The story of Light Sussex
February 22, 2016
Sussex chickens are an English breed that arose naturally in the south of England in a climate very similar to the Pacific Northwest. The Sussex adapted so well to the needs of the people in Sussex that they became the top utility fowl of England in the mid-1850’s, and were the most common English layer and meat bird until the development of modern commercial layers and broilers. The ‘Light’ colour birds (i.e. silver down with Columbian Exclusion Pattern) was regarded as the best utility variety. Lights were imported into Canada in great numbers to glean grain fields (sometimes the farmer made more money on the chickens than he did on his grain!) and were very popular for kitchen flocks in suburban areas because they are calm and quiet. But they were never common in the U.S. except along the Canadian border.
Emily Robertson had her first flock of Light Sussex in 1971, and learned 19th Century methods of breeding and keeping them from a British neighbour who was managing several hundred birds in local backyard flocks. No electricity was used (no lights, heaters, incubators) and cull cockerels were caponized at 6 to 8 weeks. Those birds were magnificent, and the memory of them inspired her to rescue the Light Sussex from extinction as a livestock breed in Canada. A small research flock at the University of Alberta formed the foundation of the resurrected breed, and to them she added birds from all the small remaining flocks she could find, first in Western Canada and later in the East. Each year she rears 500 to 700 chicks from selected breeders in her own flock and crosses with new blood – she is always searching for ‘the missing corners of the genepool’. Coaching from some of the top Light Sussex breeders – Fred Hams in England, Dan Price-Jones, Dr. R.D. Crawford, and Dr. Donald McQueen Shaver served to hone her eye for the correct body and posture of the bird in addition to selecting for utility and behavioural traits. Her birds are now well-known in Canada for being true to the British ‘type’, which is also the APA standard, as well as being productive ‘family members’.
In 2013 Mrs. Robertson established True North Heritage Hatchery, in large part to sell lots of Light Sussex across Canada and help make them a common and popular breed once again.
If you have a good eye for poultry you will see that the True North Light Sussex have the correct size and stature for the breed, as opposed to many American LS that have been crossed with Australian Sussex (“Orpingtons with Sussex clothing”), Brahmas (nice feathers but the legs should be clean), Columbian Rocks or Delawares (different body type). You will enjoy showing them and hearing the judge’s delight over finding correct Sussex!
They are an ideal chicken for the Pacific Northwest, with their ‘double coat’ (true down underneath firm feathering) that sheds rain longer than any other. Their winter laying trait is very handy if the rest of your birds take a break in winter, and in the spring a portion of your hens will go broody and make marvellous mothers. A Light Sussex hen in a well made nest can hatch 15 eggs, and can rear up to 20 chicks if you want to sneak some extras under her. Who needs an incubator?
Frequently Asked Questions
Colour: Light Sussex are ‘silver’ colour base with Columbian Exclusion Pattern; white skin and shanks, single comb. This genetic white coat naturally ‘sunburns’ (turns golden) with strong sunlight.
Eggs: About 180/year; 55 to 65 grams. They lay well for 3 years, and can live for 10
Meat: Well-grown cockerels should weigh 3 kg at 16 weeks old, and dress out about 4 lbs. The breast is not as wide and plump as a broiler, but worth eating. They do not get tough until 22-24 weeks. This is a perfect bird for caponizing.
Adult Size: Roosters 10 lbs, hens 6 (ideally) to 8.
Temperament: Sussex are not aggressive toward people or other chickens; roosters reared together do not usually fight and hens are friendly and easily trained to be pets. Children can gather the eggs without getting pecked. Light Sussex are usually accepting of new flock members and tolerant of other hen’s chicks.
Care and feeding: raise them like any other standard heritage chicken. They need to be fed even if they are on pasture. [Most pasture greenery lacks digestible protein and carbs.] Keeping pullets active and on a bit of a diet will enhance their future laying; don’t let hens get fat.