After deciding on the chicken breeds to keep, we came up with a plan. We wanted to keep a closed flock*, which meant buying hatching eggs to incubate. As we are doing things on a very small scale (initially we had room in the chicken house for a maximum of 8 large birds), we had to build up the flock slowly with one hatch per year. We decided to start with the Marans and Welsummers in year one; Araucanas and Ixworths in year two; and breeding hybrid chickens in year three.
* A closed flock simply means not introducing live birds from elsewhere into an existing flock. The main reason for doing this is to minimise the risk of introducing diseases (this approach particularly appeals to us as we prefer to keep our animals organically and would only wish to use medication if needed rather than as routine). In addition, we were also keen to see through the whole process from incubation and hatching right through to laying/despatch.
|Year 1: Marans and Welsummers|
|We sourced a mix of Cuckoo Marans, French Copper Black Marans, and Welsummer eggs (four of each variety) from a small-scale chicken keeper, who was focussing on breeding very dark egg layers. Two Welsummers (one cockerel and one hen), two Cuckoo Marans (both cockerels), and one French Copper Black Marans (a hen) hatched. The two Cuckoo Marans, who were very aggressive, were despatched for meat at the end of the year, and we chose to keep the docile Welsummer as our main cockerel. This meant that, at the end of the first year, we had two dark egg laying hens and one cockerel with a dark egg laying gene. |
|Year 2: Araucanas and Ixworths|
|In spring we ordered some Ixworth and Araucana hatching eggs from two different breeders. Unfortunately, the Araucana eggs didn’t materialise, so we went ahead with the Ixworths only. We were unlucky – of twelve eggs, only one hatched (a cockerel). To keep the chick company, we unfortunately had to break our closed flock rule. We visited a local poultry supplier and purchased a few more chicks (they were unsexed so we didn’t know their gender for a while): |
– another Ixworth (a pale pink egg-laying hen)
– two Araucanas (a blue egg-laying hen and a cockerel)
– another French Copper Marans and a Blue Marans (both dark red-brown egg-laying hens, but with eggs a lighter shade than our hens from year one)
At the end of the year we had six hens and three cockerels (too many to keep with the number of chickens that we had long-term, but not a problem while they were still young).
|Year 3: Hybrids|
|In year three we bought an additional chicken house and expanded the flock by breeding our own hybrid hens from the existing stock. As all our chickens and cockerels are kept together, we didn’t know which hens had bred with which cockerels (most hens would have mated with more than one cockerel), so we couldn’t guarantee the outcome of a hatch. However, we knew the results from our flock could be: |
– Hybrid hens that are faster growing and more productive egg layers than heritage breeds, which would help make them more sustainable and cost effective to keep
– Hybrid hens that combine useful traits from the heritage breeds e.g. foraging ability from the Araucanas, flavoursome meat from the Ixworths, etc.
– The Araucana cockerel (blue egg gene) could breed with any of the Marans or Welsummer hens (dark egg layers) to create green egg layers, and the Welsummer cockerel could breed with the Araucana hen to the same result.
– Dark egg layers could be hatched if the Welsummer cockerel mated with any of the Marans hens.
– There was also the possibility of hatching more pure Araucana, Welsummer or Ixworths as we had a hen and a cockerel from each of these breeds.
We chose a selection of fifteen eggs to incubate and eleven of them hatched. We ended up with:
– 1 pure Ixworth hen
– 2 hybrid French Copper Black Marans x Araucana hens (sage green egg layers)
– 1 hybrid Blue Maran x Araucana hen (an olive to khaki coloured egg layer)
– 1 hybrid Blue Maran x Welsummer (a speckled dark egg layer)
– 6 hybrid Welsummer x Ixworths, 3 cockerels and 3 hens (they lay a pale pinky-brown egg the majority of the time, but occasionally the eggs are laid with a lilac-coloured bloom coating the shell; a wonderful surprise as lilac egg-laying chickens are not, to our knowledge, something that can be bought).
