Pioneering work boosts appeal of coloured hens

Work is under way at Piggotts Poultry in Bedfordshire to strengthen the shell colour of the delicate blue eggs from the Cream Legbar hens and the mud-brown eggs from the Marans, in an attempt to bolster customer appeal.

Brian Piggott, whose breeding company has pioneered the import of “coloured” free-range hens from France, hopes that a stronger shell colour for both strains will improve the saleability of the eggs and take the sector to a more commercial level.

Work on the Marans has involved the Marans Cuivree, a copper-breasted black hen that is one of the stars of the Piggotts Poultry imports of the best coloured strains – hens with bright, definite plumage that are flourishing on small holdings, sometimes in preference to the uniform buff and brown feathers of the commercial range hybrids.

He is confident that he already has enough Marans for a “meaningful level of replication” and that they will offer a genuine challenge to the competition already on sale in some supermarkets.

“We are confident of improving on what we have, and also to have blue layer parent stock in place by spring 2011, with day-old hybrids available from September 2011 onwards.”

The strain of Cream Legbar he is using to produce these blue eggs has been developed over 10 years in the north of England with the final hybrid producing 220 medium-sized eggs.

“We feel the blue colour will satisfy domestic poultry keepers (DPKs) and possibly small farmers selling mixed egg colours,” says Mr Piggott. “We are also looking to improve egg size and colour consistency over a period of time.”

Distribution of the coloureds in the UK is by a team of pullet rearers such as the Suffolk family egg business of Fenning & Baker Poultry. It started rearing coloureds in 2001, kicking off with deliveries from Piggotts Poultry, taking about 4000 day-old females every six weeks. But disaster was just around the corner with the arrival of avian flu in Scotland and elsewhere.

“It was awful – a genuine disaster,” recalls Denise Robinson, farm secretary and co-ordinator of the coloureds operation. “Demand disappeared overnight leaving us with several thousand unsold birds. It took a year at least for trade to pick up and, surprisingly, it picked up with a vengeance.

“People seemed to be making up for lost time and we now need a delivery every four weeks to keep pace with demand for point-of-lays and growers. We put the success of the coloured birds down to the ease with which individual birds can be recognised in a small flock. You can’t do that so readily with the uniform brown/buff of the commercial brown egg layer,” she says.

David Evans, director of supplying agent Cyril Bason (Stokesay) Ltd, relishes the way that the coloureds have livened up the DPK scene, which had always been important to his business and to the industry.

“The bulk of the 5000 pullets we rear each month and the 3000 day-olds that we sell go to back garden flocks where many of the top people in the industry started, so they should be helped and encouraged. We have a number of customers who have graduated up to 500-bird-plus coloured flocks. They are the types who could be running our industry in a few years’ time.”

French market

In France the Marans and a number of the leading coloured strains are marketed by small corner shops where the point of sale material names the crosses which go into the strain and identifies the local farmers. It is a trend which started five years ago and is increasing. So far the Marans are the only coloureds in the supermarkets, but it can only be a matter of time before other strains make the breakthrough.

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