17th November 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

OPINION: Can rare breed chickens take on factory hens?

By WENDY BARRIE

Chicken is hot news with “chlorination chicken” mooted as a recipe reflecting American processing methods. The world has come a long way since the jungle bird was domesticated many thousands of years ago. I recall the 1980s when “white meat” was promoted as the answer to all our dietary prayers and thinking how will they rear all these birds ethically?

We currently consume 900m chickens annually in the UK. Can that many happily cluck around our isles? No.

Most are not environmental or sustainable. More than half the meat eaten in UK is chicken so many are imported frozen from abroad with lower welfare standards. I am not alone in thinking these broilers are turbo-bred and flavourless. No wonder we need the plethora of spices and marinades to make them palatable.

Physiological deformities are emerging and the genetic base is becoming too narrow with mega companies dominating the market.

So where does that leave us? Like much industrialised food production, commercial strategy is to produce cheap food fast with little thought to our food security or sovereignty. When bird flu last hit Britain 42 million chickens were destroyed. Next time it may be worse. When a mass-produced breed from a limited genetic pool collapses we shall be glad there are those who have conserved living genebanks of original species.

And where shall we find such birds? You need look no further than Shetland where there are still two distinct species of hens: the Papa Stour Shetland hen and the tappit Shetland hen.

Mary Isbister with one of her native breed cockerels. Photo: Dave Donaldson

They are extremely rare with fascinating histories and thanks to people like the Isbisters of Trondra they are not extinct. Both species are being boarded onto Slow

Food International’s Ark of Taste in recognition of their rarity and quality.

Rare breeds of poultry are undervalued yet their biodiversity is crucial. They are so often carelessly cross-bred and lost forever.

The Papa Stour hens were the first brought to the Islands, closely resembling wild “jungle fowl”, the ancestor of all modern chicken. Brought from the continent to the islands centuries ago, George Peterson of Brae formerly of Papa Stour described birds he had once owned that had been maintained in a pure true breeding state on the island of Papa Stour and that now resided in Muckle Roe.

These original fowl were viewed and matched the type described by many independent sources so were purchased.

The Papa Stour Shetland Hen is a small predominantly black fowl around the size of a large pigeon. The cockerels have glossy black plumage with copper, dark red wine and deep iridescent green hues.

The females can have some breast feathers with a narrow red/brown strip down the vein and lay a good number of bantam sized white eggs.

Their legs and beak are black and the very small comb is a dark red. Marks on the plumage of both hens and cockerels are startlingly like early species of jungle hens, showing strong genetic links to Asian ancestry via mainland Europe. Their long legs give another clue to their origins, brought to Europe at least 2,000 years ago, pre Viking, for cockerel fighting, and not egg-laying.

The tappit (tufted) Shetland hens originated from South America, arriving on Shetland via Spain 430 years ago. They may even have been brought to the islands by Spanish galleons as two were wrecked on the Shetland shores. Their descendants were remembered by many of the older generations of crofters approached when initial research was done.

The surviving hens were from Foula then brought to Walls and it was this flock the Isbisters purchased. It is descended from South American hens with a characteristic tuft “tapp” of feathers on its head.

There was a mutation in South America before the Spanish conquests for tufted hens and the blue green egg colouring comes from the Spanish influence in its genetics. Finally it gained influences from the Papa Stour Shetland hen already resident throughout Shetland. This breed comes in a variety of colours.

Burland Croft started breeding programmes for both the tappit and Papa Stour birds. It is fantastic both breeds are still in existence, although near extinction.

Both are aesthetically pleasing, productive and hardy and will reward those wishing to preserve a worthwhile tradition.

Like so much good food these dainty hens are not about size but about taste and flavour, and perhaps one day we shall have sufficient to appreciate this. Because they live free range into maturity, a moist slow cooking method is both advisable and delicious.

In the meantime we can thank our lucky stars for the Isbisters of Burland Croft and their tenacity to stand up for Shetland’s heritage breeds. So how about giving mass-produced chicken the body swerve and relish some tasty native Shetland lamb or beef instead? Biodiversity is a necessity not a luxury and Shetland has it in spades.

• Wendy Barrie is a campaigner for local sustainable food production, a cookery show presenter and food writer, providing expertise in food tourism, education and events. She is the owner of Scottish Food Guide giving quality assurance for the best places to eat and the finest produce in Scotland. She is a regular visitor to Shetland. This article was first published in The Shetland Times of 4th August but Ms Barrie asked for it to be reproduced online so it can be shared around the world.

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