For many thousands of years, humans have been keeping chickens. Ever since our ancestors settled down into the farming life in the Bronze Age some 5000 years ago and began to build roundhouses and stock fences, chickens have been a part of farming life.
The reasons were simple: the chicken produced a lovely pre-packed protein source unmatched in the animal world — the egg — and, once the egg laying stopped, was a handy meal itself.
Since then, through processes both intentional and fortuitous, chickens have increased their egg-laying capacity from a dozen each spring to hundreds per year. The original chicken breed, the jungle fowl of South-East Asia, lays for a few weeks, goes broody, hatches a clutch and then gets back to scratching in the forest litter for the rest of the year.
In contrast, the modern egg-laying machines, the ISA Brown or Lohmann Brown, live a short life. They lay one egg a day for up to two years and then, most often, stop altogether and succumb to the inevitable consequences of such a life.
However, before the super egg-layers were developed some 40 years ago, there were chicken breeds across the world that had been selected for both long, healthy lives and egg-laying capacity. Most regions of Europe, Asia and the Americas have their true egg-bearing breeds. These breeds are still around and with a little searching (contact your local poultry club) you can find a breed you like that will provide plenty of eggs and live for a long time.
This spanish beauty, a dramatic black chook with a big, floppy red comb and a unique white chook patch the size of a 50-cent peice, is one of the oldest breeds discussed here. It lays a good number of white eggs, as do the mediterranean breeds in general, is lightweight and inquisitive. Minorcas are a sight to behold with their head gear, but if you like the look, they are well suited to the Australian climate unless you’re in a frost-prone area where they may succemb to frost bite. You’ll need to speak to a
poultry club as they are harder to source than the others.
In Australia, the record-holding heritage breed is the utility Australorp (above), the gorgeous black chook with the shiny beetle-green tinge and a striking red comb you might remember from when you were a kid. The breed was created in Australia from the traditional English Orpington variety and is a placid, friendly bird of a reasonably solid size. Egg-laying breeds are traditionally small in stature, but the Australorp breaks the mould and is considered a dual-purpose breed, also making a reasonable roast if that’s your thing. It lays about 250 brown eggs a year (the annual record for a group was an average of 300.9 back in the mid-20th century) but you must look for the “utility” strain. The “exhibition” bird has been bred for characteristics other than egg laying and has subsequently lost this super ability.
Made famous by the Looney Tunes cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn (“I say boy, I say son”), the Leghorn (opp. page) is the traditional and familiar white chook with a red comb. Native to the Mediterranean, it is heat and frost tolerant and well suited to Australian conditions. A relatively small breed, Leghorns are known to be quite flighty and easily spooked but do become friendly with time. There are again utility strains that can lay 200–300 eggs per year; in fact, the Leghorn was the CSIRO breed of choice through the 20th century for its vigour and egg-laying capacity. It lays a classic white egg, the kind you used to get in the supermarket before the trend to brown eggs began about 20 years ago.
Rhode Island Red
Hailing from the New England area of North America, this breed (top right) is an astoundingly robust and healthy chook that lays on par with the Leghorn and Australorp. The utility RIR is a dark brown-red colour, distinguishable easily from the exhibition variety, which is a rich dark red, almost black. While both lay well, the utility strain is by far the better, laying a lovely white egg. Modern egg-laying machines are commonly a cross between the RIR and the Leghorn.
Now that the plain-coloured breeds are done with, we move to the patterned varieties. The Light Sussex (page 61) is the quintessential English breed, hailing of course from the Home Counties, and is the largest of the egg layers — a perfect dual-purpose breed. While they don’t lay as many as the preceding three, they make up for it in personality and looks. The stunning white body with the black neck lacing makes them instantly recognisable and adorable. They will eat more than the others but they will thank you for it.
Developed from the RIR in the last century, New Hampshires (above) have a wonderful colour pattern but retain the egg-laying power of the RIR. They are friendlier than the RIR and slightly smaller but just as robust. Seek them out: they are good layers and have a unique appearance you’ll admire when you see them striding through the backyard.
... And many others
Of course, there is a range of other breeds in Australia renowned for their egg-laying abilities. The Campine, Faverolle, Ancona and Hamburg are worth looking up and searching out, if for nothing other than their interesting colours and patterns. Speak to the breeders about the egg-laying capacity of their breed. Some breeds not known for egg laying can have strains that lay plenty — ask around. The Araucana, from Chile, lays a blue egg and is worth having for the novelty, if not its huge production.
Cost: Not exactly chicken feed...
When seeking out rare or heritage breeds, be prepared to pay up to $80 for a rare one compared with from $25 for a common breed (RIR, Australorp or Leghorn). They will be in your yard for many years, though, so spend a few extra dollars to get the breed you want from a reputable breeder.