In terms of meat, we are very aware of the hidden side of the egg industry, where male chicks are dispatched just after hatching and disposed of as an unwanted byproduct. This practice doesn’t sit comfortably with us, so we were keen to incubate and hatch all of our birds ourselves. In doing this, we would be able to keep a couple of cockerels indefinitely to look after and breed with the hens (with a ratio of 6-10 hens per cockerel); and any surplus males could be reared for the dinner table. This would give us our own source of slow grown, organically fed meat from cockerels who have lived a comparatively long life free-ranging in the orchard. We had heard of a number of dual purpose heritage breeds, which have a reputation for excellent meat flavour as well as a good level of egg production, so we were interested in researching and getting hold of some of them for the smallholding if possible.
In terms of egg colour, we hoped to have a rainbow of shells in each egg box. Everything from the deepest, darkest browns and terracottas, to pastel shades of blues, pinks and lilacs, chalk whites, and olive greens. We wanted a mixture of speckles, flecks and dots, as well as matte and shiny finishes on the surfaces of the eggs. A hotchpotch of sizes too. We had seen lots of amazing photographs of beautiful coloured eggs from chicken keepers based in America (for example: https://www.threelittleblackbirds.com and https://www.instagram.com/thefourteenacres), but nothing on the same level in the UK. In the US, coloured-egg laying hens are generally known as Easter Eggers and they seem to be fairly easy to come by, but similar chickens are rather elusive in the UK.
We did hours of reading and trawled through various websites and online forums to research the huge variety of chicken breeds available and to find out what other poultry keepers were doing. Opinions on how best to create a flock of colourful egg layers, were very much divided. To complicate things further, we discovered that quite a few of the established breeds mentioned for use in Easter Egger flocks in the US don’t exist in the UK (for example the blue egg-laying Lavender Ameraucana), so it wasn’t simply a case of buying the same chicken breeds here (and even if we could, they wouldn’t necessarily be meat birds as well). We came across plenty of information about keeping dual-purpose birds, but we couldn’t find anything about a colourful egg laying meat flock. In the end, after piecing together everything we had learnt, the summary we came to was that we basically had three main options:
Option one: buy some chickens that have already been bred to lay different coloured eggs. There are a number of breeders in the UK, who have created their own hybrid hens that can generally lay either dark, white or blue eggs. The hens usually have their own individual breed names (some of which are very similar to the heritage breed name, which can be quite confusing). The birds are not an established breed in themselves, so their offspring won’t necessarily have the same characteristics as they do. As a result of this, the breeders usually keep the parent breeds of their hybrid hens a secret, and only tend to sell point of lay hens. As these hens are hybrids, they would be likely to lay a higher number of eggs a year than heritage breeds would. We decided against this option because, not only would it be very expensive to buy a flock of point of lay chickens, it also would mean we wouldn’t be able to incubate the eggs ourselves and rear the cockerels as well as the hens. We would therefore have no way of continuing to grow or expand our flock, as we would have no parent birds to breed from. In addition, it would give us a limited number of egg colours. Plus, the breeds would have been chosen for egg-colour alone, rather than as dual purpose meat and egg birds.
Option two: As far as we could tell, the closest UK breed to the Easter Egger are Cream Legbar chickens. Cream Legbars (unlike the hybrids mentioned in option 1) are an established breed that were originally created by crossing several heritage breeds (Leghorn, Barred Plymouth Rock, Cambar and Araucana). The Cream Legbars would be likely to lay a mixture of pale blue or pastel green eggs. However, there would be no guarantee that we would get the eggshell colour mix of both blue and green we hoped for (we would probably be more likely to get one colour or the other); nor would we get any speckled eggs, or the shades of dark green and olive that we ideally wanted. The breed was very much designed for egg-laying rather than meat. It’s actually an autosexing breed, which facilitates the identification, separation, and dispatch of any surplus cockerels at a very early age. We thought this feature would actually be quite useful when rearing the birds on a small scale because it would tell us early on how many males and females we had hatched (and therefore how many egg layers and how many birds, albeit small framed-ones, we would have for meat); and would give us the option to rear the cockerels separately if we wanted to. However, from our research, it seemed that it is very difficult to come by genuine Cream Legbar stock, as the breed has been diluted over the years and it is now on the rare breed list. We felt it would potentially be a good option if we were lucky with the eggshell colours, were happy to settle for less meaty birds, bought some dark egg laying hens to join the Cream Legbars, and were able to find good stock to buy. But, in the end, because of this complicated combination of potential pitfalls, we decided not to follow this route.
Option three: Choose a combination of breeds to create our own multi-purpose flock that would be good for meat as well as eggshell colour. We could select a couple of cockerels to keep along with the hens to ensure that we had a way of continuing to grow and expand the flock. It would also mean that we could keep a mix of interesting heritage and rare breeds, as well as creating our own hybrids. To us this seemed like a great way to support the breeders of some of the wonderful heritage chickens we have in the UK, as well as enabling us to produce some interesting hens of our own by crossing some of the heritage breeds together. This is the option we chose in the end.
In our next chicken keeping post, we’ll continue the story of how we created our dual purpose Easter Egger flock by explaining the heritage breeds we chose to raise.