Update: Because of limited supply and high demand, suppliers of Icelandic eggs and chickens are nearly sold out for 2015 and possibly through 2016. —MOTHER, February 2015
In addition to being fun, keeping a home flock of chickens makes us less dependent on purchased food. But how much does our flock contribute to food independence if it is itself dependent on purchased feed — and on purchases of replacement chicks? Manufactured feeds and mail-order chicks scarcely fit earlier models for sustainable home flocks, which were historically managed as scavengers of free natural feeds, and in which replacement birds were the spontaneous gift of “broodiness,” or a mother hen’s instinct to hatch eggs — a trait that has been deliberately bred out of modern breeds.
I’m fortunate to have had a living example of a traditional model: My grandmother’s rugged flock fed themselves almost entirely by ranging over her 50-acre farm. From time to time a hen would disappear, only to show up three weeks later with a clutch of chicks in tow. Granny kept that self-feeding, self-replicating flock going for decades. Every egg, every piece of fried chicken, and every serving of chicken and dumplings came to her table without cost.
I strive to emulate my grandmother’s flock management: I give my chickens as much range to forage as possible while getting their help with homestead chores — cover-crop tilling, making compost and controlling insects — as benefits incidental to their quest for live, wild foods. I also prefer hatching chicks under my own mother hens, rather than purchasing them from elsewhere or using an incubator. When I learned the fascinating history of Icelandic chickens, I wondered whether they might be the best choice for my ideal flock.
Icelandic chickens (or “Icies”) originated with the settlement of Iceland in the ninth century by the Norse, who brought their farmstead chickens with them. In Iceland these birds are known as Íslenska landnámshænan, or “Icelandic chicken of the settlers.” Over the centuries, farmers selected birds capable of feeding themselves, and hens with reliable mothering skills. The result was a landrace of active, naturally healthy fowl adapted to harsh conditions. (A landrace is a group of domesticated stock adapted to local conditions and selected for useful traits rather than for conformation to specific breed standards, such as color, pattern or comb style.) Icelandics are on the small side (mature cocks weigh 4-1⁄2 to 5-1⁄2 pounds; hens, 3 to 3-1⁄2 pounds) but have good egg production, especially in winter.
For more than a thousand years, the only chickens in Iceland were of this robust landrace. But in the 1930s, strains of Leghorns were imported to boost commercial egg and meat production. Inevitably, those chickens were crossed with some of the natives, and the pure landrace was in danger of being lost. Efforts to conserve the native population began in the 1970s. The success of these efforts was followed by importation of these genetically unique birds into other countries, including the United States.
In 2013, two experienced breeders of Icies supplied me with four pullets and three cockerels, representing together all four of the lineages that had been imported into the United States to date. The birds were 4 to 6 months old, but already mating. When hens from my previous flock became broody, I had plenty of Icelandic hatching eggs ready to set under them.
In addition to the broodies from my old flock, two of my four Icelandic pullets went broody and proved to be excellent mothers. The brooding season ended with a total of six dozen chicks. By the onset of winter, I had culled the excess young males and some of the females to end with a breeding flock of 27 birds total: one cockerel (male younger than 1 year), one cock (older male) and seven females in each of three “clans” or “families.” (Read on to learn more about my breeding program.)
The ongoing culling furnished all of our chicken dinners last year. Icelandic chickens’ flesh is fine-grained and unusually flavorful, even compared with meat from other home-raised breeds. When we retire our older layers, I’m sure they’ll make superb broth as well.
In the year and a half that I’ve raised Icies, they’ve met my goals for a more self-sufficient homestead flock much better than the dozens of other breeds I’ve raised over the years. I have ranged them on pasture, in a small area of woods, and on “mixed organic debris fields” — areas heavily covered with the organic residues produced on any homestead, such as autumn leaves, weeds, spent crop plants, flower bed trimmings, prunings from fruit trees, and even sectioned tree trunks. The result has been a series of compost heaps increasingly alive with decomposer organisms. These debris fields are my Icies’ favorite places to forage. In their native land, these birds are also called Haughænsni, or “pile chickens,” because of their preference for such debris heaps.
Icies are aggressive foragers, seeking out natural foods and visiting the feeder only as a backup. My use of purchased feed has dropped by more than half — eliminating it entirely could well happen as I increase the number and diversity of ranging areas on my property.
