For most people the prospect of keeping poultry for eggs, for the table or as enjoyable and educational pets for you or your children is exciting. There are 25 breeds of domestic fowl including numerous colour varieties and bantam forms to choose from. There are also 10 domestic breeds of duck and three goose breeds native to Great Britain. Each has its qualities for the domestic farmer, admittedly they may vary depending on the specimen, strain and source but all have value.
The breed(s) for you will depend on your requirements and circumstances. The environment you have available to keep poultry will also play a big part in deciding the most suitable breed for you. If you require poultry purely for eggs do not necessarily go for the most productive breed, others may be less productive but have other useful and economical traits. How many eggs do you really need? How much room have you got to keep your birds while ensuring the highest welfare? These are questions you will need to answer as there is little point in keeping excessive numbers if you are going to have the hassle of selling or disposing of excess eggs or if the happiness and welfare of your hens is at risk. If you wish to keep chickens free range consider having no more than one bird for every five sq metres of good pasture. Ducks and Geese would benefit from having two and three times as much pasture per bird respectively.
For many, the higher than commercial standard of welfare and the personal care that you can give your poultry is what makes it all worthwhile. To have quality produce you desire from animals reared to your own high standards, with the knowledge of where they are kept what they are fed and a guarantee of provenance. If eggs are your thing you could alternatively try a duck breed. Not only do many native duck breeds lay more prolifically than chicken breeds but the eggs are also substantially larger. Unfortunately many people are put off keeping ducks due to the common myth that domestic ducks can fly away or must have a pond. However, with the exception of Miniature Silver Appleyard and Silver Bantam ducks, they cannot fly, nor can they jump or perch high up like domestic fowl. Furthermore depending on your management, they do not necessarily require a pond either!
Table birds are a different matter. Many new poultry keepers could not see themselves killing their poultry, yet providing birds are correctly fed and managed, a home reared table bird can be most satisfying. Furthermore the ability to dispatch your poultry is a skill that all poultry keepers should learn, even if purely for the quick culling of unsuitable breeding stock or unhealthy birds. Breeds suitable as table birds are generally found in the large fowl category although there are a few light weight breeds traditionally used as much for their table value as for their eggs. A type with a wide breast, large well filled thighs and early maturity is important but one must consider that there can be a great deal of variation within some breeds depending on the source or strain. Finding a reliable strain that has all the desirable characteristics of a table bird may take some time and may require further selection. To ensure you have birds with a sufficiently meaty carcass before they reach maturity, housing them in a relatively confined but clean area with an adlib grain based diet will prevent birds ‘burning off’ what they eat and ensure a good flesh covering at the lowest cost. Or better still raise the birds extensively and be happy with the small gamey carcass that you get, it may not look much but will be full of flavour much like eating pheasant or another game bird.
There are many classifications for poultry including large fowl, bantam, lightweight, heavy weight, soft and hard feather and there are common characteristics for each. Whether a breed is a large fowl or bantam relates to the size of the bird but it does not neccessarily affect the temperament or vigour of a breed. Bantams are normally created to be identical in appearance and habit to their large fowl counterparts and may well be equally productive, despite producing smaller eggs. Bantams are ideal for those keepers with limited room, young children, for those that want a pet with a low appetite or for the keen exhibitor. Light weight breeds are usually nimble and energetic birds often with a flighty habit, meaning some are capable of scaling garden fences easily. Their carcass is small but they are often prolific layers and hardy with an inquisitive and determined foraging nature. Those with hard feathering or soft feathered breeds with reasonably tight feathering may be particularly durable birds. The type of feathering is an important consideration when selecting birds for a low maintenance, extensive existence. Hard feathered birds are somewhat more resistant to exposed sites, the feathering is less inclined to become dirty or clogged with soil or droppings than soft and profusely feathered breeds and in many circumstances soft feathered breeds are more likely to be afflicted or infested by lice. Those breeds with ornate, frizzle or profusely fluffy feathering are better suited to a dry sheltered environment to remain in prime condition.
Heavy weight breeds are often docile in temperament and usually non flighty. They are often utilised as table birds, for dual-purposes or as some of the most productive layers. They can be soft or hard feathered. The Soft feathered heavy weight breeds including the bantam forms are often the most docile and easiest to catch and handle. For those reasons they are the most suitable for children to handle, particularly the bantam forms and are the safest option for use by vulnerable or disabled children and adults.
All native breeds can be exhibited but some are more popular and common in the show scene than others. If you are of the opinion that the best way to utilise domestic birds is to exhibit them then you may consider an attractive soft feathered breed such as the Orpington or Sussex, both of which are also valued for domestic egg production. Alternatively there are a few breeds’ particularly bantam forms which have been specifically developed for exhibiting, Including the Modern Game, Rosecomb, Sebright, Suffolk Chequer and Hamburgh. Remember though that breeds and strains specifically used for exhibition may lack the vigour and hardiness of many others due to their past management, close breeding and selection. They will benefit greatly from a confined closely managed environment to ensure they remain lice free with correct weight and condition and near perfect plumage.