(the final installment following Part 1 and Part 2, in which we learned about the early beginnings of the Sussex breed, and the struggle between farmers and fanciers, the former worried about the table, the latter about the type… let’s see what happens…)
From landrace to variety
In spite of their phenotypic diversity, landraces can be more closely related than varieties within the same breed. Indeed, this appears to be the case for the Sussex. As breeders jockeyed for a place for their varieties, they altered the homogeny of the original Sussex.
In Sharpe’s book, these changes become clear. Even the author switches between calling them varieties and calling them breeds, as here in his discussion of the Red Sussex: “This brings me to the ‘make up of the breed’ (Red Sussex), which was formed up mainly from the old dark Dorking and the black-breasted game,” (Sharpe, p61). And he speaks with authority about the Lights, being himself an originator of the variety: “The foundation of the Lights- I mean the predominating blood of the bird- was Brahma, Cochin and Dorking, S.Grey” (Sharpe, p46).
Finally, as to the progenitor variety, the Speckleds, the author says, “…and on making much inquiry, found in the majority of the cases the Old Spangled had been bred on the farms as far back as these people could remember,” the original makeup apparently long since forgotten (Sharpe, p65).
As the varieties began to shape up, to create a “consistent Sussex look,” the genetics actually appear to diverge more.
All roads lead to Sussex (or Surrey)
It was a fascinating journey. Beginning among the small holdings of Sussex and Surrey, local inhabitants worked toward a table ideal. And critical to that ideal, a chicken well-suited to a specific environment. Developing a “you-can’t-judge-a-book-by-it’s-cover” sort of chicken, they gained a reputation for taste. Following the practices of the day, the farmers added “this and that” to get the recipe they desired. Their efforts were so appreciated that they developed a reputation for the “Sussex chicken” in the markets of London. But like many regional dishes, there were variations that were favored among the community. A dark Dorking and red Game here, a “Sussex fowl” and Dorking base there
“There is very little doubt that the coloured Dorking was first produced in this way, by putting the white Dorking cock to those large coloured hens which Surry and Sussex have always produced, and thus adding a better quality of meat and greater tendency to fatten to the larger-framed birds.” (Wright, p.18, 1873)
It was perhaps an interest to both recognize the efforts of this community, and profit from them, that led the push for standardizing the breed and its varieties. In defense of this goal, Sharpe provides some insight:
“What would Mr. Tegetmeier say now if he were breeding Sussex and getting orders for birds at 10 to 50 [pounds] each? …surely a man deserves some kind of recompense if he spends much of his time…in the proper and careful selection of stock, to breed in the best points and to breed out the bad, he is doing a good and useful work for the country in which he lives, and so in my opinion he is entitled to what benefit he may be offered.” (Sharpe, p.17)
But make no mistake, the author was keenly aware of the critics he cites earlier in the book. Celebrating the efforts to standardize the varieties and create specific phenotypes, he is clear on the ultimate aim: “[Y]et even so, we have standardized this breed and still have a champion table fowl.” (Sharpe, p.17)
The varieties, the same, but different
While there was an obvious goal to standardize the Sussex breed, the varieties do, in fact, vary. As evidence, Mr. Sharpe spends a great deal of time discussing the benefits of these three varieties, and their differences. Given the differences in their heritage, it makes sense that they would have unique strengths, even if they share the focus of dual-purpose production.
In discussing his own favorite variety, Sharpe says the following:
“To-day the most popular variety of Sussex- and, perhaps, I may add the most useful. I often make the remark that the Light Sussex is the nearest bird we have in this Country to an ideal or all-round fowl for egg and table properties combined.” (Sharpe, 13)
As for the Red Sussex, Sharpe has some kind words as well:
“The Reds are closer of feather than the Light; there is more game blood in them, and a well-bred Red will carry a fine lot of breast flesh.” (Sharpe, p.59)
And finally, Sharpe’s thoughts seem to almost damn the Speckled with faint praise. However, it is more likely that he believes what he says, and is trying to say something that highlights the uniqueness of the ancient variety:
“So, to sum up the Speckled, I will just add that for beauty and usefulness it is…difficult to beat, and, in fact, I do not think one can ever want a better, for we must always bear in mind that there are very few breeds of poultry which have the combined qualities of beauty and usefulness.” (Sharpe, p.73)
So what does this all mean for today’s Sussex? I think the conclusion is an exciting one. In one “breed” we have about seven varieties (Speckled, Red, Brown, Light, Silver, Coronation, Buff…). Each variety aimed at the same goal, producing a top-notch dual-purpose breed with excellent winter laying abilities. But perhaps more exciting, within this single “breed,” we have multiple paths toward that goal. Therefore, allowing the farmer and fancier to pick the path they enjoy the most.
Ultimately, I would conclude that the Sussex are a single “breed” only insomuch as the foundation stock originated from a single geographic region. Additionally, the efforts of that region were homogenous, meaning they were all working toward the same strengths. However, they were likely more genetically related when they were that good ol’ “barn door” landrace poultry. Once the push for standardization began, the Sussex moved away from common genetics, to a common shape only. Within today’s Sussex, we likely have seven separate “breeds” in the varieties. That said, it makes raising these wonderful birds all the more exciting. It’s truly an amazing journey, and what more could we ask for?