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by Fred Hams
From the June 1996 edition of Country Garden & Smallholding.
Printed here by kind permission of Country Smallholding.

Since the middle of the 19th century, when Cochins and other Asiatic breeds brought the brown egg to Europe, dark brown eggs have commanded a premium price in the marketplace. During the inter-war years, the demand was largely met by imports from the continent. In the late 1920s, British poultry farmers started importing breeds like the Dutch Welsummer, with the aim of regaining this section of the market for themselves.

Like most of the breeds that still have a place as smallholders' fowl, the Welsummer has developed within a well-defined locality, by farmers who would today be described as smallholders. Like the Barnevelder, this early development of the Welsummer was, to a large extent, influenced by the demand for very dark brown eggs.

It was at the 1930 World Poultry Conference that the same two Dutch experts who had reported on the Barnevelder, PJ Wijk and P Ubbels, reported on the origin of the Welsummer breed. They were kept on heavy clay ground along the River Ysel to the north of the town Deventer. From ancient times, the fowls of this district were known as Welsummers. On the eggs market there, for many years, large dark brown eggs were offered.

The average weight of eggs is 70g; the laying capacity of the Welsummers, however, declined over the course of the years. The largest and darkest brown eggs were used exclusively for breeding, and with the introduction of artificial incubation, it appears that the heaviest eggs yielded the, worst hatching results.

The original fowl that were given the name of Welsummer showed all the known varieties of colour, as in the case of so called 'Farmers' Fowl' elsewhere. Many of the birds were found to have 5 toes; they often had a light yellow colour, with blue tail and wings (Orpingtons and Faverolles). Other birds conformed in colour and shape approximately with Partridge Cochins and Partridge Wyandottes.

Malay and Brahma types were also met with. In 1917, all these varieties could still be found on various farms. Nevertheless, there existed a certain uniformity in the breeding control, in so far as only the 'red cocks' had the marking of the partridge coloured breeds, except that the chest was marked brownish black.

In later years, great efforts were made with crossings, especially with the Barnevelder, Rhode Island Red and Partridge Leghorns. Of these, those with the Barnevelders were the most satisfactory. Fortunately, efforts were made by others to improve the breed within itself; the first by a farmer's son in Welsum, who was studying to be a teacher and devoted himself, in his spare time, to the breeding of poultry. His eggs were of a particularly fine colour, and farmers in the neighbourhood soon bought their breeding material mainly from him. In this manner, within the village of Welsum and environs, consistency of type was soon attained. The production at the time, ie, the years prior to 1913, was very satisfactory. In that year, however, Kleins disease made its appearance, and the above mentioned breeder lost a few of his best hens. During the first World War a large number of the birds had to be disposed of and the breeder of Welsum was only able to retain 12 hens and 1 cock.

In 1921, he was invited to participate in the exhibition at the first World Poultry Congress in the Hague. The uniformity of his birds was astonishing. In 1922-23 steps were taken to fix a standard. An association of Welsum breeders was only founded in 1927, when the Dutch Association for the Improvement of the Welsummer Breed was founded. This Association indicated standards as regards type and colour and the improvement of utility qualities.

With regard to the colour of the Welsummer, they had many shades. For the hens, the ground colour is the golden brown of the Partridge Wyandotte, without the bordering, not laced, but with heavy mottling. They have a seven-colour chest. The cocks conform in colour approximately with the hens. Breeding cocks are the Partridge Wyandottes. The chest is blackish brown.

In the same year as the World Poultry Conference (1930), a meeting was held to form a British Welsummer Club. From the outset, there seems to have been much rivalry between Dutch and British breeders and considerable controversy over the breed standard. At the first committee meeting, it was proposed that "a subcommittee be formed to go into the question of the standard as the Dutch standard does not comply to that of the British. It was decided, however, to carry on at present to the end of 1931, as the Poultry Club has accepted and included the existing standard in its new edition of the Standard of All Breeds."

