Silver laced Wyandotte chickens

Silver laced Wyandotte chickens were first bred in the US in the 1870s. Photograph: Alamy

While I was at the Edible Garden Show this year I was frequently asked about the history of pure breed chickens, how they came to be, and why are they so different from the hybrids we see today. It was interesting to hear the vegetable experts at the event also being asked similar questions about plant breeds.

The frenzy of fancy fowl in the mid-19th century significantly changed the western perspective on chickens, putting poultry in a new light within modern culture. No longer were they simply a farmyard forager, they had wider appeal, reflected in a new “hen fever” that cut across the classes of Victorian Britain.

The influx of new breeds not only delivered aesthetic appeal and a price tag beyond anything that had been seen before, but also egg laying and meat capabilities that could raise an eyebrow. It was both of these practical functions that would become more pivotal over the next 100 years.

The austere times brought about by the two world wars put meat in short supply and, perhaps unintentionally, it was the chicken fanciers of the time that held an answer. They had already developed certain breeds and strains that had the potential to provide plenty of eggs and meat, and the fact that such development was occurring in a non-commercial manner meant the path of the humble chicken (and chicken breeder) now had two distinct directions; one as an exhibition hobby and one as a potentially mass-produced food.

This was no more better defined than in the late 1940s when a collaboration between farmers, breeders and suppliers, backed by cash prizes from A&P Food Stores, launched the Chicken of Tomorrow contest across the United States. The concept behind the contest was to challenge the huge numbers of chicken breeding talent to create the ultimate breed of meat bird; one that provided the most meat in the shortest time and for the lowest feed cost. It was at this point poultry shifted once more in history and a step change from farm chicken to chicken farming took place.

Throughout the world poultry started to be used as an alternative source of protein. Hybridisation through careful selective cross breeding, coupled with a better understanding of the biology and genetics of poultry, meant that breeding programmes could be constructed to pursue two discrete purposes; the egg laying machines and the fast-growing meat source. The heritage pure breeds were soon forgotten in the pursuit of cheap food and it was left to exhibition poultry breeders to maintain them.

Science and agriculture continue to work hand in hand with the supply chain to meet the ever increasing demand for poultry-based products. More and more hybrids are being developed today to meet specific consumer requirements, and in less than 100 years we have shifted from hen fever to a time where chicken meat and eggs are now a staple of diets worldwide. It’s a revolution in agricultural practice driven onwards by consumer demand, and now almost forgotten in its wake sits its bedrock; the breeds of the show bench whose history puts their much-needed conservation in context.

I can sense a gradual shift as the grow-your-own audience becomes wise to the values of heritage varieties of poultry as well as plants.

This post is part of a series on poultry keeping from Andy Cawthray, a self confessed chickeneer who writes for a number of magazines, provides talks & courses on keeping poultry at home and shares his experiences on his personal blog TheChickenStreet.