The Light Sussex Chicken
Light Sussex Hen, 30 x 24 painted paper collage on panel
Chickens were first domesticated in Southeast Asia some ten thousand years ago and from there spread to nearly every part of the world. They reached the borders of Europe around 3000 BCE and arrived in Britain sometime during the Iron Age around 500 BCE. But chickens did not become truly popular there as food until the Romans arrived a few hundred years later, and then chickens became VERY popular indeed. One of the oldest handwritten documents ever found in Britain was a shopping list given by a Roman commander to his slave instructing him to buy twenty chickens at the market and “if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price.” 1
The Vindolanda Tablets, found near Hadrian’s Wall
The British Museum, UK. Photo by Michel Wal ©2008 (Wikimedia Commons)
In the southeast of England – Sussex, Kent, and Surrey –there were regional varieties of chickens which were commonly found on the small farms and in the villages of that area for a very long time. The Sussex breed of chicken was developed in the early nineteenth century from some of these very old varieties of chickens. The Sussex was initially developed as a meat bird, with crossbreeding to Dorking, Brahma, and Cochin to produce a chicken that would fatten readily in order to supply the ever expanding market of urban nineteenth century London. The demand for Sussex chickens was so great that they even had their own train to the city!
Although the Sussex was acknowledged as a breed in the first half of the nineteenth century, no formal breeders’ club formed until 1903.
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. 2
The Light Sussex was one of the first three standardized colour varieties, the others being the aforementioned speckled and the red. The Light was developed as a dual purpose bird by cross breeding with prolific egg-laying Mediterranean breeds, and is thus prized both for its table weight and good egg production. A hen from a productive line can lay more than 250 eggs per year.
Light Sussex Hen and Rooster, owned by Kevin MacFarlane
The Light Sussex is a stocky bird with soft feathers. Its plumage is mainly white with an attractive black pattern on the hackle feathers at the base of the neck. The wing tips are black, and so is the tail. The bird’s skin colour is white. The legs are pale, as is the beak, but the comb and wattles are bright red. Roosters can weigh up to 4 kg (9 lbs). Hens are a bit smaller at approximately 3 kg (7 lbs). The birds are good foragers and do well in free range situations, but also adapt to confinement.
The Sussex came to Canada with settlers from Britain in the early nineteenth century. It is reputed that they were exported to Canada in large numbers at the behest of British bankers who were fearful of losing their investments when Canadian grain farmers suffered hard years and mass foreclosures on farms were a very real threat. Once the wheat crop had been removed, the Light Sussex chickens gleaned the harvested grain fields. Sometimes this second chicken ‘crop’ brought in more money than the wheat. For a time, the Light Sussex was the most popular dual purpose breed of chicken in both Canada and England. The Light Sussex never did take off in quite the same way in the United States, except on those farmsteads along the Canadian border. Its lack of popularity in the U.S. (and to some extent also in Quebec) was due to its white skin – the very reason it was prized by the British. 3
The Light Sussex was particularly popular in Canada during the 1940’s when large numbers of the birds were imported to the country to be raised here in order to supply the desired white-skinned birds for the British market during Wartime. The Light Sussex, along with the Rhode Island Red, were the most significant commercial birds in Canada until the transition was made to modern hybrids in the mid-twentieth century. The Light Sussex is still used in the creation of some commercial hybrids. But the Light Sussex’s status as most popular breed has long since gone and it is now found on the watch list of many livestock conservation groups, including that of Rare Breeds Canada, and what Sussex chickens remain are of limited genetic lineage.
1. Andrew Lawler, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? P. 117, Atria Books
2. Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, p. 427, Yale University Press
3. Correspondence with Emily Robertson of True North Hatchery
Additional Sources:The Cambridge World History of Food (by K.F. Kiple & K.C. Ornelas, Cambridge University Press); Rare Breeds Survival Trust (www.rbst.org.uk)