Much of the early controversy over the breed standard was due to the breed having been imported early in its development as a standard-bred breed. While this left room for the breed to develop in parallel both in Holland and the UK, most of the early development centred on breeding for the darkest brown egg. Just how little work had been done on breed standardisation can be gauged from a contribution in the 1949 Welsummer Year Book, when Mr W.Ashe-King looked back to the cockerel class in the 1930 Dairy Show. "There were, I believe, 30 entries in the cockerel class. What variety, what faults, colour all the shades from bright gold to dark mahogany, breasts all red, all black, some mottled, combs as big as your hand, side sprigs, cut combs, grey eyes, legs yellow, willow, or bronze, some clean, some feathered, 5 toes, white lobes and, of course, plenty of white flights and white in the tail. Neither exhibitors or judges knew what was required. So it will be seen, we had to knock the breed into shape, as well as improve production."

Not only did those who first imported birds from Holland hope to capture some of the market for dark brown eggs, they also hoped to make money by supplying breeding stock to other poultry keepers. At this time, there was no restriction on the importation of poultry from Europe, so those wanting Welsummers could get them directly from Holland. This led to an anguished note in the first secretary's report of 1931: "It is brought to my notice by more than one breeder that there is a growing danger arising out of the fact that large consignments of very cheap birds called Welsummers are arriving, from time to time, in this country and being sold by auction. Now, to all of you who have the breed at heart, you will realise that there is a big danger to our breed if some unsuspecting person buys these birds, and they will be buying birds that only cost a few shillings in the local Dutch open market, and landed here and are fetching prices far above the value, which should be the value of an old hen for the pot. These people will introduce all sorts of foreign blood that will take years to get out of the Welsummer. I cannot understand why, when there are so many good British Welsummers in Great Britain, Britishers must buy foreign goods. Is it the influence of our present government that causes this tendency to 'help' all but the 'British Farmer'? I hope not, but a vogue of the British bird bought in Holland must be the goods. I have nothing against the Real Dutch Welsummer and the true Dutch breeder, but it is a known fact both in Holland and amongst us, that bad rubbish is being imported into England. It is this importation that must stop and it is up to the Welsummer Club to help stop it".

While it was the dark brown egg that first attracted the British to the Welsummer, commercially it was no good having the darkest egg unless the birds laid a reasonable number of eggs. As the Welsummer can still be regarded as a breed with utility potential, the early British laying records give a valuable insight into its early promise. Unlike the Barnevelder, there seems to have been few laying records available from Holland. 1931 saw 14 pens of 6 birds and 8 single entries at the Harper Adams Trials. 9 Copper Rings (for birds that laid more than 200 eggs) were awarded. The winning pen of Welsummers laid 1114 Specials and First Grade eggs. None of these equalled the Club's first secretary's entries in the 1930s trial. Her Shrewton Wonder laid 246 eggs in the 48 week trial and continued to lay 259 in 52 weeks.

The dark brown, often matt brown, Welsummer eggs were a sensation when first seen at pre-war shows. Modern Poultry Keeping, circa 1953 reported, "In the early 1930s, the Welsummer breed was so little known that when a plate of rich brown eggs was entered by Mr Lobb at the Hertfordshire Show, the judge, not having seen eggs like these before, promptly awarded them first prize. Welsummer eggs can be either matt or shiny, the matt brown being fairly easily rubbed off'. These strange brown eggs at the Hertfordshire Show were much handled by interested spectators and unsuccessful exhibitors, until their colour showed signs of wear. The judges were informed and, believing that the eggs were nothing more than ordinary eggs coloured, promptly disqualified the eggs as quickly as they had awarded them first prize. Since those days, judges have learned a lot more about eggs, especially dark brown ones and, in particular, the Welsummers".

