So what do you know about the Vikings? Not the TV series, the people. They traveled in big wooden boats? The names of our weekdays are words derived from names of their gods? They wore big horned helmets? (actually, that last one is a myth). And what do you know about Iceland? It’s a small island nation: home to Bjork, volcanos and a Penis Museum? And we all know about chickens! Now let’s combine the three.
The Vikings settled Iceland in the ninth century and brought their farmstead chickens with them. In Iceland these birds are known as Íslenska landnámshænan, “Icelandic chicken of the settlers.” Over the centuries, farmers selected birds capable of being self-reliant and good mothers. The result is a landrace of active, naturally healthy birds adapted to harsh conditions.
Landrace are regionally domesticated ecotypes: livestock adapted to local conditions, isolated from other populations of its species and selected for useful traits rather than for conformation to specific breed standards, such as color, pattern or comb style. Icelandics come in a number of colours, have single or rose combs and can be crested, or not. There is no Standard of Perfection like other purebred chickens. That’s what makes them so interesting.
They are one of the oldest recognized breeds of chickens in the world and are 78% genetically different from any other breed of chicken. For more than a thousand years, Icelandics were the only chickens in Iceland. In the 1930s, Leghorns were imported to boost commercial egg and meat production. Those two breeds were crossed and the pure Icelandics were in danger of being lost forever.
Conservation efforts began in the 1970s and their success was followed by the export of these unique birds to other countries, including Canada. Estimates put the global Icelandic chicken population at @5000 and are on the watch list of the Livestock Conservancy.
Good thing the Icelandics have supporters interested in increasing their population around the world. And wouldn’t you know it, we’ve got an aspiring Icelandic breeder here on Gabriola. Christy bought her first Icelandic chicks from me before she even took possession on her new house. She put down a deposit and assured me the first thing on her to-do list after moving day would be cleaning out the old coop that came with the property. True to her word, she moved on a Thursday and was at my place, carrying crate in hand, to pick up her new charges three days later.
Christy ended up with six Easter Eggers hatched from my birds and six purebred Icelandics hatched from stock I got from a local breeder. They were sold straight-run (unsexed) and true to probability she ended up with six cockerels and six pullets. Only wanting to keep one rooster the others were destined to become dinner. Fate stepped in and snatched away her prospective meals: one died of an unknown cause and a raccoon got into the cockerel grow-out pen and killed three others. So now she’s down to two roosters, again, only planning to keep one and eat the other.
It’s been ten months since she bought those chicks so I stopped by her place to find out more about what she’s been up to.
Christy and her partner, Patrick, spent the last ten years in Victoria. Tired of being renters in one of Canada’s hottest real estate markets and wanting to leave the city they followed some of Patrick’s family, who’d already made Gabriola their home over the last decade. They bought a house with his parents: Alan, retired, and Claire, an award-winning author of children’s science books. Patrick works from home as a data scientist with Heritage Canada. Christy quips that the secret to a peaceful and successful multigenerational household is everyone has their own headphones.
They’ve got a five-acre parcel in the middle of the island, in an area of other acreages. At one time, it was part of a larger property: the owners lived next door and built a number of structures for animals: coops, sheds, aviaries – on what is now Christy’s property. They weren’t exactly master craftsmen – their handiwork would be characterized as ‘funky’, but very serviceable and much appreciated by someone who wants to start her own little Icelandic empire.
The two properties were subdivided and the next folks built a three-bedroom house. A fence has been erected on the property line, which in some cases abuts right up to some of the animal pens making entry a bit of a challenge. That will be rectified with a little bit of ingenuity and relocating some gates.
We toured around the many animal structures. The main coop, referred to as the Chicken Palace, is about 250 square feet and split into two sections: one half is currently being used to raise an incubator hatch of 24 chicks. At two weeks old they are growing fast and will soon graduate to larger digs. The other space is a light-filled room with roost bars and a pop-door opening onto a huge, treed fenced pen. There are a number of mature conifers, maples, a monkey puzzle tree, figs and plums right in the pen which provide both shade and cover from overhead predators.
I am currently juggling four broody hens sitting on eggs and Christy was pleased to show off her first broody. She went away for a few days and when she came back her Icelandic hen was sitting on five eggs in the nest box. You can’t see from this photo, but she’s sitting in a nest box three feet off the ground which is courting potential disaster, so she was planning to move her into a dog crate to ensure her eggs were protected from other hens vying for space in the favourite nest box. It’s not uncommon that hens scrapping for space inadvertently break precious, developing eggs. She laughed that her family could be relied on to feed and water the birds in her absence, but didn’t really clue in that the hen sitting for days at a time had actually gone broody.
I was curious as to how she chose to keep, and breed, Icelandics. They are gaining some popularity in this area, but are still an unusual breed and not widely available. She likes all the traits that Icelandics are known for: dual purpose (meat/eggs), cold hardy with good laying through the darkest months, good foragers with well- developed predator awareness, excellent mothers and the roosters are not aggressive. We both like birds that are interesting looking and don’t breed true, like purebreds. She said she’d be bored if she had a whole flock of Rhode Island Reds. I concurred: it’s not about disparaging that breed, it’s just the thought of having an entire pen of lookalikes that feels a bit limiting. Where we differ is I like my birds to be friendly – you know the kind that like to eat out of your hand, are underfoot in the pen and don’t mind being picked up once in awhile.
Christy cautions that Icelandics would not be recommended for folks with kids – they are not cuddly chickens and are considered a bit flighty. That was borne out as we walked around the pen: every time I tried to take a photo they ran for the hills. (Though she would like to point out that, just like most birds, they’re much calmer without strangers around.) They are extremely agile birds – the pullets I hatched, and subsequently sold, learned very quickly how to climb a vertical fence. They are definitely not the Golden Retrievers of the chicken world.
With the chicks she’s just hatched – representing three pools of genetics – she’ll have enough diversity to carry on breeding for a number of years without having to bring in new birds. That’s also good practice in terms of bio-security: limiting what come into, or leaves, your property that might be carriers of disease or pathogens.
We moved on from the chickens to the rest of the grounds. There is another large pen adjoining the first and Christy has plans on using that area to increase the foraging space for her birds.
We walked through the orchard just outside the pen, which contains a wide selection of fruit trees: apple, pear, plum, cherry and fruit salad (several species grafted onto one tree), both established and newly planted. They plan on putting in more trees and berries along the fence line where it’s sunny.
And down at the back property line is another funky welded steel framed structure, covered in wire, housing several structures to house animals. They’re not appropriate for chickens just yet, but with a bit of handiwork I can see the chicken empire expanding.
When I first met Christy she had just been hired for a seven-month term as Coordinator at the Gabriola Museum. That contract has ended and she’s now working at the Wild Rose Garden Centre. She’s a bit of a Jill-Of-All-Trades having trained in, and completed her first year apprenticeship in cabinetry and joinery, done shipping/receiving, security, and worked as a veterinary assistant. Her certificate in Fine Furniture Making is joined by two years of training in American Sign Language (ASL).
Christy is passionate about history and making learning accessible to a broad spectrum of people. She’s currently taking a diploma in Cultural Resource Management, which offers a wide selection of courses applicable to small museums, just like ours.
If she can apply the same passion, curiosity and versatility that she has in her work life to the chicken world, then the Icelandics will have found another champion in helping to ensure their survival.