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BREED: The original name is “Welsummer” chicken, as it is still outside of Europe, while the Dutch officially changed the name to “Welsumer” in 1978.
ORIGIN: At the beginning of the 20th century, farmers in Welsum and neighboring villages along the IJssel river in the Netherlands began to select chickens for large brown eggs. The original chickens were of mixed stock, as were commonly found in farmyards in the area at the time. The breeds of their ancestors are unknown, but most likely a mix of alien breeds. The color of Welsummer chicken eggs was initially paler and generally mottled. Then, as the market for dark brown speckled eggs grew, the hens that laid them became the basis of the region’s breeding stock. These birds were initially varied in color and appearance (although the red partridge roosters were preferred), as all selection focused on egg size and shell color.
History of Welsummer Chicken Egg Breeding and Production
Since the early 1920s, the Netherlands has been a major egg exporter. The big brown eggs were popular at home and abroad and got the best prices in the market. The Barnevelder chicken was already known for this trait, and in 1911 was added to local flocks so that the two populations would merge. This produced a darker egg overall, while the Welsummer speckle was retained.
After World War I, herders rebuilt their herds from depleted stocks. Some breeders have crossed with Partridge Leghorns to improve Welsummer hen egg production. Consequently, two varieties emerged: a dark red-brown, laying the darkest eggs; the other lighter reddish-brown, laying more numerous but paler eggs. Despite unresolved disagreements among breeders, an official standard was published in 1924 and the Dutch Welsummer Breed Improvement Association was formed in 1928. Its aim was to promote high production of large brown eggs from purebred herds to meet growing demand. This favored the darker color of the “red partridge”, as these birds laid the darkest eggs. However, the diversity in appearance continued for some time, as the birds were bred for utility rather than show.
After the first World Poultry Congress in 1921, German and British breeders bought hatching eggs and breeding birds. In Germany the standard became a darker red and both countries developed other varieties and bantams. At that time, there were imports into the United States and Canada of lines from the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Become a rare breed
The industrialization of production after World War II favored high-yielding hybrids, so traditional breeds, including the Welsummer, declined.
In 1969 only a few enthusiasts kept the breed in the Netherlands and founded the Welsummerclub. This marked the breed’s move from utility to show breed, with greater emphasis on conformation and color, although some breeders maintain variations in appearance and only introduce eggs into their annual exhibition.
In 2009, the Welsummer Club of North America was founded to promote and improve breeding stock in America.
CONSERVATION STATE: Endangered in the Netherlands, with 350 large and 500 dwarfs registered in 2012. However, their popularity abroad has resulted in over 4,000 in Germany, over 15,000 dwarfs in 2020, and around 3,000 large and 4,000 hens dwarf breeders in the UK in 2002 (data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). They are also present in other European countries and in Australia.
BIODIVERSITY: As a traditional composite breed, they retain a variety of traits from different origins, including unique plumage and egg coloration.
Characteristics of Welsummer Chicken
DESCRIPTION: The body is light to medium. The sturdy frame supports broad, horizontally carried shoulders and back, a deep, rounded chest, and strong legs. The hen has a full abdomen. The head is rather small, with large orange eyes. The face, ears, wattles and crest are red. The size of the acacia and the crest is compact, especially in the hen. The beak and legs are yellow, with a tinge of horn on the upper beak. The hen’s tail is rather short and compact, while the rooster’s is full and flowing.
VARIETIES: Their unique color pattern, Red Partridge, is the only standard variety in the Netherlands and America. Pullets and show level roosters can be raised from the same flock. The rooster has red hackles on its neck and back that bear very few markings, on a black chest and thighs with brown spots, and a shiny black beetle tail. Hens have a golden brown head and cavalry, with black stripes further down the neck. The front of the neck and chest is a rich chestnut red. The back and prow of the wings are dark red-brown with fine black dots. The pale feather stalks add to the exquisite detail of the body and neck feathers. The tail and wing feathers are black and brown. Thighs and abdomen are brown with slate-grey undertones.
Other nations have designed other colors based on the Partridge pattern, usually Silver Duckwing and Golden Duckwing, but also variations of Blue and Pearl.
COMB: Simple, erect and rather small, with regular serrations, larger in the male.
LESTER: Hen 4.4–5.5 lbs. (2–2.5 kg); cock 6–6.6 lb (2.75–3 kg); bantam hen 2–2.2 lb (0.9–1 kg); rooster 2.4–2.6 lb (1.1–1.2 kg).
TEMPERAMENT: Calm and active, they can learn to feed from the hand but are unlikely to enjoy being handled. They are communicative and can be quite loud.
ADAPTABILITY: They prefer free range and cooler climates, but are adaptable. However, cockscombs can suffer from frostbite in cold weather.
POPULAR USE: Eggs.
Color and production of Welsummer chicken eggs
EGG COLOR: Dark brown and speckled, becoming lighter as the eggs are laid, while the speckles retain their intensity. Dwarf eggs are paler.
EGG SIZE: Very large, 2.3 to 2.5 oz. (65–70g); dwarf: small, 1.4 to 1.6 oz. (40–45g).
PRODUCTIVITY: 150–180 eggs per year (bantams: 150–200 per year). Hens seldom brood, although midgets sometimes do. Usually day old chicks can be sexed, as males have lighter and less defined markings, but the difference is not always clear. However, at 4-5 weeks of age, the growing breast feathers are clearly different in color.
PERSONAL NOTE: Overall, I find this breed fits well into my mixed herd, has a pleasant personality and produces a steady supply of excellent eggs.
Originally published in the February/March 2023 issue of Backyard poultry and regularly checked for accuracy.