Colourful Eggs: At the end of year three, we finally had the rainbow of egg colours we had hoped for. The colours and patterns on each eggshell change slightly from day-to-day and through the seasons. Sometimes the eggshells are smooth and clear, on other occasions they have mottling, freckles or milky blooms, and the colours tend to be darker at the beginning of the egg laying season and lighten through the year. These wonderful natural variations add further interest to the kitchen egg racks. The hybrid hens are the more prolific egg layers and will usually lay an egg a day for a longer season, whereas the pure breed hens lay less frequently (perhaps every 2-3 days). Inside, of course, all the eggs are the same and equally delicious, with rich orange yolks (the result of the hens’ interesting mixed diet).
Thriftiness and Raising Organically: We keep the flock organically by purchasing certified organic feed; giving plenty of space to roam (approx. 1/3 of an acre in the orchard enclosed by electric poultry netting and rotated every 6 weeks or so to rest the ground); and not medicating unnecessarily (it has been five years since the first chickens arrived and we have had no health problems with any of them so far).
The Araucana and Ixworth hens are breeds that are known to be thrifty and keen on foraging. Ours are no exception and they have passed on this trait to their hybrid offspring. The Marans and Welsummers are happy to forage too, but perhaps not with the same enthusiasm as the other chickens. Nevertheless, the whole flock merrily scratch about in the orchard, searching for insects and plants to supplement their diet, as well as scoffing any fruit windfalls, and surplus from our vegetable patch. This is great because it means they don’t eat as much of the layers pellets that we buy in, making them more sustainable to keep.
Meat: The Marans cockerels, once fully grown and after a happy, free-ranging life, were calmly and swiftly despatched for the dinner table. It was at this point that it became very clear why the breed is known for being a good meat bird. Each cockerel provided us with enough meat for at least four meals for two*, plus lots of wonderful stock to cook with. All cockerels have more leg meat and less breast meat than hens do, but the Marans cockerel breasts were still large enough to serve four (half a breast per person), and the enormous legs were more than enough for four servings too. As the meat was slow grown and from a much older bird than commercially reared chicken, the leg meat was darker and the whole bird required slower cooking to ensure the meat was tender. But it was worth the wait – it was delicious. The same was true of the Ixworth cockerel when his time came. And the hybrid Ixworth x Welsummer cockerels had these traits too.
When we also came to despatch the little Araucana cockerel, there was less meat on him, but the flavour was equally tasty. This is interesting as we expected a noticeable difference in flavour in the Marans and Ixworths (as they are breeds known for having particularly excellent meat flavour), compared with the Araucana, but any difference was negligible. The flavour and quality of the meat seems to be much more attributed to the mixed diet, slow growth, and free-ranging lifestyle of the birds than the breed itself.
*Note, however, that vegetables feature heavily in our meals, so when meat is included, we’re happy to eat it in smaller quantities than a traditional portion size might be. We generally prefer to eat this way as we don’t have meat often (we normally only eat chicken at home when it’s a bird we have raised and despatched ourselves), so it feels more special to make the most of it and spread it out over several meals.
Going forward, we hope to continue to develop our small flock in the following ways:
- Expanding the variety of colourful eggs further by doing some selective breeding to get even darker egg layers; seeking out some deeper blue egg laying Araucanas than the one we have; breeding the olive eggers with a cockerel with a dark egg laying gene (ideally a French Copper Black Marans) to create a hen that lays eggs that are a darker shade of green; and perhaps introducing a white egg-laying chicken (although the geese have this colour covered for a large part of the year with their giant chalky eggs).
- Refreshing the flock with new hens to take over from our existing layers when they retire.
- We’ll continue to despatch surplus cockerels (and perhaps the occasional hen) to provide a small amount of meat for the dinner table, but as we found the flavour of the meat was good from all the birds we’ve tried so far, we don’t feel there is a need to factor this into the hatches as much (although where possible the bigger framed birds will be preferable, simply because they offer more meat).
- Continuing hybrid hatches within the flock to see which behavioural traits come through; we’re particularly keen to continue focusing on thriftiness and foraging ability. Our long-term aim is to develop a bird that can survive and thrive predominantly on foraged food, with minimal supplementary feed. In line with this we also hope to explore growing our own feed for the chickens. This should ultimately result in a more sustainable and cost-effective flock.