Continuing his look at the history of the hen, Andy Cawthray delves into the roots of pure hen breeds in Mainland Europe

Mainland Europe couldn’t be more different to The Med in terms of the development of the chicken. In the latter, breeds dominate in the egg laying department, while Mainland Europe has seen all the main breed types represented, with the exception of the Game group. There are Game breeds in the region, but unlike in the Asiatics and, to some extent in the UK, they are not prevalent.

Within the laying group of breeds there is representation from across the geographical region, including in Belgium with the Campine. This is a breed that can be traced down the centuries, with reference being made more than 500 years ago during the reign of Emperor Charles V to “a farmyard fowl with silver hackles”. This is believed to be the first observation of the breed type, although loose references can be found during the time of Julius Caesar. In the more modern era, the Campine played a significant role in the world of genetics, contributing to research around autosex linkage in the 1920s and ’30s.

The brilliant Barnevelder

Heading north to the Netherlands two more key laying breeds are encountered. The first is the Barnevelder. Created in the Dutch town of Barneveld, it is said that Cochins, Brahmas and Langshans were involved in the development of this brown egg-laying breed. It was exported to the UK around 1900 and from there on to other countries. Although other plumage types are seen, it is perhaps best known for the intricate double laced variety which, combined with its dark brown eggs, makes it an attractive breed to keep.

The Welsummer, developed in and named after the village of Welsum, was constructed from many different breeds, including the Brahma, Malay, Orpington, Leghorn and Wyandotte to name but a few. It was standardised by the Dutch in the mid 1920s and was then exported to other countries from the 1930s onwards, famed primarily for its capacity to lay deep brown eggs.

A breed that blurs boundaries in North Europe is the Hamburgh because, despite its name, the Hamburgh has no traceable connection to the German city. In fact, the true origin of the Hamburgh is quite the mystery. They are beautiful birds that lay well and have a history that can be traced back 300 years to various northern European locations, all of which warrant them a mention on this tour.

Hopping over the border into Germany, the striking Lakenvelder is encountered. It is a particularly attractive bird due to the boldness of its colouring and the way it contrasts with the countryside around it. It is renowned for being active, as it moves around constantly while foraging, plus it is capable of flight, reaching the tops of trees with ease. Despite coming in only the one plumage type, it can be difficult to breed good examples, although ones that do meet the mark are extremely handsome to view.

Before leaving the layers behind, a quick visit to the south and into France is necessary, where the iconic Marans can be found. This breed takes its name from the town of Marans in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region and its ancestry comes from a variety of breeds, such as Croad Langshans and Faverolles.

Originally developed as a dual purpose breed, it is now mostly kept for its laying capability and the intense chocolate brown eggs certain lines can produce. It is a sizeable bird with a long carriage that has two distinct breeding groups — the English Marans with its featherless legs and the French Marans whose legs do boast feathers.

While in France it is possible to find a good dual purpose utility breed in the La Fleche. The combination of the deep red horned comb, strong beak, cavernous nostrils and beetle black plumage, coupled with a solid stature, means that it is well suited to it nickname of ‘Satan’s Fowl’. It is quite large in stature, makes a good layer, but it grows quickly to become an excellent table bird that is well known in its country of origin.

All but lost to the map

Sliding back north to Germany, another attractive breed, the Vorwerk, is encountered. This middleweight, economical, dual purpose breed was developed by Oscar Vorwerk of Hamburg in 1900. It was standardised in 1913 and has been found to be particularly valuable on smallholdings and farms wishing to keep a laying flock that is also capable of providing meat for the table. Sadly after World War II it was all but lost to the breed map, but it has been carefully reconstructed from the remnants of its kind. It remains a rare breed to find, although it does still have some excellent qualities as a utility breed.

Dropping south again, but this time to Austria, the Sulmtaler can be found, a handy dual purpose breed that is said to have originated from the Sulm River to the south west of the town of Graz, the second largest city in Austria. Initially grown as a table breed, the Sulmtaler thrived in the mild climate and thanks to the varied forage available in the river valley. Crossings with other large breeds, such the Brahma and Cochin, further enhanced its table qualities and it passed into Germany before reaching The Netherlands and the UK. Today support for the Sulmtaler has waned and, despite its excellent multipurpose qualities, you are lucky if you manage to encounter it.

Hungary and Romania boast what must be one of the most unusual looking chicken breeds — the Transylvanian Naked Neck. They can be a bit like Marmite — you either love them or don’t love them so much — but whether they are liked or loathed there is no denying the striking look the naked neck gives the bird.

This feature is found in many regions of the world, although it was birds from eastern Hungary that were used to make the standard that is seen today. Now the feature is being exploited in the development of broiler breeds for warmer countries, which just goes to show how important the regional adaptations of the domestic chicken can be from a global perspective.

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