry with the males reaching 12 pounds. Hailing from the area of Bangladesh, this cold weather layer joined forces with the Cochin to fuel the chicken fancy of the 19thcentury. The calm and personable Brahma is a delight to own, and a flock of fun-loving calm Brahmas can’t be matched for dignity. They make great show and pet birds.
• Heritage Leghorn (white, brown, silver): Can you say production! Whoa, these are the beautiful little go-getting firecrackers that lay and lay. Despite Foghorn’s accent, these perky birds originated in Tuscany and were initially termed “Italians.” The change to the present “Leghorn” was first documented after the Civil War in Worcester, MA. The heritage Leghorn (often pronounced “legg’ern”) is vigorous, friendly and perky. They excel at free-range as they were bred to do. Due to their combs, they need special winter care in very cold regions. They are heat tolerant.
• Cochin: This is the feather-footed bird that impressed the Queen of England. After disembarking from the trading ship in 1843 and meeting Victoria the birds never looked back. Their popularity and cute fluffy conformation helped launched the exhibition poultry craze. The Cochin is ideal for show and for childrens’ pets. A flock of these magnificent large birds can’t be equaled. With their delightful personalities and ability to brood these birds are impervious to winter but may need extra care in heat.
• Fayoumi: Their ancestors walked the marshes of ancient Egypt. If you want a conversation piece and a spry heat tolerant flock, the Fayoumi is the just the thing. These fast growing chickens (hens lay at 4 months and expect a wake-up call from the cockerels after the first month), are renowned for disease resistance, predator awareness and fantastic foraging abilities. The Fayoumi is a good show bird and addition to pastured flocks.