Sussex Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

Sussex chickens can lay up to 250 brown or tinted eggs every year, and they also make excellent meat birds.
Janet Vorwald Dohner
July 2010
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Sussex chickens are a heritage poultry breed known for its egg-laying abilities. This chicken breed turns a free-range diet into a heavy production of beautiful brown or tinted eggs. The origins of the Sussex Fowl are found in southeast England — Surrey, Kent, and Sussex — where fowl similar to the Old Dorking and game birds had existed for some two thousand years on farmsteads large and small. This native stock is sometimes called the Old English Fowl. The very first poultry show, held in England in 1845, recognized these native birds: the Dorking, the Surrey, and the Kent or Old Sussex Fowl. Although the original Sussex Fowl was probably speckled, several color varieties were already developed, including the Red. The Sussex was mainly used as a table bird. The Sussex was raised for market in larger numbers beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Sussex was also crossed with the Dorking, Cochin, and Brahma to produce capons for a specialized poultry industry in Sussex. The capons were force-fed milk mixed with ground oats.

The Light Sussex was developed with the addition of crossbreeding with the Mediterranean egg-layers, which created a truly dual-purpose breed. Brahma, Cochin, and Silver Grey Dorking were also used in its perfection. The Light Sussex became the most popular of the varieties in England and Canada, as both a lovely exhibition bird and a utilitarian chicken often used in crossbreeding for market birds.

The Sussex Club was formed in 1903 and soon standardized the three main varieties: the multicolored Speckled, Red, and Light Sussex. Later the White, Silver, Buff, and Brown were recognized. The Buff Sussex was created in the 1920s, and the White was developed from a Light Sussex sport a few years later. The Brown strains can carry some Old English Game. The Light remains the most popular variety, whereas the Brown, Buff, and Red have not captured the eye of many fanciers.

The Sussex remains a good table bird, with cocks weighing 9 pounds and hens about 7 pounds. The Sussex has a deep, rectangular body but is still an active, alert bird that is capable of foraging. The Sussex is truly one of the best dual-purpose chickens, with many hens capable of laying 200 to 250 brown or tinted eggs yearly. The hens will go broody and are good mothers. Some breeders also select a traditional, meatier type for the table.

The Sussex has white skin, which probably limited its popularity in the United States, although the Light Sussex remains fairly popular in Canada and England. The Light Sussex enjoyed considerable popularity in Canada around the 1940s. Birds were brought to Canada during World War II to aid the production of white-skinned market birds to supply the British market. The Light has also been crossed with Rhode Island Reds to develop commercial strains in Canada. The Light Sussex is a white bird with an attractive black pattern. The hackle feather has a black center surrounded by white. The wing feathers are also marked with black, as is the tail. The beak is whitish, and the shanks and toes are pinkish white. The comb and wattles are bright red.

Two other varieties are seen in North America. The Speckled Sussex has some followers in the United States, who enjoy it both for show and practical purposes. The Speckled is a striking mahogany with individual feathers tipped in white with a black bar. The White Sussex is maintained by some breeders as a dual purpose bird capable of good production of eggs and meat on open range with additional grain. The RBST has obtained excellent White Sussex chickens from the long-held flocks of Geoffrey Cloke and Geoffrey Marston, which are noted as outstanding layers and kept as two separate lines. Another strain known as Lord Dewar is also preserved.

Since 1992, the Poultry Conservation Program at the Alberta Poultry Research Centre at the University of Alberta has conserved a strain of Light Sussex originally maintained at the University of Saskatchewan by Roy D. Crawford, the renowned poultry geneticist. The RBC Heritage Poultry Project also recognizes the Shaver strain of Light Sussex, originally from Shaver Poultry Breeding Farms in Ontario.

The British are justifiably proud of the Sussex, which is well-suited for the return of free-range poultry. The Sussex is included in the RBST Poultry Conservation Programme.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available from Amazon. 

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