(the next installment following Part 1, in which we learned about the struggles between culture and advancement in the farming and food world. We also questioned whether all the Sussex varieties have the “same” qualities, because they’re “a breed.” Below, we discover more about their past…)
Enter the perspective of Mr. Lewis Wright:
“We have often been asked to describe the large ‘Surrey’ or ‘Sussex’ fowls…but the truth is it is utterly impossible to do so. They are of no standard color, and even no fixed type of breed, except a strong dash of Dorking blood…They appear in fact to be simply a fine race of barn-door poultry, improved by long and careful breeding for the London markets…” (Wright, Illustrated Guide to Poultry, 1873 edition).
In the Livestock Conservancy’s most recent Poultry Census, they prioritize a conservation model. Of the top six qualities, the first two have nothing to do with breed, only scarcity: 1) “The really rare stuff,” 2) “The really old stuff.” The first requirement to speak of breed characteristics is: 3) “The landraces.” This is very relevant in the story of the “Sussex fowls.”
“Landrace breeds represent another aspect of genetic diversity of high value for conservation, and don’t fit readily into the mainstream focus on recognized and standardized breeds...Phenotypic differences in comb type, color…may disturb breeders accustomed to standardized breeds. Yet, these birds resemble each other more than other breed[s], not only in appearance, but in traits prized on the small farm such as foraging, brooding, caring for chicks, and cold hardiness.” (The Livestock Conservancy, Counting our Chickens -The Great American Poultry Census, 2016) .
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the early Sussex fowl, quaintly described by Lewis as “barn-door poultry,” were actually a landrace. Bred for the specific requirements of the London market, these fowl were not selected based on conformance to phenotype (visual characteristics reflecting the genetics). Rather, they were selected for productive desires. Could it be that the pre-standardized Sussex (landrace) were actually more genetically similar than the “breed” today?
Two worlds collide
My first encounter with landraces came from my love of the Basque Hen. The Basque Hens were raised in northern Spain, developed over uncountable years as a dual-purpose breed. The focus was not conformance to color, but a commitment to productivity and adaptability. Hundreds of years went into the selection of the birds, to create a race of chicken uniquely adapted to their climate and environment. I recall having some early discussions with other’s interested in the breed on an infamous poultry website. The primary topic of discussion was a desire to focus the color of the breed. When I questioned whether this pursuit was contrary to the purpose of the Basque Hen. My question fell on deaf ears. It was as if “standardizing” the color was the natural thing to do.
The Sussex struggle
In my winter reading, I came across a very similar discussion. It appears that in the history of the Sussex, not everyone was so excited to move the breed “forward”:
“the good old Sussex will be ruined, it is a ‘table’ bird, and what is the value of colour of feather on a table fowl? Why spoil a breed which has been reared in this and one or two other counties just for the sake of winning a ‘Card’ at a show!” (Sharpe, The Book of the Sussex, p. 15)
When asked to be a Vice-President of the newly formed Sussex Fowl Club, one Mr. Harrison Wier said:
“I am much honoured by your asking…but I am sorry to say that I cannot join it as I am opposed to it...I do not agree with your limit of colour, nor did the best class of fowl have but four toes. Both my late brother and myself know the bird well- very well- for over 74 years, and certainly they were of many colours. Nor is it politic to limit the colour or colurs of any table fowls.” (Sharpe, p.16)
Clearly, some early breeders, dedicated to the productive nature of this “barn-door” chicken, resisted the desire to “standardise” the breed. Like a mechanic who spends all their time working under the hood but never finishes the paint job, Mr. Wier and his friends worried more about what was “under the hood.” But for better or worse, the Club prevailed and the varieties were standardized. Moreover, regardless of their original genetic conformance, we will soon see that the “varieties” of Sussex we know today are not “the same breed.” (stay tuned for Part 3…)