Heritage Chickens: The Importance of Preserving Diversity

Chickens have been domesticated for over 2000 years and can trace their origins back to four species of wild jungle fowl from Southeast Asia. Due to their versatility and ease of care they are, far and away, the most widespread and populous livestock animal, numbering almost 23 billion worldwide. They’ve been in North America for centuries having been brought by Spanish explorers to be raised for meat and eggs.

The American Poultry Association (APA) began defining breeds in 1873 which were published in the Standard of Perfection (SOP). Those birds were well adapted for outdoor production in various regions because they were hearty, long-lived, and reproduced well. It’s also why they became the backbone of poultry protein in North America until the mid-20th century.

What Is A Heritage Breed Chicken?

The terms heritage, or heirloom, refer to plant seeds or domesticated animals that have been developed for special traits and genetic distinctions, then passed down for generations. They have often evolved in a particular location allowing them to adapt to the conditions of that area. For instance, chickens from northern climates have small combs that are less likely to succumb to frostbite while Mediterranean breeds have large combs that help keep them cooler.

Most of us small flock keepers would understand heritage to mean derived from old breeds and not modern production birds. It’s a term used loosely by hobbyists, but more strictly by poultry organizations. In terms of marketing birds as heritage they must meet the following criteria:

  • Standard Breed: both the parent and grandparent stock of breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) prior to the mid-20th century; whose genetic line can be traced back multiple generations; and with traits that meet the APA Standard of Perfection guidelines for the breed.
  • Naturally Mating (i.e. no artificial insemination)
  • Long, Productive Outdoor Lifespan: genetic ability to live a long, vigorous life and thrive in the rigours of pasture-based, outdoor production systems.
  • Slow Growth Rate: reaching appropriate market weight for the breed in no less than 16 weeks.

Since most of us aren’t using that term to sell our birds it’s probably not as critical to adhere to the above definition, but to understand the difference between old breeds and modern production birds and hybrids.

Selective breeding contributed to the survival of types that thrived under small scale farming practices that are very different from those found in modern agriculture. Traditionally, historic breeds of chickens were valued for their attributes for survival and self-sufficiency: fertility, foraging ability, longevity, broodiness, ability to mate naturally, and resistance to diseases and parasites.

In the 1920s, industrial-scale farming was introduced in which chickens became the first factory-farmed animal. Science and agriculture worked together to meet the increasing demand for poultry. Chickens were raised indoors in enormous numbers for egg production and meat, a practice which led to many breeds being sidelined in preference for a few rapidly growing breeds.

In less than a century there was a shift away from heritage birds to the newly developed hybrids. Using crossbreeding genetics chickens became egg laying machines or fast-growing sources of protein.

We’re all probably aware that many species of animals are considered endangered, meaning their current low numbers or environmental circumstances put them at risk of foreseeable extinction. If asked to name those imperiled species many of us would have no problem suggesting pandas, big cats, rhinos or elephants, but wouldn’t think that many breeds of livestock are also facing the same fate.

Modern farming practices have emphasized production and profit which has meant that fewer breeds have become widespread and others have fallen out of favour. Most folks can name a handful of chicken breeds or types of apples or pears, but are often challenged to come up with the literally thousands of types that have, and sometimes still do, exist around the world. My partner and I attended the annual apple festival on Salt Spring Island just south of us and were amazed to find out that farmers there grow over 450 varieties of apple trees. If you check out the produce department in your local grocery store you’ll be hard pressed to find more than half a dozen varieties.

I watched a documentary about Italian agronomist Isabella Dalla Ragione, and was fascinated to learn about her travels through rural areas of her country looking for undocumented types of apple trees. She was guided by stories from old farmers and by studying depictions of fruit in historical works of art work in an attempt to classify and ensure their survival. As she says, “If a plant dies, it’s finished”.

The same is true for all species. We may lose critical traits without knowing what they are, or because we have undervalued them. Heritage breeds store a wealth of genetic resources that are important for the survival of those species as well as the future of our agricultural food system.

I’ve kept chickens since 2005. I brought my first birds – heritage purebreds – from a conservation breeder: Welsummer, Dorking, and a landrace race type from South America. My next additions were Plymouth Rock, Orpington, Wyandotte and Australorp.

Over the years I’ve had a few other purebreds – Polish, Houdan, Marans, Appenzeller Spitzhauben, Old English Game and Japanese bantam – but mostly I’ve had crosses created from my own stock.

Preserving Genetic Diversity

Although I don’t breed purebreds I think it’s imperative that some folks do in order to ensure their survival and genetic diversity. My buying a few purebreds may have meant the end of the SOP status of their offspring, but it has also supported small scale breeders in their endeavours. If you’re not interested, or able, to perpetuate the lineage of heritage breeds I encourage you to include a few individuals in your flock in order to increase their numbers. Simple economics means that their numbers will increase to meet growing demands for hatching eggs, chicks and adult birds.

The Livestock Conservancy is an American organization that lists over three-dozen breeds of chickens in danger of extinction which would mean the irrevocable loss of their genetic resources and options. There are other groups concerned about waning numbers of livestock breeds in various parts of the world. Find out what chicken breeds in your region are threatened and see if they are a good fit for your flock.

Before deciding to add any new birds to your flock make sure the breed is well suited to your area and set up.

  • Choose a breed that is adapted for your climate.
  • Will they need protection (e.g. crested breeds, bantams, Silkies) or be free ranged?  If the latter, choose a good forager.
  • Are your birds primarily pets that provide eggs or will you be eating them? Decide whether you want egg layers or dual-purpose breeds.
  • Pick birds that you find beautiful and temperamentally compatible so you’ll enjoy keeping them for years to come.
  • Asian breeds like Brahma and Cochin are considered calm and quiet while Mediterranean breeds, (e.g. Minorca) are more active and loud. American, European and English breeds fall in between.
  • Heavy breeds with small combs and wattles are more cold hardy and not as prone to frostbite. The Chantecler from Canada has a cushion comb, and the Buckeye, from Ohio, has a pea comb, both adapted for winter weather.
  • Chickens that have large combs and wattles (that help dissipate heat) are best suited for hot, humid areas.
  • Many breeds have had broodiness bred out of them because of the hens’ decreased egg production while incubating and rearing chicks. Broodiness is an inherited trait: if you value it raise birds with that inclination (e.g. bantams, Silkies, Orpingtons) and continue to hatch chicks from those broody hens.
  • The one caution I have is to ensure your birds are not genetically compromised by inbreeding. Both positive and negative traits are inherited; your aim is to emphasize the former and avoid the latter.

Heritage breeds aren’t usually the biggest meat birds or the most prolific layers, but are healthy and when not pushed to their limits can live long productive lives.

Credits: The Guardian; The Livestock Conservancy. Feature photo credit: Silver Grey Dorking – PetHelpful

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