I’ve written fairly often about our Berkshire pigs, a breed that is to be found on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist because of its vulnerable status.
What I haven’t done recently is look at our poultry, or more correctly our Scots Greys chickens.
The Berkshire pig is vulnerable because there are only 300 or so registered breeding females left in the UK.
The Scots Grey chicken is listed as endangered as there are only 250 or so registered breeding females remaining. In pig terms, that’s the equivalent of just 200 sows.
We also have a sole Scots Grey bantam whose job it is to raise the chicks.
Our flock of hens is divided into three – hens that are totally unrelated to our two cockerels, hens that are descended from Johnny (whose line goes back to a Welsh flock), and hens that are descended from Orville (whose line came from an Inverurie breeder).
Most of the unrelated hens came from a flock in the Western Isles (and before that Kintaline in Argyll), but four came from an English flock.
We put three or four hens in with a cockerel when we want eggs for hatching, which means Johnny will be in with unrelated hens or hens descended from Orville and Orville will be in with unrelated hens or hens descended from Johnny.
We’d like to have a third, unrelated cockerel (and actually had two from different lines at one point) but noise complaints from a neighbour means that is not possible.
We have to cull almost all our cockerels very quickly once they start crowing – and often before you can see how well they’re going to fill out.
But back to the breed.
Depending on your source, the Scots Grey originates either from the 16th century or the 19th century – although the latter claim could arise from the breed society, the Scots Grey Club, having been established in 1895.
The club still exists, but appears rather ramshackle with communication being hit and miss at best. I thought the club secretary must have passed away at one point as I didn’t hear back from the club for almost 18 months.
Scots Greys were originally a farm and croft chicken.
The RBST claims the breed can be quite tame if handled regularly but, while true of one of our cockerels, it’s not proved the case with the hens and remaining cockerel.
They’re happy to co-exist with people and pigs, but like to keep their distance.
If anything, I’d describe the Scots Greys as being less domestic and more feral than many chickens.
Ours are very adept at using trees, thickets of weeds, and piles of stones as hidey holes from birds of prey.
They enjoy roosting in trees or in the rafters of buildings, do very well as free range birds but they do need protection from foxes, weasels, stoats and the like.
The RBST describes their appearance as:
The barring of the Scots Grey’s feathers is quite precise and results in a beautifully smart and crisp looking bird. The beak and legs are white with black mottles or streaks. The effect is completed by a single upright comb and red earlobes.
What they don’t mention is that the hens are much darker than the cockerels, having black feathers with white bars while the cockerels are more a dark steel grey with white barring. The barring is also larger and more defined on the hens.
It’s a very useful tool for identifying cockerels once the adult feathers start coming through.
Also, we’ve found some hens can have almost no comb, while others have the noticeable upright comb the RBST mentions.
Extensive searches using google turned up only a small number of photos of Scots Grey hens, but again the variation was apparent with some having almost no comb and others having the erect one.
The Poultry Club has an old illustration on their website that shows a Scots Grey hen with the erect comb.
Poultry Photos offer a montage of old Scots Grey photograph, in some of which the hens appear to have only vestigal combs.
A more vexed subject is yellow legs and beaks.
The breed standard for the Scots Grey is quite clear — they should have white legs and beaks.
Birds will yellow legs and beaks do appear in hatchings and, on the face of it, they should be culled or kept only for laying eggs and meat.
However, the Scots Grey is a rare breed that is critically endangered in some countries and rare even in the UK.
If I was outside the UK and it came down to a choice of using a cockerel with yellow legs or having no cockerel at all, then I’d use the cockerel. I’d then aim to breed out yellow legged descendants once I had sufficient numbers of birds or was able to find a white-legged male line.
As people tend to keep more hens, it should be possible to find enough white-legged ones to breed from without having to resort to ones with yellow legs.
While the Scots Grey is rare in the UK, there are enough breeders willing to supply hatching eggs or cockerels to make this unnecessary. If you are a British breeder please do not breed from Scots Greys with yellow legs and beaks.
Back to the RBST description, which falls down when it describes the Scots Grey’s use as a utility bird, stating:
It is a good all round layer of whitish eggs.
While the eggs are certainly a variety of off-white colours, with the occasional chalky white one, none of ours are good layers.
The best hens lay three or four eggs a week, but most only lay two or three. I suspect this is down to a combination of in-breeding and breeding to show.
But if the eggs are a disappointment, the quality of the meat from the cockerels more than makes up for it.
The meat is very flavoursome and slightly gamey, is nicely textured and is best used in soups, stews, curries and crock pot dishes.
It is not a good roaster as the meat is mainly on the thighs and legs, instead of on the chest as with modern meat breeds. The meat can also be darker than some modern consumers prefer.
Most sources, including the RBST, class the Scots Grey as a non-sitter but we’ve had two large hens that stayed with their eggs until they hatched, while our Scots Grey bantam has hatched two clutches.
Island Poultry, from whom we sourced some of stock as hatching eggs, agrees with us in this regard, having found occasional hens do sit through to hatching.
But what we all agree on is that Scots Grey hens are outstanding mothers, teaching their off-spring very quickly, keeping them gathered close by and defending them far beyond what you’d expect – our bantam fought off a hawk more than twice her size when it had the temerity to go for a chick.
Another description of the Scots Grey breed can be found on the Kintaline Poultry website, which has my favourite alternative name for the breed – Shepherd’s Plaid.
Their experience appears to tie with ours, that the breed has been so heavily bred for show that productive lines are now extinct.
Certainly, the Scots Grey would have been much more productive in the past as there is no way a thrifty crofter or skint tenant farmer is going to keep and breed non-productive poultry.
In researching the Scots Grey, I also discovered that a couple of lines have survived in Australia with the Backyard Poultry forum hosting photos of various Scots Greys.
Some do not look like any Scots Grey I’ve seen, but there are a few nice birds among them.
Now for a word of caution.
Eggs from all other sources – Inverurie, two English breeders and a Welsh one – have been lucky to achieve a 30-40 per cent hatch rate.
In the case of eggs from one English flock, all but one of the chicks died in their shells and the remaining one died soon after hatching – all had deformities, which again points to inbreeding.
On top of that, eggs from all sources have a pronounced tendency to hatch cockerels with an average of 78 per cent of all chicks being male. (It does mean plenty of chicken to eat, though.)
Again, I strongly suspect this is down to inbreeding.
As for the future, we’re hatching every fertile egg we get until we get at least 20-30 hens.
Once we have a reasonable flock of hens, we’ll start selecting for productivity and type with the aim of restoring the Scots Grey back to being a dual-purpose utility bird.
And if anyone else is breeding Scots Greys, particularly for utility, we’d love to hear from you.