When choosing your chooks, their egg-laying prowess is a key consideration

Many people are interested in keeping a few hens in their garden and are usually keen on having good egg layers. This is where the Warrens and other hybrids step in. A lot of the most productive hybrids have only been developed in recent years. During and after the War, the three breeds that were important for egg production were the Sussex, Rhode Island Red and Leghorn, and it is these, along with the barred Plymouth Rock and Marans, that are used in the make-up of the hybrids. Added advantages of hybrids is that they will have been vaccinated as chicks against major diseases and they are medium sized (bantams can be very small whilst some of the large fowl breeds can be huge and heavy to pick up). Here are my top choices.

ISA WARRENS are commercial egg-laying hybrids (Rhode Island Red/Light Sussex cross) which can be bought at point of lay (POL) – 20 weeks old and ready to start laying – or can be rescued as ex-battery hens at 18 months old. Warrens produce a huge amount of eggs in their first year, and will continue to lay well for another year, but probably not every day. My two Isa Warrens were rescue hens in October 2009, so are now nearly three years old. They adapted amazingly quickly to their new free-range lifestyle when they joined my flock and rapidly established themselves high up in the pecking order; they are always the first to arrive when I’m digging the vegetable patch to grab a worm or other tasty grub. They are very adventurous, love foraging and feasting on grass and green weeds and remain totally unfazed by dogs or cats passing through the garden. You can buy Warrens at POL from many breeders offering hybrid layers, and these are ideal birds for the beginner – they will, however, all look the same, with ginger-coloured feathers, flecked with cream, so it’ll be difficult to tell them apart. Warrens should lay an amazing 330 brown eggs in their first year and will not go broody.

BLACK ROCKS are a Rhode Island Red/barred Plymouth Rock cross and are specifically bred by a sole breeder in Scotland. Pullets are distributed across the country by agents. Black Rocks are black with rather pretty ginger lacing. They are popular as garden hens as they are attractive as well as being excellent egg producers, laying around 280 light brown and good-sized eggs per year. Black Rocks have a hardy constitution with a good covering of feathers, which protect them in all weather conditions. They also have a highly-developed immune system and seem to be less prone to red mite than other breeds. They love free ranging, are good foragers and always full of curiosity. Black Rocks do not go broody, as this trait has been bred out of them. They should go on laying until four or five years old. My first two Black Rocks lasted for six years.

THE SUSSEX is a traditional pure breed with an excellent track record for laying, derived from the Old Sussex fowls bred in Victorian times for their meat and eggs. The Light Sussex (white with black lacing on the neck and a black tail) was developed using Brahmas, Cochins and Dorkings. Old English Game were used in the make-up of the brown and buff varieties and developed in the ’20s. The oldest variety is the speckled Sussex. Other colours available are red, silver, a rare white and a coronation variety (white with light grey neck and tail), but light and buff are probably the most common colours. The single-combed Sussex is a heavy soft-feathered breed available as large fowl or bantam. The Sussex is a calm, friendly breed, so easy to tame. The hens are really good layers of light brown (tinted) or cream eggs and will lay all year round if you are lucky; they should lay around 260 eggs in their first year. My speckled Sussex bantams are very pretty, alert and active in the garden. Sussexes are used in the development of a variety of hybrids such as the Sussex Star and Sussex Ranger.

THE RHODE ISLAND RED is a traditional American pure breed which is a prolific layer of brown eggs. It originated on the farms of the Rhode Island Province. In 1854, William Tripp obtained a big Malay cockerel and ran it with his hens; he found the resulting progeny was laying bigger eggs. John Macomber, who lived in Massachusetts, became interested and the two men worked together crossbreeding and using Cochin China hens. The offspring was then crossed with light Brahmas, Plymouth Rocks and Brown Leghorns. Rhode Island Reds came into being and were first exhibited in 1880 in South Massachusetts. The breed was imported to Britain around 1900 and, in 1909, the British Rhode Island Red Club was established. For most of the 20th century, it was the Rhode Island Red, along with first crosses (i.e. with Sussex), that made up about half of Britain’s laying stock. Nearly all of today’s brown egg-laying hybrids have at least one parent that is a Rhode Island Red. The breed has been one of the most popular in this country for all purposes, especially in the past, when people kept hens for meat as well as for eggs.

The Rhode Island Red can have a single or rose comb, and has rich reddish-brown and black feathering, yellow legs and is classed as a heavy soft-feathered breed; the hen lays around 220 eggs a year and does not go broody easily. Hens are big and quite bossy, but docile and hardy, making a good choice for beginners, combining excellent egg production with attractive looks and good temperament. Bantam versions are available.

The Leghorn is an important white egg laying pure breed which originated in Livorno in Italy (known as Leghorn in German) and was imported into Britain in the late 1800s, with white first and then brown Leghorns. The Large Fowl Leghorn, although smaller than the Sussex and Rhode Island Red, is a prolific layer of large eggs. It is a light, soft-feathered breed and has the added benefit of being a non-sitter, which means it will not go broody. Hens have flop-over combs and large white ear-lobes. The white Leghorn is the best layer (laying around 200 eggs per year), but other colour variations are available including black, buff, cuckoo, mottled, partridge, a popular exchequer and a rarer lavender Leghorn. Leghorns can be sprightly and a little nervous, so are not ideal for complete beginners; being light they are good fliers. A bantam version is also available. The Leghorn is used in the development of a popular white egg laying hybrid known as the White Star, capable of laying 300 eggs a year.

You will find hybrids for sale at around �15 each, with Warrens being a little cheaper; for Sussexes, Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns expect to pay around �25 a bird. If you really want a cockerel, then you need to go for one of the pure breeds as hybrid cockerels are not available.

I have kept all the above breeds and they make great garden companions; in my experience, the best egg layers are often the ones that flourish and enjoy life to the full.

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