The interest in keeping chickens and ducks for their eggs and meat seems to have increased again in the past few years but old familiar breeds with good productive features have become quite difficult to find. I hope that on this site we can start to explore some of the reasons and encourage everyone who is interested to get in touch and share their knowledge. There are many people in this country who have been part of great breeding whether a few in the back garden or on a large commercial scale. Sadly, for the poultry and waterfowl keepers of the future, we are gradually losing some of the best. It would be great to be able to capture and share some of their knowledge and experience before it is lost completely. It is also essential that every small owner and breeder gets involed in recording the productivity of their birds - you may have some of the best stocks in the country padling about your garden!!
INTRODUCTION (as far as I understand it so far)
WHAT ARE UTILITY POULTRY AND WATERFOWL ?
The definition I use is birds /breeds that were created and improved by Man to produce either / or eggs and meat in an economical way. In the Poultry and Waterfowl worlds there are some breeds who really have always been simply fancy's - breed for their shape or feather not for what they produced. The breeds I am including here are those that were meant to offer a quality food product.
For the sake of simplicity in this site when I say poultry I mean chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys etc
HISTORY (as far as I understand it so far)
Up to forty years ago most egg and meat production was using pure breeds of poultry and not the hybrids that are now so prevalent in the intensive units around the country.
The systems for egg production had high death and disease rates (over 25%) in the systems used. Along with using big pure breed birds with high food consumption meant that the production was not viable. With the increasing use of intensive units with improved biosecurity possible, and the development of the hybrids [a lot of money was spent in removing some of the worst offending poultry diseases], the mortality dropped dramatically (to under 10% immediately) and increased efficiency meant that the big egg producers remained profitable. The alternative would have been for this country to import all our eggs.
In recent years the financial viability of the remaining pure breed units declined (not helped by issues such as the mis- handling of the salmonella issue in the 1980's / the problems caused by the "Transport of Livestock legislation). Many wonderful breeders for one reason or another have stopped poultry keeping and it is vital that the next generation take on the mantle before it is too late. There has been a drastic decline in the knowledge to maintain let alone restore the utility breeds - but if any of us are interested we must surely act sooner rather than later.
CURRENT POSITION OF BREEDS
1- SHOW/EXHIBITION : Selection concentrating on producing a bird that comes closest to the breed standard. In the past 20 years this has become even more popular. The concentration on selecting for feather and form seems to have resulted in a reduction of egg numbers; egg quality; hatchability; fertility. This is not surprising - most breeders in this field do not need hundreds of birds hatched each year; natural broodiness (which might indicate fecundity) is discouraged as they cannot be shown; the genetic pool has been narrowed to create consistent feather patterns or a perfect white band round the neck for example; etc etc
It seems to me that there are now 3 strains of the old utility pure breeds in the United Kingdom:
A comparison used is the differences in dog breeds - show dogs rarely are capable of a days work in the same way as working dogs - which in turn often look very different from their show cousins - and many dogs of a breed could neither win a show nor do a days work
Someone once likened it to breeding Friesian cattle (the black and white ones) and instead of selecting the stock that provided the most milk most efficiently someone started breeding for perfect black circles in the coat. Very quickly the good milkers would be lost and the gene pool be reduced in an effort to stabilise the circles in each generation. They would be pretty cows but not much use in keeping milk at everyone's doorstep.
2 -NO SELECTION AT ALL : Probably the greatest proportion of birds produced in the past 20 years - most large and small breeders and their customers aren't really interested in showing but as they are not taking records of how their birds are performing each year they are simply breeding one bird of hopefully reasonable type to another. There is no quality control - no recording of the productivity of the parents or offspring. As a result it seems that the majority of birds in this country are slipping fast into mediocrity. However it is also the widest gene pool of our national poultry flock so in these flocks there may be some outstanding birds but there is no way of telling without some basic recording being done and shared.
3 - UTILITY - strains where breeders make a conscious effort to breed birds that are consistent and economic layers or table birds; in years gone by this included very organised laying trials in the 1950's and 60's and some of our best birds are still those related to or produced directly from these birds and these breeders. However the skills and knowledge to maintain these standards is being lost as time takes its toll of breeders and units. If we are not to completely destroy the utility nature of these breeds small and large breeders must work together to try and get an assessment of the birds now in the national flock.
Each individual back garden breeder has an important place in the future- especially those with birds they have had for years.
These days many people are looking to have birds in their garden - they want eggs from a source they know and reading the books they choose breeds like Rhode Islands or Leghorns. A year later they are very disappointed when the birds have only laid for the spring and summer. Few Rhodes are capable of laying the 280 plus eggs a year they used to - and some exhibition lines are struggling to get up to 75 or 100 !!. Higher productivity does not mean more eggs a day when they are laying but eggs for more of the year.
The second type (keeping breeds pure but not selecting for particularly productive features) has also contributed to the considerable variation now seen in the productivity of the utility breeds. Just because the old books say that Rhode Island Reds lay a good brown egg and around 250 a year does not mean that every bird will and any good line has to be closely monitored to ensure that each generation continues to do so. Selection in each generation involves breeding from birds that can produce the correct numbers of eggs; only hatching the eggs that come from birds that are in the prime laying season; choosing eggs that are the right size; colour and shape for the breed; In many places this has not been done.
My challenge to every poultry and waterfowl keeper and breeder however small is : Your birds are part of the national poultry flock and could be vital in improving stocks in the future. Whenever you breed you are playing a part in which direction they breed goes. WOULD YOU BE INTERESTED IN SOME WAY OF RECORDING YOUR BIRDS PRODUCTIVITY? - CLICK HERE
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