Landrace Fowl

Landrace Fowl

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Photos courtesy of Candace Lylek of Breezy Bird Farms. When working with poultry or other farm animals, the terms “landrace strain, landrace breed, or landrace animal” will often come up. Just what is a landrace animal? Very simply, landrace fowl (or other farm animals) are distinct types or strains of animals that have developed in a specific geographic region through natural breeding or natural selection over a period of many years. While there is no set, magical timeline for a landrace strain to acquire such a status, it usually takes a minimum of several decades of natural selection for such strains to develop, and, in many cases, a landrace strain may have developed over a period of several hundred years in an area.

Breeding Without Interference

Landrace strains of poultry differ from conventional breeds in that they were allowed to breed naturally with little interference from humans for the selection of certain traits or a certain look. The genetic material of such strains, or groups, became spread throughout the flocks of small geographic regions and villages, as farm families bartered, sold, and exchanged poultry with each other.

A breed of poultry or livestock, on the other hand, has evolved from a
multi-generational period of selective choices of parent stock to meet a certain look or have certain traits, and meet standards that humans have
set as to the way they think the given breed should look or perform. While
selective breeding for individual traits is definitely not a bad thing, the unfortunate reality still exists that when breeding for a certain standard
or look, the genetic pool is often narrowed down, and many intrinsic,
valuable, hidden traits can be bred out and lost.

Swedish Flower Hen rooster.

Because they have developed through natural breeding and selection, and have survived with minimal human intrusion into this process for many generations, landrace fowl usually retain traits of broodiness and natural mothering. These strains of poultry have also developed in response to local weather conditions and climate extremes, including extreme heat, extreme cold, rain, snow, or even abnormally dry conditions.

Landraces have often developed with minimal shelter and are apt foragers, their metabolisms having adapted to local sources of food which they forage on their own. This does not mean that they were constantly left unattended in a wild state or that human beings did not do some selective breeding. In most cases, fowl in colder climates were fed grain and other foods during winter and at times when they could not readily forage.

Swedish Flower Hen hen. (Yup, the breed name is “Swedish Flower Hen.”)

On the whole, however, these flocks usually had to survive and forage on
their own, at least during the summer months when natural feeds were
available. Natural flock mating and reproduction, including incubation and
brooding, were the norm. Shelter for these birds often varied, depending on
local climates and seasons, and many strains learned to survive and evade
predators while foraging and roosting outdoors.

Landrace Poultry Breeds

Landrace chickens include such groups or “breeds” as Icelandic Chickens, Swedish Flower Hens, and Swedish Hedemoras, all hailing from the colder regions of Scandinavia. Fowl such as Egyptian Fayoumis have a long and established history, going back several thousand years, in the hot and dry climate of the Nile villages of Egypt. The nation of Hungary has seven landrace breeds that it considers national treasures, including Transylvania Naked Neck Fowl and Hungarian Yellow Chickens.

Icelandic hen.

Breeds like the Sumatra were originally brought to the United States in the 1840s from the warm, tropical setting of Sumatra and the Sundu Islands of Western Indonesia. Araucana chickens, in their native Chile, were a well-established landrace group when first brought to the United States in the 1930s.

Another very hardy landrace strain that has made its way to the United States and Canada in the past 50 years is the Hmong Fowl from the tropical, upland mountain regions of Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam. Other types of non-chicken, landrace fowl include: Danish landrace geese from Denmark; Scania geese from Sweden; Bavarian landrace geese from Bayern, or Bavaria, Germany; Danish landrace ducks; and the original strains of Chocolate turkeys from the southern United States.

A young, white, wooly feathered Hedemora cockerel.

Bred for Hardiness

Landrace fowl are hardy. Many strains have survived by developing various levels of immunity to local bacterial or viral threats that could be troublesome to non-native breeds. They are also often known to not only
be hardy within their own geographic climate, but a few can readily adapt to inclement weather conditions different from those found in their native

One prime example of this is the Hmong Chicken. Poultry breeder Candace Lylyk, in Manitoba Canada, began breeding these birds several years ago and found them adaptable and hardy in the harsh, inclement, winter weather of the Canadian prairies.

In some cases, landrace groups of fowl such as geese and ducks may have a very homogenous look, with little outward diversity. In the case of chickens, however, many landrace strains (but not all) from the same region may show a great deal of diversity in feather patterns, feather colors, leg or shank colors, and comb types.

A melanistic Hedemora pullet with blue skin.

Breeding Broadly Enough

In visiting with Candace Lylyk I learned that one of the biggest concerns she has in breeding smaller groups of landrace fowl is to make sure her breeding project is broad enough — and well-planned enough — to maintain the wide array of valuable genetic material within the strains she is keeping and perpetuating. It is very easy to lose valuable genetic components unique to a landrace group when breeding limited numbers of individuals, even if using flock mating systems.

This is one problem faced when groups of poultry keepers become interested in a certain landrace type of fowl. Excitement grows. Sooner or later, a breed club is established. And in the natural course of human events, a select group of individuals forms a committee that decides what the breed should look like. Select traits are suddenly chosen and mandated as the “perfect” standard, and any other traits are eventually bred out and lost. Often, these may include hidden genetic components such as hardiness, disease resistance, disease immunity, ability to forage, and ability to metabolize naturally occurring feedstuffs, as well as propensities in the hens for broodiness and natural mothering. Many unique, basic, outward traits are also often lost from these fowl in this same process.

This Swedish Svart Hona fowl looks similar to the Ayam Cemani.

Landrace fowl have many unique advantages, as well as beautiful arrays of genetic diversity not always found in the more established true breeds. If
nothing else, keeping a few unusual landrace fowl to your flock will very likely make you the envy of all your poultry-keeping friends!

DOUG OTTINGER lives, works, and writes from his small hobby farm in
Northwest Minnesota. Doug’s educational background is in agriculture with an emphasis in poultry and avian science.

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