A Touch of Dutch in Welsummer Chickens
Welsummer Hens Lay Dark, Terra Cotta-Hued Eggs
By William Morrow – Welsummer chickens, or Welsumer as it is spelled in its homeland of Holland, were introduced to an international audience for the first time in 1921 at the World Poultry Congress in The Hague, Holland. Welsummer chickens originated in the area along the river Ysel around the same time as another breed, Barnvelders. In fact, the town of Barneveld, where the Barnvelder breed was developed, is a mere 45-minute drive from the town of Welsum, where local lore credits a farmer’s son for creating the Welsumer breed. There is no doubt Barnvelders and Welsumer share common ancestors, as landraces were normal in the 1920s, and the breeds share several common features — most notably, very dark brown eggs. At the local markets, dark-colored eggs commanded a premium over white or light tan eggs. So farmers in the area would select for large dark eggs and didn’t pay much attention to feather colors.
As sons of fathers grew up and wanted to improve on how the previous generation did things, selective breeding was used to standardize the “look” of the birds. As other farmers began to buy chickens from this farmer’s son in Welsum, the Welsumer breed was born. A similar story unfolded in the town of Barneveld and the Barnvelder was born. Both towns have constructed statues honoring the respective breed that was developed there.
Welsummer and their rich, deep, flower-pot red eggs became very popular and were soon exported to the United Kingdom and later to the United States. Even Prince Charles maintains a flock of Welsummer at his Highgrove Estate in Gloucestershire. They were accepted into the American Poultry Association Standards of Perfection in 1991.
Genetically, Welsummer chickens are considered black-breasted red. They resemble the wild red jungle fowl. They are more commonly called Red Partridge. At first glance, they resemble a light brown Leghorn, but Red Partridge is different. In a Red Partridge cock, all golden parts are more reddish in color, and the hackles and saddle should hardly show any markings. The breast, abdomen and thighs are black but mottled with brown/red. Unlike other partridge varieties, you can breed both good males and good females from a Red Partridge flock without having to double mate. Double mating is where you have to maintain two separate lines, one to produce properly colored males and a different line to produce properly colored females.
Welsummer chickens are shown in the Continental Class. Technically, the birds are considered a light breed, but they have good body size. Standard weight for cocks is 7 pounds, and hens weigh 6 pounds. One should keep a watchful eye on random white tip feathers and stubs. Stubs are small tuft like feathers on the web between the toes. They are usually so small they look like lint. You should not breed a bird with either of these faults.
Welsummer chickens can also be sexed at birth. The dark line extends beyond a female’s eye towards her ear is very well defined. On the male, that same line is light and blurry. Similarly, if you look at the triangle on the top of their head, on the female it is dark and clearly defined, while the male’s triangle is lighter and the edges are not clearly defined. In the chick photo to the left, the female is on the left, and the male is on the right. If you plan on doing your own breeding, it is advisable you grow out all the cockerels and select the best to keep as breeders. The male is very important and under ideal conditions, should not be judged until 9 to 12 months of age.
The brown egg layers, in general, aren’t known for a 300-plus eggs-per-year lay rate. This is due, in part, to the notion that Welsummer hens lay really dark eggs. That being said, I can tell you from personal experience, our eggs command a premium price at farmers markets because people love the dark, terra cotta-colored eggs, especially the spotted ones. So, even though the breed may not lay as many eggs as a commercial Leghorn, they can be equally profitable.
Brown egg color, like any genetic trait, varies in its expression among individuals in a population. A flock of Welsummer chickens will give you a range of egg color. However, Welsummer from different bloodlines/breeders will give you a different range of color depending on the skill of the breeder. The range of egg color produced can be either shifted to the lighter side of the spectrum, or the darker side of the spectrum based on the selection pressure put on the flock. On the previous page is a photograph of the range of eggs our hens produce as well as some eggs from other breeds for comparison. The white eggs in the top right row are Leghorn, the egg in the middle is from an Ameraucana chicken, and the two tan eggs on the left are Delaware eggs. Some people only hatch the spotted eggs because that’s what they prefer. The idea is that like begets like. So, if you only hatch out the heavily spotted eggs, over time, you should get more hens that lay heavily spotted eggs in your flock. It is this type of decision making that can differentiate one bloodline from another. Increasingly, you are finding egg competitions at poultry shows to give breeders a chance to see how their flock’s eggs compare with one another.
Welsummer chickens are also known for their friendly disposition. Of the breeds we raise, they are the most mellow and least skittish. They are the first to figure out who butters their bread and readily come to us when we call them with treats.
For those interested in learning more about Welsummer chickens, there is a Welsummer Club of North America.
Originally published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.