29 September 2000

Breeders happy accident produces colourful way to sex day-old chicks

Deep in the heart of Shropshire a new poultry breed has

been created – by accident. Jeremy Hunt reports

ROW upon row of fold-units housing over 70 breeds of poultry stretch out across the fields in a tiny Shropshire hamlet near Craven Arms. But you have to look very closely to find the pen that contains the rarest breed of all – even though its the newest.

It has been created using a genetic formula that was originally developed over 70 years ago when it was heralded as a major breakthrough in commercial poultry production.

And it has been done by Shaun and Sue Hammon, who turned their hobby into a business 13 years ago and set up the Wernlas Collection at Green Lane, Onibury.

The collection, which is open to the public, will produce around 12,000 chicks this year to supply poultry enthusiasts – many of whom are first time chicken keepers – throughout the UK.

Alongside popular breeds like the Rhode Island Red, Light Sussex and Leghorn there are rarities like the Lakenfelder, La Fleche and Vorwerk.

But among this fascinating collection there are several "man-made" breeds based on genetic developments pioneered in the 1930s to alleviate the skilled and expensive job of sexing day-old chicks.

Before the hybrid layer hit the British poultry industry, pure breeds were the mainstay of commercial egg production. It was then discovered that sex-linkage – where male and female chicks differ in colour – could be achieved by cross-breeding. The most popular mating was the Rhode Island Red cockerel crossed with the Light Sussex hen which produced silver-coloured male chicks and gold-coloured female chicks.

"But back in the 1930s geneticists working at Cambridge University developed auto-sexing breeds whose day-old chicks could be sexed by their colour thus avoiding the need to cross-breed," says Mr Hammon.

The Cambar was the first auto-sexing breed to be developed. It was based on a cross-breeding programme using the Silver Campine and the resultant "pure" Cambar birds produced male and female chicks which could be sexed by their colour.

Over the years many other similar breeds were created using the same genetic formula and included the Gold Legbar (based on the Brown Leghorn), the Cream Legbar (based on the White Leghorn, Araucana and Barred Plymouth Rock) and the Welbar (based on the Welsummer).

Some years ago the Hammons decided to introduce Legbars and Welbars into their collection. Plus, they are now breeding rarities such as the Rhodebar which is based on the Rhode Island Red.

"There is a great deal of interest in these breeds, much of it from small-scale poultry keepers who do not want to waste time rearing surplus cock chickens. These are breeds that enable you to identify the male and female birds as soon as the eggs are hatched," says Mr Hammon.

The introduction of auto-sexing was so revolutionary at the time that an "Autosexing Annual" was published for the poultry industry. Mr Hammon has acquired several copies from the 1940s-1950s (priced one shilling each) which contain articles from top geneticists as well as commercial converts to these new breeds.

Mr Hammons fascination with auto-sexing led him to consider using the genetic formula to create new breeds. "What was the most difficult breed to sex?" he asked himself. It is the Silkie. This breed, because of the males late comb development and often lack of masculine characteristics, can be 20 weeks old before positive identification is possible.

So the Hammons set about creating an auto-sexing Silkie. The initial mating was between a Silkie cockerel of the breeds partridge (gold and grey) colour form and a hen of a grey-barred breed (Mr Hammon is keeping some of his formula a secret!)

"You lose some of the breed type in the first cross but as you breed back to the Silkie the type returns." The primary aim was to create an auto-sexing Silkie – the Silbar – but it has also led to the creation of a completely new colour form, the cuckoo Silkie.

The Silkie already occurs in white, black, gold, blue and partridge. The new cuckoo variety (the term cuckoo is used to describe breeds with the grey barring reminiscent of the bird of the same name) has never been bred before in the UK.

"Like all the cuckoo-coloured breeds it is possible to sex the chicks much earlier – say around six weeks – but the Silbars can be sexed as day-olds because the male chicks are much paler."

Another breeding programme undertaken by the Hammons has now successfully created the Cobar – an auto-sexing Cochin. The big, impressive Cochin breed hails from China and is well known for its feathered feet. The first Cobars are being offered for sale this season.

The Wernlas Collection has achieved a wide reputation for maintaining important stocks of rare breeds. Now, by using a 70-year-old genetic formula, its proving that its possible to create new breeds from old.

Shaun Hammod holds a Cobar cockerel – an auto-sexing Cochin he is now successfully breeding. Genetic developments pioneered in the 30s led to the creation of breeds such as the Cream Legbar, (main picture).