Bielefelder Chicken and Niederrheiner Chicken
Two beautiful and useful breeds from the farm country of the Lower Rhine
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Imagine living in European farm country, many years ago, and raising chickens that had to forage almost entirely on their own. Not just any chickens, but roosters that could reach 10 to 13 pounds and round-bodied, meaty hens that that could easily tip a scale between eight and 10 pounds. Hens that were notorious for laying extra-large or jumbo brown eggs, for two or three years. The hens set and raised their own babies. Add in an inordinate gentleness of both hens and roosters, and it sounds like the fantasy bird all chicken keepers dream about. Such birds actually did exist, and still do today. To temper my glowing descriptions with reality, however, not every bird had or will have all of these characteristics, and some will not measure-up at all. Nonetheless, these birds and their ancestors, as a whole, were able to develop and maintain such characteristics in open farm-flock mating and self-foraging over a period of at least 150 years.
Meet the Bielefelders and Niederrheiners, two breeds with long heredities, originating in the farmland of the Lower-Rhine region (or Neiderrhein) of Northern Germany. These birds and their ancestors can also be found in the Netherlands, on the West bank of the Rhine, as well as Belgium (Nederrijners in Belgian). Niederrheiners date back to at least the 1800s, while the history of the Bielefelders, as an official breed, goes back only about 50 years. Actual ancestry of both breeds has deep roots, over many decades, in the farm flocks of the Lower Rhine. Let’s take a closer look at these two similar yet different breeds.
Conduct a web search for the history of these beautiful birds, and you will only find part of the story. Thanks to the efforts of German Poultry Breeder Gerd Roth, the breed, as we know it today, was developed and standardized in Europe by the early 1970s. Many websites simply state that Herr Roth used Barred Rocks, Malines, New Hampshires, and Rhode Island Reds in the development of his new breed and then give no more information. Some experts, including Johnny Maravelis of Uberchic Ranch in Wilmington, Massachusetts, include Welsummers and Cuckoo Marans as genetic possibilities in this mix. Curious, I began a long chase for information. After hitting many dead-ends, I eventually interviewed Johnny. He shared years of in-depth knowledge about both breeds and their origins. The Maravelis’ family-owned breeding operation raises both breeds and attempts to make sure the birds meet the European standard as well as the original large body size and egg production traits that made them so popular in their native Rhineland.
The Bielefelder chicken, by ancestral nature, is a large, self-sufficient bird. While being good layers, they are slow to mature. According to Johnny, many females do not start laying until at least six months old, and some may take a full year to develop. Once they get past the pullet stage, purebred hens from good lines normally lay extra-large to jumbo eggs. Normal egg production is 230 to 260 eggs per year, with most hens taking time to raise at least one brood per year. They are known to be excellent foragers, having been very self-sufficient in their original habitat of the Lower Rhineland.
Bielefelders have currently become a new phenomenon to many poultry keepers in the United States. Many private breeders, as well as commercial hatcheries, are beginning to breed and sell them. As often happens when new breeds are introduced, some breeders concentrate so heavily on the right color patterns and other features, to make their birds “look right,” that other important features are lost. According to Johnny, many hens in the United States can be two pounds lighter in weight than original European females and roosters are sometimes three pounds lighter. Egg size has also decreased from extra-large or jumbo, to an average of just large in many flocks.
While a small number of contemporary breeders have reportedly mixed other breeds into their lines, Johnny Maravelis told me some interesting history. A goodwill program after World War II, operated by the United States Department of Agriculture, supplied thousands of American chickens to people in the devastated areas of Europe. Rhode Island Reds were one of the main breeds given away. Many of these birds were mixed with local landrace breeds, and the round, heavy bodies that were characteristic of fowl in this region began to take on the longer, lighter form of the Rhode Island Reds. Egg size also began to decrease in some of these landrace flocks.
One difference between many European and American breeders is timing of flock maturity. In Europe, slow growth is very acceptable. Many farms and breeders, especially those who focus on self-sufficiency and foraging, are willing to let the hens and roosters take the first year to mature, eventually reaching very large sizes. Hens are allowed to lay for three years or more and are then harvested for the massive amounts of meat they have produced (including large amounts of dark meat, which is valued in Europe). Some are allowed to stay in the flock as setters and brooders. In the United States, most hens and roosters are done as breeders by the end of their first year. Layers are rarely kept beyond a second laying cycle. The ideals and economic models of these vastly differing methods are light-years apart.
There are several color variations of Bielefelders available. Probably the most popular and well-known is the multicolored Crele pattern. Neck, saddles, upper back, and shoulders of the males should be a deep reddish-yellow with gray barring. Breasts should be yellow to light auburn. Hens’ respective feathering should be a slightly rust-partridge color with a reddish-yellow breast. Legs should be yellow and eyes orange-red in color. Hens should ideally weigh eight to 10 pounds and roosters should tip the scales at 10 to 12 pounds. Breasts of both sexes should be meaty and well-rounded. In most cases, chicks of this breed are autosexing, meaning you can identify sex at the time of hatching. Females will have a chipmunk stripe down the back and males will be lighter in color with a yellow spot on the head. Both roosters and hens of this breed are generally known to be docile and people-friendly.
Found in several varieties and color patterns, including Cuckoo, Crele, Blue, Birchen, and Partridges, this handsome, gentle fowl of the Lower Rhine region is somewhat rare and almost impossible to locate for purchase in the United States. One of the most popular and well-known is the Lemon Cuckoo pattern: A gorgeous cuckoo, or loosely barred pattern, of alternating lemon-orange and white stripes.
Coming from the same region with much of the same ancestry probable, Niederrheiners are similar in many ways to Bielefelders. Both are known for large, meaty bodies. However, the Niederrheiners are rounder, while the Bielefelder body is slightly elongated in shape. According to Maria Graber or CG Heartbeats Farm, one of the few breeders of these birds I was able to find (along with Johnny Maravelis), the birds are excellent layers with larger egg size than her other breeds. One of the problems that she was very candid about with these birds, however, is problems with fertility (this is also a problem that has been noted by others in web blogs over the past few years). One of the things that Maria noticed as she watched the birds was that the roosters were so large that they were very clumsy in their mating efforts. As a test, she put some Swedish Flower Hen roosters with the Niederrheiner hens and let them breed. (She is NOT mixing breeds for sale. Bloodlines are remaining pure. This was just a test to find the root of the problem.) All of the eggs from this cross hatched out healthy chicks. It is very probable that this breed survived well in the lower Rhine, as open-flock mating would likely have had similar numbers of hens and roosters, with more virile males available for mating.
According to Maria, the birds do very well in the hot, humid summers of Northern Indiana, as well as the winters. They are excellent foragers, but because they are so docile, they are not extremely alert to predators. If you live in an area with predators and free-range these birds, you will need to take precautions. They are a beautiful, well-dispositioned breed for families with children. Like the Bielefelders, Niederrheiner roosters are known for gentle dispositions.
Bielefelders are currently available from a number of hatcheries and breeders. However, the Niederrheiners can be difficult to find. Uberchic ranch (uberchicranch.com) and CG Heartbeats Farm (can be found on Facebook) are both good starting points. You can also follow the Lemon Cuckoo Niederrheiner Facebook page and group. We would also like to hear from readers who may know of other sources for this beautiful, rare breed.
Originally published in the October/November 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.