Icelandic egg production is good compared with the real egg-laying champs, such as Leghorns, Minorcas and Rhode Island Reds, and it’s excellent for such a self-sufficient breed. In winter, however, Icelandic egg production is outstanding. This became abundantly clear to me during one of the harshest winters in the 30 years we’ve lived in northern Virginia. For parts of the frigid winter, my Icelandics produced two eggs per three hens per day, which is often considered a benchmark for good production, even during summer. Laying rates seemed to rise and fall according to the condition of the ground in the birds’ winter range: higher when the soil was unfrozen and they could scratch up worms and grubs, and lower when the ground was frozen. When I prepare my debris fields for next winter, I’ll make them deep enough to keep the soil from freezing.
Icelandic eggs are white to cream, and on the small side. Eggs from my older hens average 1-3⁄4 ounces, equal to commercial eggs graded “medium.”
My Icies are hardy, healthy and robust, whether in harsh winter weather or in our hot, humid Mid-Atlantic summer. In the first year I lost only one, a juvenile, to the sort of unexplained death I call JCOS (Just Crapped Out Syndrome). I protect my flock from predators by using electric net fencing, often called “electronet,” but they rely on their own skills to avoid attacks from the numerous hawks in our area. To date, I have lost only a single Icie pullet to a hawk.
At winter’s end, I separated my breeding groups and began saving hatching eggs. Having kept none of my previous flock, I was now entirely dependent on my Icie hens as mothers. Happily, near the end of April, hens began going broody and receiving clutches of eggs every few days. The first clutches hatched after 20 days, and the final clutch hatched just 10 days later for a total of 67 chicks — all we needed for the season, hatched by seven broodies.
Both fertility and hatchability were high: I discarded only four eggs out of 72 at candling (examining the contents of an egg by placing a bright light behind it) for a hatch rate of 94 percent. After setting the last of the seven broodies, I began discouraging broodiness in the remaining hens by collecting eggs frequently enough so that hens were not sitting on eggs when they entered the nest to lay.
As each hatch completed, I gave the new families daytime access to their own well-aged debris field, separate from the main flock. The hens showed the same preference for feeding their babies as they did for feeding themselves, turning up foraged foods for the chicks and occasionally leading them to the feeder. After the chicks were fully feathered, I moved them with their mothers to the main flock, the stage now set for a new round of nurturing, culling and breeding.
If you confine your chickens to a coop or tiny enclosed run, Icelandics aren’t the breed for you. They need as much space as you can give them, on ground that’s biologically diverse. Confined Icelandics would be miserable, and you would not enjoy them at all.
I recommend starting with Icelandic stock from someone who is fanatical about the purity of this breed. Because Icelandics are so diverse in appearance, carelessness in breeding — or even deliberately mixing in “a little of this, a little of that” from other breeds — would not be obvious in the offspring. Genetically pure Icelandics have been honed by their unique history to offer an outstanding suite of utilitarian traits, and that irreplaceable resource must not be frittered away!
You can try your hand at breeding your own ever-improving strain of this ancient landrace. My breeding program uses “clan mating,” with breeders maintained in three separate lines. All chicks, whether pullets or cockerels, are assigned to the clan of their mother, but during the breeding season, Clan A cocks breed Clan B hens, Clan B cocks breed Clan C hens, and Clan C cocks breed Clan A hens. Cocks and hens of the same clan do not mate. For more information on improvement breeding and working with broody hens, see my book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.
Did I mention that keeping chickens is fun? My Icelandics are proving to be the most fun of all: They’re active and alert, with great personalities, and among them they display every plumage color and pattern, as well as both single and rose comb styles. Many hens also sport charming crests of feathers on their heads. In a backyard with only one type of chicken, what a bonus that they’re such a kaleidoscope!
Icelandic chickens are still relatively rare, and they will be harder to find and more expensive than other breeds. Go to Where to Find Icelandic Chicks and Hatching Eggs to see a list of contact information for suppliers who offer Icelandic chicks and eggs. The list on our website is based on the Icelandic Chickens Facebook group’s 2014 Breeders List, which is pinned to the top of its page. (If you sell Icelandics, you can add your information to the list, which is editable.) The Icelandic Chickens Facebook group is also a good venue for asking questions and sharing photos of your beloved Icies!
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