Battery hens are widely available and can be purchased for very little. They initially come in a scruffy state as they are disposed of by the farmers just before they come in to moult. The confined conditions they are kept in will also result in untidy plumage although it will recover in time. At this time, usually before 72 weeks of age the egg laying ability will drop making the birds uneconomical to keep. During their first full laying year they are capable of producing over 300 eggs.
The breeds most commonly used are ISA brown and the Lohmann, these are what the public generally refer to as being the traditional brown hen but of course they are not by any means a traditional farmyard breed and are often used incorrectly in historical dramas. By the time battery hens are sold to the general public their best year of laying has already passed. Due to their upbringing and breeding their hardiness and durability for free range use is questionable. They are certainly not suited to harsh climates such as windswept fields in cold regions and they are not lively or energetic like many of the traditional light weight breeds. For people just getting into the poultry keeping hobby they are good value to gain experience but new comers will soon realise there are more attractive and hardy breeds available.
The supermarket chicken is a fast growing bird that can be oven ready within 8 weeks dependent on the strain. In comparison traditional breeds will take over 20 weeks to be useable, and most breeds may require 1-2 years worth of growth to attain a suitable weight. Modern table birds have various downfalls. Leg problems are common among these hybrids as birds can sometimes struggle to support their exceptional growth rate.
The extra weight sometimes causes deformities to their legs and heart attacks can lead to early mortality. For free-range management and to limit problems allow plenty of running space, low stocking densities and limited and controlled feeding to encourage healthy development. Deformed and limping birds should be culled. Broilers are the most productive table birds available and although they can be kept free range, they have been primarily developed for barn rearing. If you intend growing birds to eat and you want a carcass of size and flavour that you might expect from a supermarket, these are the ones to grow. The leading brands in modern table birds include Cobb, Sasso and Hubbard. If you would prefer a smaller but better flavoured, gamier carcass try a traditional breed.
Free Range Hybrid Layers
A hybrid for egg production is derived from crossing at least two different breeds with desirable egg producing abilities. They are created to fulfil a business-orientated purpose for high egg laying ability or desirable egg colour and often for domestic sales. These hybrids have been developed for free range rearing and come in a wider selection of colours and varieties than battery hens.
These hybrids can typically lay 300 eggs per year in intensive environments which is greater than any traditional breed. Hybrids are often vaccinated against Mareks and Infectious Bronchitis (IB) which rarely, if ever, occurs with traditional breeds. Egg colours from some hybrids, such as the Maran Noire are not as dark or consistent in colour as their traditional counterparts, but careful selection has ensured eggs are usually off a good size and shell quality.
Traditional breeds typically lay between 100 and 240 eggs per year and sizes, weight and shell quality varies greatly dependant on the breed and strain. There is a vast selection of breeds with a wide range of plumage colours, egg colours and unusual breed characteristics. Most traditional breeds have a breed standard of perfection which allows keepers to appreciate the desired characteristics of the breed and maintain well defined colouring, type and consistency throughout. Importantly there is a great deal of genetic diversity and historical value in traditional breeds which is important to preserve. Certain traits among native breed could prove useful in future for both hobbyist and commercial operations if circumstances in the industry dictate a change in management method or product quality. Due to their breeding and history many of these breeds exceed hybrids for hardiness, attractiveness and free range foraging ability. They usually require no extra attention than hybrids and are equally as suitable for amateur poultry keepers. However not all traditional breeds exhibit great hardiness, much can depend on the strain within a breed and how it has been bred and managed. Some rare breeds have lost much of their hardiness, partly due to continued inbreeding and lack of sensible selection.
Where hybrids have only good egg laying or good table properties, many traditional breeds have dual purpose value for both eggs and meat and along with hardiness, longevity, free ranging ability, attractiveness and conservation value there is likely to be a breed that closely suits the particular climate and management requirements of every hobbyist or smallholder. Hybrids are generally slightly cheaper often being sold for around £15 at Point of Lay (POL). The price for traditional breeds varies greatly dependant on the breed, quality and source. Common traditional breeds may sell for similar prices to hybrids but exhibition stock and endangered breeds can sell for more than double the price at Point Of Lay (POL).
The market for table ducks and in particular duck eggs is very small in the UK when compared to the broiler industry. Never the less, ducks are still kept commercially and they are normally kept intensively, usually in barns. The reason for this is that their foraging habit is too destructive for easy management. Many strains used commercially are now based on the Pekin, a non-native breed that has white plumage and a yellow or sometimes a pink beak.
On a domestic scale Aylesbury Pekin crosses are widely available and are generally seen as the common farmyard duck. A large white bird with a yellow bill.
There are 10 native duck breeds and several other colour varieties and bantam forms. Among these breeds there is a large range of attributes derived from careful selection by breeders and in some instances a certain degree of natural selection. Breeds such as the Shetland are extremely vigorous, energetic foragers and hardy, they have been traditionally utilised on the Shetland Islands for their eggs but also for their ability to consume mud snails that play host to the liver fluke, a pest of sheep. However all duck breeds could likewise have some value to the smallholder for the consumption of insect and mollusc pests. Just be sure to keep them away from your vegetables! Among traditional breeds a few were specifically developed as table birds while others play a dual-purpose role or primarily an egg laying role. What may be most striking is the great difference in colour and size between the breeds. Providing a great choice if you require something easily recognisable for use extensively or on a small scale as pets or home food producers. What people notice most about traditional duck breeds is their great hardiness, their ability to cope well in bad weather and in muddy conditions but also for their prolific laying ability. Ducks are commonly regarded as second only to geese for hardiness and longevity among farmyard fowl. Duck eggs, even from some of the smaller breeds are surprisingly large, with a tough shell. They can certainly put most chicken eggs to shame for size, weight and shell quality.
Crosses and commercial selection
The pigs that form the mainstream pig industry in Great Britain are often derived from two and three way crosses utilising the Large White, Duroc and Landrace breeds.
Intensive and careful selection of these parent breeds for attributes such as prolificacy in the Sow, early maturity and fast growth, lean meat and good conformation and consistency for the butcher have led to the creation of highly productive dual-purpose pigs. These generally ‘pink’ pigs provide the majority of pork and bacon sold in our supermarkets. Unlike many dark coloured traditional breeds they are more susceptible to sun burn and they are also less docile than the many traditional lop-eared breeds. They are usually reared in large numbers intensively, often in barns although many outdoor breeding units can be found on the sandier soils of Norfolk and parts of Suffolk.
Among traditional breeds there is a great array of sizes, colours and temperaments. Many breeds have dark coloured skin or coloured hair which protects them greatly from the sun. Some breeds have lop and semi-lop ears, a feature which has been selected to improve their docility but also protects the eyes when they forage among wooded areas and hedgerow. All traditional British breeds have an excellent foraging ability although some are a little more energetic than others, the longer snout, prick ears and lean body of the Tamworth makes them a particularly lively breed. The great array of colours makes them an attractive addition to a smallholding and equally makes them easily spotted when kept extensively. Most rare breeds are slower than hybrids to mature and produce tastier and fattier meat.