This matt brown egg is very much a characteristic of the Welsummer breed, the breed can lay matt or shiny dark brown eggs. The breed standard allows either, but 'prefers matt'. Throughout the breed's history in this country, specialist farmers and egg exhibitors have striven to perfect an ever darker brown egg. The Dutch, on the other hand, have sadly neglected this most important breed characteristic. Just how or when this was allowed to happen. is difficult to ascertain. There are many Dutch country folk who can remember keen competition at pre-war village shows. The late Max Butler made a chance importation from Holland, just after the war. These he remembered as being 'layers of some of the best eggs I've ever seen '. The Dutch no longer have egg classes at their poultry shows. This obviously has had a lot to do with the decline of their Welsummer eggs' quality.

There was no keener egg exhibitor than Mr Ashe-King. He reflected, "When I started with Welsummers, they were poor layers. My average in the first year was 73 eggs, today it is about 170. My first imported birds from Holland were perfectly mature at the Dairy Show in October, but did not lay an egg until May. My greatest trouble has been to get my pullets into lay during the first 3 months of the test, some moulted and others merely walked around and admired the scenery while their sisters at home laid well, yet a great number of them laid 170 eggs in the 9 months. Some of my outstanding hens were: SP69, gold medal at Harper Adams in 1936-7. Official score: 176 Supers, 35 First and no Second Grade eggs in 11 months. 1946 test, Copper Ring U329 official record: 196 Supers, 15 First, no seconds, total 211 in 11 months. This hen was laying at the close of the 1946 test, so I gave her a period to herself to test her out. She finished with a total of 256 eggs. Her eggs were good deep brown. Her eggs were equal to 320 2oz eggs."

Over recent years, while most breeders have selected almost solely for the darkest brown egg, Geoffrey Johnson has started a limited programme of egg recording very much like the early breeders, who did so much to improve the laying ability of the Welsummer. In these trials, he has been able to identity individual birds that show remarkable laying ability, remembering that the extremely dark egg laying hens are unlikely to lay as well as those that lay a mid brown egg. Birds like hen 403 hatched April 1993: first egg November 13th, that had, by July 1994, laid 41 Grade 1 eggs (over 70g), 103 Grade 2 (over 65g) and 30 grade 3 (over 60g). A total of 174 eggs in 8½ months. Her eggs retained a good depth of colour throughout the year. Sons of this bird are being used for stock in the 1996 season. Another hen, number 408, laid 181 eggs in a similar period that included 134 Grade 1. Here, egg shell quality was satisfactory, but not as good as 403. Another 13 pullets produced very wo rthwhile laying records, but showed a significant trend for the darkest eggs being laid by those pullets who laid slightly fewer eggs. Geoffrey makes the very valid point, "I suppose we have to accept that the amount of pigment, Porphyrin, in a bird will spread more thinly if the greater numbers of large eggs are produced.'

Katie Thear also made a valid point in Country Garden & Smallholding, February 1996, when she asked, "Why wasn't the Welsummer used in the makeup of the Speckledy hen?" There is evidence that Welsummer males, when crossed with hybrid hens, produce hens that lay wonderful dark brown eggs with an excellent shiny finish. When judging a very large entry of eggs at last years Shropshire County Show, the author picked out as Best in Show, a plate of eggs that turned out to be laid by a Welsummer x Warren Hybrid. That the Welsummer still lays some of the darkest brown eggs and is still capable, with selection, of providing a worthwhile number, is due in a large part to the breed having been in the hands of good breeders, several of whom have kept the breed for most of their lives. The Reverend E Lobb, who shows and judges Welsummers today, is the son of the Mr Lobb who showed the matt brown eggs that caused such a sensation in the 1930s.

Welsummer bantams have enabled many without the space to keep large fowl the chance to enjoy the luxury of really dark brown bantam eggs. As often happens with miniatures of useful breeds, there can be a conflict between breed type and size. Producing a strain that keeps within the Club's standard weight and that lays dark brown eggs is an enormous challenge. This is just the sort of challenge that the true fancier enjoys and the Welsummer Club has the support of many skilful bantam breeders.

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