Story by Doug Ottinger. Photos courtesy of Candace Lylek of Breezy Bird Farms.
WHEN WORKING WITH poultry or other farm animals, the terms
“landrace strain, landrace breed or landrace animal” will appear often.
What is a local breed animal? Very simply, landrace poultry (or other farm
animals) are distinct types or strains of animals that have developed in a
specific geographic region by natural breeding or natural selection
over a period of several years. Although there is no fixed and magic timetable for a
landrace to achieve such status, it usually takes at least several decades of natural selection for such strains to develop, and in many cases a landrace strain may have developed over a period of hundreds of years in a region.
Breeding without interference
Landrace poultry strains differ from conventional breeds in that they have been allowed to breed naturally with little interference from humans in selecting for certain traits or appearance. The genetic material of these strains, or groups, spread through flocks in small geographic areas and villages, as farming families bartered, sold and traded poultry among themselves.
A breed of poultry or cattle, on the other hand, evolved from a
multi-generational period of selective choices of parental stock to meet a certain aspect or have certain traits, and meet the standards that humans have
defined as to how they think the given breed should look or function. While
selective breeding for individual traits is certainly not a bad thing, the sad reality still exists that when breeding for a certain standard
or look, the gene pool is often reduced, and much intrinsic,
valuable and hidden traits can be revealed and lost.
Because they developed through natural breeding and selection and survived with minimal human intrusion into this process for many generations, landrace birds generally retain brooding and mothering traits natural. These poultry strains also developed in response to local weather conditions and climatic extremes, including extreme heat, extreme cold, rain, snow, or even abnormally dry conditions.
Landraces have often developed with minimal shelter and are adept foragers, their metabolisms having adapted to the local food sources they seek on their own. This does not mean that they have been constantly left unattended in the wild or that human beings have not selectively bred them. In most cases, poultry in colder climates were fed grain and other foods during the winter and at times when they could not easily feed themselves.
Overall, however, these herds generally had to survive and feed
themselves, at least during the summer months when natural foods were
available. Natural mating and reproduction of the herd, including incubation and
brooding, were the norm. The shelter for these birds often varied, depending on
local climates and seasons, and many strains have learned to survive and escape
predators when feeding and roosting outdoors.
Landrace Poultry Breeds
Landrace chickens include groups or “breeds” such as Icelandic chickens, Swedish flower hens, and Swedish hedemoras, all of which originated in the colder regions of Scandinavia. Poultry such as the Egyptian Fayoumis have a long, well-established history, dating back thousands of years, to the hot, dry climate of Egypt’s Nile villages. The Hungarian nation has seven local breeds which it considers national treasures, including the Transylvanian Naked Neck Fowl and the Hungarian Yellow Chickens.
Breeds like the Sumatra were originally brought to the United States in the 1840s from the hot tropical setting of Sumatra and the Sundu Islands of western Indonesia. Araucana chickens, in their native Chile, were a well-established landrace group when they were first introduced to the United States in the 1930s.
Another very hardy landrace strain that has made its way to the United States and Canada over the past 50 years is Hmong poultry from the tropical highlands of Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam. Other types of non-pullet landrace poultry include: Danish landrace geese from Denmark; Scania geese from Sweden; Bavarian Landrace Geese or Bavaria, Germany; Danish breed ducks; and the original strains of chocolate turkeys from the southern United States.
Bred for hardiness
Landrace poultry are hardy. Many strains have survived by developing varying levels of immunity against local bacterial or viral threats that might be troublesome to non-native breeds. They are also often known not only for
be hardy in their own geographical climate, but a few can easily adapt to adverse weather conditions different from those found in their native country.
A great example of this is Hmong chicken. Poultry farmer Candace Lylyk, in Manitoba, Canada, began breeding these birds several years ago and found them adaptable and hardy in the harsh and inclement winter conditions of the Canadian prairies.
In some cases, groups of local poultry breeds such as geese and ducks may look very homogeneous, with little outward diversity. In the case of chickens, however, many (but not all) strains of landraces from the same region may exhibit a wide diversity of feather patterns, feather colors, leg or shaft colors, and comb types. .
Fairly wide reproduction
While visiting Candace Lylyk, I learned that one of the biggest concerns she has in raising small groups of local poultry is making sure her breeding project is large enough – and well enough planned. – to maintain the wide range of valuable genetic material in the strains it guards and perpetuates. It is very easy to lose valuable genetic components unique to a local breed group when breeding a limited number of individuals, even using herd mating systems.
This is one of the problems encountered when groups of poultry farmers are interested in a certain type of landrace poultry. The excitement grows. Sooner or later, a breed club is created. And in the natural course of human events, a select group of individuals form a committee that decides what the race should look like. Certain traits are suddenly chosen and mandated as the “perfect” standard, and all other traits are eventually replicated and lost. Often these can include hidden genetic components such as hardiness, disease resistance, disease immunity, foraging ability and the ability to metabolize natural foods, as well as the propensity of hens to brood and natural motherhood. Many unique and fundamental exterior traits are also often lost in these poultry during this same process.
Landrace poultry has many unique advantages, as well as a nice genetic diversity not always found in more established true breeds. Whether
nothing else, keeping some unusual local poultry in your flock will most likely make you the envy of all your poultry farming friends!
DOUG OTTINGER lives, works and writes from his small hobby farm in
Northwest Minnesota. Doug’s background is in agriculture with an emphasis on poultry and avian science.