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Our chickens are an ancient breed
It's International Heritage Breeds Week, y'all!
By Lisa Brunette
We didn’t set out to raise chickens whose lineage might stretch all the way back to ancient Rome, but that’s what we’re doing, and we’re glad of it.
What we wanted was the best breed for our climate and conditions here in the humid subtropics. We also wanted to stay away from breeds that have been engineered for greater breast meat at the expense of their health and wellbeing, as factory breeds have been. We’re also trying to cure ourselves of the American obsession with breast meat, which is actually drier and less flavorful. There’s science to back this up, by the way; allow me to recommend this great piece on the subject from fellow Substack authorover at .
In researching chicken breeds, I discovered that some heritage breeds are in danger of going extinct, and we backyard chicken keepers can play a critical role in their survival. This week marks International Heritage Breeds Week, as a matter of fact. The Livestock Conservancy argues that “rare breeds of livestock and poultry are an important part of the climate solutions needed for a changing planet.”
Initially, I’d settled on barred Plymouth rocks, an American breed listed as still in the recovery phase after albeit disappearing as early as the 1800s, rebounding after that, and then waning again with the rise of industrial agriculture.
But this spring there was a run on chicks, and I got what our local garden center/feed store had left, which was speckled Sussex, an excellent alternative, as it turns out.
They’re sweet little ladies, my cheepies, the chickie-boos. They flock to me whenever I show up, though that’s usually with treats in hand, so who could blame them? They seem to like my attention and will let me hold them. At night, after a couple of attempts amongst the five of them to bed down together in the weeds—where they’re too vulnerable to nocturnal predators—they’ve now learned to head into the chickshaw. Since the chickshaw is up off the ground and pretty secure—I shut the gangway each evening—they’re safer there. It’s cute, the way they cuddle up together, singing their going-to-sleep song: cheepie-cheepie-cheepie-cheeeee…
According to The Livestock Conservancy, speckled Sussex were likely introduced to Britain by either the Phoenicians or Romans:
Since the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, the area around Kent, Sussex, and Surrey has been a poultry center with a reputation for producing birds with fine flavor. There is much speculation on the origins of the poultry of this area. Phoenician traders were known to visit Britain before the Romans and exchange poultry for tin. The Romans brought poultry, including some with five-toes that would later be called Dorking chickens, but they also brought knowledge of purpose-breeding livestock and may also have introduced the original British to eating poultry.
If it weren’t for the writer Edward Brown—who in 1901 took the British chicken-raising industry to task for abandoning the breed—there might not be any speckled Sussex left to adopt. “His speech moved many,” says the Livestock Conservancy, and that same year a club was formed specifically for the breed, which arrived in the US in 1912.
Don’t be cheep! Upgrade to paid.
However, again, owing to the rise of industrial agriculture, the species is currently listed as still “in recovery,” so I’m doubly glad we’re helping to further the line. More from the Livestock Conservancy:
Today, three-fourths of the world’s food supply draws on just 12 crops and five livestock species, according to the United Nations. Yet, global demand for livestock products is expected to increase 70 percent by 2050…
Breeds of livestock and poultry depend on individual breeders for their survival, as they exist only in domesticated species. That’s why the Conservancy’s 4,000+ farmers, ranchers, and shepherds throughout America serve as a volunteer army in the fight to save irreplaceable genetics. Embedded within the DNA of 192 breeds on the Conservation Priority List are sustainable solutions to face tomorrow’s changing environment. And they’re exquisitely suited to meet today’s small-scale farming and homesteading goals.
So if you want to join the volunteer army, consider raising a heritage breed. Here’s a great list to get you started.
Our ladies should do well during the winter with their darker feathers, which attract the sun’s rays. They don’t like the heat, however, so the chickshaw itself is already proving to be a good coop design for them, as they can range right underneath it and scratch in the shade. We’ve also spread out swathes of weed-barrier cloth to both offer more shade was well as break up the swoop patterns of winged predators, as we have hawks and kites in the neighborhood. So far, so good. For the hottest part of the summer, we’ll range them in the orchard, where there’s more shade.
Fellow backyard chicken-keepers and bonafide homesteaders, which breed do you raise? I’d love to hear about your experiences. This comment thread is open to all subscribers.