This is part two of the story of how we created our dual purpose meat and coloured egg laying flock here on the smallholding. You can read part 1 here. After a lot of research, we settled on four main breeds that we wanted to keep to form the base of our flock.
The first, without question, was a selection of Marans chickens: French Copper Black, Cuckoo and Blue Marans. This heritage breed originated in France and was brought over to England in the 1930s. The shy, feathery-footed birds lay large, speckled eggs that are very dark, reddish brown in colour. The hens are probably the best source of dark eggs it is possible to find. The French Copper Black and Cuckoo Marans usually lay the darkest eggs, with the Blue Marans laying a slightly lighter egg. In addition to the beautiful eggs, they are also big-framed birds, with a lot of leg and breast meat, which makes them very suitable for the dinner table. The slow grown meat is deeply flavoursome and wonderful to eat. Overall they are a brilliant all-rounder and were at the very top of our list.The second was Araucana. This is another heritage breed, originating from Chile, that again is believed to have hit the UK shores around the 1930s. Araucanas are the ultimate blue egg layers. Indeed, all chickens that lay blue eggs will have Araucana in their family history. We chose lavender Araucanas. The birds are small, with beautiful silver-grey feathers and huge doe eyes (the chicks look like they have just stepped off the set of a Disney film). Their eggs are small too, but we felt it would be rather nice to have a contrasting size to the much larger Marans eggs. They are great foragers too, which means they don’t consume as much bought-in feed as some other chicken breeds. The only downside of the Araucanas is that they aren’t ideal for meat because they are such little birds. Next on the list (after a close battle with the Light Sussex) was the Ixworth. Ixworths were originally developed and bred as a dual purpose chicken here in 1930s England (in the Suffolk village of the same name), by Reginald Appleyard and are now considered a rare breed. There’s an interesting article about the history of the breed on the Guardian website here. The white feathered birds lay a good number of cream eggs with a pinkish tint. Like the Araucanas, they are also excellent foragers and self-supplement their diet with plenty of extra bugs, grubs and greenery from the garden. However, it was for the meat in particular that we chose them, because Ixworth chickens are said to produce some of the tastiest meat you can get from a pure breed. The final chicken we chose was the Welsummer. This Dutch breed is another excellent source of dark eggs. The Welsummer eggs differ from Marans eggs in that they are slightly smaller, with a matte surface, dark brown speckles, and more of a deep terracotta in colour. Welsummers can also be used as a dual-purpose breed, although they aren’t generally thought to be in the same league as Marans in terms of meat yield or flavour in this respect. However, we thought the pretty gingery brown birds would make a lovely addition to the flock. We felt that this mixture of heritage and rare breeds would provide us with a well-balanced flock of meat birds and egg layers. It would ensure that we mostly had birds of a size that were well-suited to the table, and would give us a mix of dark brown, terracotta, blue, and pinky-white eggs. The heritage breeds wouldn’t lay as many eggs as modern hybrids, but there would still be plenty to ensure us self-sufficiency.
With these breeds at the core of our flock, we knew we would also have the option to cross the Araucana hens with the Marans or Welsummers to create olive egg layers. These hybrids would be slightly faster growing than the heritage breeds and lay more regularly. Plus the Marans or Welsummer bloodline in the olive eggers would theoretically also result in a slightly larger, more suitable table bird than the pure Araucana.
The next challenge was finding some hatching eggs to buy from reliable breeders and to work out how best to start accumulating the flock. This turned out to be a little trickier than we originally anticipated. More about that in the next post.