Scottish Daily Mail
Meet the Shetland hen... the world’s rarest chicken!
There are fewer than 100 of them left – yet they could hold the key to a far healthier future for poultry farming
RARE breeds are rare for a reason. They grow more slowly, breed less prolifically and yield less milk, meat or eggs. Yet on the survival of such exotic livestock may one day hinge our own, when factory farming finally blows itself up.
And few forms of farm life come rarer than the Shetland hen.
It is one of the rarest breeds of chicken in the world. Fewer than a hundred are known to survive. It is of exotic, almost garish appearance – Boy George in his pomp had nothing on a Shetland cockerel – and, as a boiling fowl, makes delicious eating.
Most significantly, Shetland hens lay blue or green eggs – raising, as we shall see, an extraordinary genetic poser.
Yet, in a world where we are menaced with such horrors as chlorinated chicken and mechanically recovered meat, the survival of such rare breeds as the Shetland fowl may yet be central to our own.
It is now all but forgotten, but when bird flu last hit the UK in a big way, 42million chickens had to be destroyed. And the modern, factory-engineered Frankenstein breeds on which our egg and meat production depend – and most meat eaten in Britain is chicken – are from a frighteningly limited genetic pool.
Should this collapse, it is to the old ‘utility’ breeds we would once again have to turn – Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Maran, and such outliers as Shetland.
There are in fact two breeds unique to these far-flung northern isles – the Papa Stour Shetland hen, and the Tappit Shetland hen. The former are the less interesting: pigeon-sized black chickens which lay white eggs and whose legginess and markings suggest pretty direct descent from the ancient jungle fowl – and that they were originally brought to Shetland, perhaps by the Vikings, for the barbarity of cock-fighting.
Tappit (tufted) fowl are far more intriguing. They come in a variety of gay colours, have a distinctive (and sometimes very elaborate) crest on their heads, very short tails, and lay blue or green eggs.
That last ability only confirms insistent local tradition, that they fetched up on Shetland from wrecks in the debacle that was the fleeing Spanish Armada.
BY dint of an inexplicable genetic mutation centuries ago, and certainly before the Conquistadores set foot on Latin America, one breed of fowl in Chile started laying green or blue eggs.
And that distinction is still exclusive to the Araucana chicken and the various varieties developed from them – most notably in Britain the Cream Legbar. But the Tappit Shetland hen has been around as long as local folk memory can remember, and never consciously bred. It was just… there.
And that the Shetland hens survive is largely down to one local family, the Isbisters of Burland Croft, Trondra.
They are by all accounts friendly little birds, and in critical need of preservation. Thanks to Mary Isbister’s campaigning, Shetland hens are listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste – both for their culinary qualities and their rarity – and several British entrepreneurs now sell fertile eggs for your own incubation.
One American scalper even offers unsexed day-old Shetland chicks at $59 a pop, all the way from ‘the rolling hills of north Florida’. The fowl are in other respects unusual. Their colour apart, Tappit Shetland eggs are more rounded than one expects from chickens and – perhaps because of such a northern latitude – they have an atypically long laying season.
But not everyone buys into the Spanish Armada romance. At least one expert has pointed out that 16th century Spaniards prized white eggs – indeed, we have hard evidence, in Velazquez’s gorgeous painting Old Woman Cooking Eggs, in the Scottish National Gallery.
The eggs the crone has to hand are indubitably white. And there is another, perhaps more credible explanation for the coming of the Shetland hen – if boring: the fertiliser trade.
As European agriculture grew ever more sophisticated from late Victorian times, the great farms increasingly sought nitrate for fertiliser and it was most cheaply had from Chile.
So stately sailing ships went back and fore, all passing Shetland and often pausing at Lerwick for water and provisions. Ships then routinely kept live poultry and there is some anecdotal evidence that Auracana hens – a hardy breed that coped well with Shetland weather – were traded with the islanders.
Shetland was in fact, by the turn of the last century, a major producer of winter eggs for the wider Scottish market.
But that market then, and indeed into the 1970s, was one that clamoured for white eggs. Accordingly, whatever its antecedents, no one ever intensively reared the Shetland hens – which are, after all, on the small side, with eggs to match, and lay at best about 200 eggs a year. (The record, set by a White Leghorn in 1979, is 371. Ouch.)
THE Shetland hens, then, were but the chooks of hearth and home and, but for the Isbisters, might well have been extinct by the 1990s. As unfortunately befell very similar birds in the Outer Hebrides, still about when I was a boy and of uncertain and much-varied appearance, but which laid the prettiest blue eggs.
One Stornoway matron would eat no others. But from the late 1970s domestic chicken keeping all but collapsed on Lewis and Harris, thanks to the predations of lately escaped feral mink. And though it has in this century recovered – the invading critters having been exterminated – that eccentric island fowl has been lost for ever; a sad footnote in Western Isles lore.
The Tappit Shetland hen is, then, a reminder of the precious diversity the Highlands and Islands still offer in a wider national ecology. Raasay boasts a species of vole found nowhere else in the world. The Western Isles, in bombus jonellus hebridensis, enjoys a unique bumble bee.
Eriskay’s shy wild ponies are her own special glory and, by local tradition, it was Spanish forces in the abortive Jacobite Rising of 1719 who left behind the feral goats that still lend charm to Glen Shiel.
St Kilda, abandoned by its inhabitants in 1930, has her own breeds of field-mice and shrews. But perhaps the biggest success story is the Soay sheep.
Despite challenging aspects – they have no flocking instinct and their wool must be plucked rather than sheered – all the Soay sheep in the world today are descended from forebears on St Kilda.
But since Victorian times they have been prized as exotic, decorative parkland beasts for assorted stately homes – and their meat is so cherished by those in the know that the Queen herself keeps a flock of Soay sheep at Windsor.
The Shetland hen, lowly as it be, deserves her own proud place in this menagerie of just-about-managing survivors..