Icelandic Chickens as Free-Range Homestead Poultry

Icelandic chickens have been recommended to me multiple times as I’ve posted various articles on free-ranging flocks.

Steve writes:

“I have thought a lot about this topic. I have a flock of Icelandic chickens, and they are a great homestead bird. I think they are worth considering in your quest for a better homestead chicken. They are an old landrace from Iceland and are relative newcomers to the U.S. Unlike most modern production breeds, they still retain a lot of “wild” instincts. Instead of being bred for specific appearance standards or maximum egg production, they were chosen for more utilitarian purposes (Jack of all trades, master of none). Consequently they look like a mish-mash of barnyard mixes. They are active foragers, alert and predator savvy, hardy/healthy, regularly go broody and are great mothers, like to roost high in the trees, good egg producers (not champion layers, but good enough), and produce smaller carcasses yielding delicious meat. You won’t find them at the top of the list for absolute egg production, carcass size, or any other metric most people push for in modern chicken breeds, but they do a lot of different things well. That makes them valuable to me as my livestock philosophy is that our animals should be tough, scrappy, and as self-sufficient as possible (even if that comes at the expense of absolute production metrics) rather than being the biggest/best/most productive animal that needs to be babied with feed, medications, etc.. I haven’t quite pushed them that far with no supplemental feed, but I believe they’d do ok, especially in warmer months and if you gave them enough space or varied habitat.”

About Icelandic Chickens

The profile of the breed is quite good, especially for colder climates:

“For a thousand years, the only chickens in Iceland were this robust landrace. However, importations of more commercial chicken strains into Iceland in the 1930s led to crossing with the native stock. This threatened the Icelandics survival as a pure landrace. Successful efforts in Iceland in the 1970s to conserve pure birds were followed by their importation into other countries, including the United States.

Icelandics have much to offer as a more self-sufficient homestead flock. While not suitable for confinement, if given range to roam — whether on pasture or in woods — they’re highly skilled at both foraging much of their own feed and evading predators. Piles of decomposing vegetation and other organic refuse are also popular places to forage, with a payoff of free natural feeds for the flock and compost for the garden. In their native land, they’re also called Haughænsni or “pile chickens” because of their preference for such debris heaps.

Though egg production doesn’t match that of egg-laying champs such as Leghorns, Minorcas, and Rhode Island Reds, it’s good for a feed-thrifty laying flock, and hens maintain production well in winter. Eggs are white to cream and small – though surprisingly large for such small hens – averaging just below 1.75 ounces.

Carcass size of cull birds is small, not surprising in a type developed as Icelandics were to forage most of their own feed. However, the flesh is fine-grained and remarkably flavorful; and old, cull layers yield superb broth as well.

An interesting homestead trait is retention of “broodiness,” the instinct to incubate a clutch of eggs and nurture the growing chicks. Not all Icie hens in a flock will “go broody,” but enough will to furnish all replacement chicks needed.”

Icelandic Chickens in Warm Climates

A homesteader in North Florida told me in an email that their flock of Icelandic birds were very good at free-ranging and finding food, despite Florida not being the climate you would expect to find a bird from an arctic clime. Chickens with scrappy, wilder instincts seem to be more adaptable than domesticated birds in general.

Though some reports say Icelandic chickens aren’t well-suited to warm climates, the experiences some are having in Florida challenge that assertion. Chickens allegedly originated in warm climates, so perhaps they readjust easily.

Harvey Ussery writes in Mother Earth News:

“Icelandic chickens (or “Icies”) originated with the settlement of Iceland in the ninth century by the Norse, who brought their farmstead chickens with them. In Iceland these birds are known as Íslenska landnámshænan, or “Icelandic chicken of the settlers.” Over the centuries, farmers selected birds capable of feeding themselves, and hens with reliable mothering skills. The result was a landrace of active, naturally healthy fowl adapted to harsh conditions. (A landrace is a group of domesticated stock adapted to local conditions and selected for useful traits rather than for conformation to specific breed standards, such as color, pattern or comb style.) Icelandics are on the small side (mature cocks weigh 4-1⁄2 to 5-1⁄2 pounds; hens, 3 to 3-1⁄2 pounds) but have good egg production, especially in winter.”

I wouldn’t mind adding a few Icelandic chicken genes to my homestead chicken-breeding experiments, though I’m not likely to replace my entire Southern flock with a variety of bird from the frozen north. Some think Icelandic chickens are over-hyped, which may be true. I certainly don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all bird, any more than there is a one-size-fits-all method of gardening.

They certainly seem to be a tough and useful homesteading breed, however, and are worth a trial run.

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Published at Tue, 23 Nov 2021 08:51:54 -0500

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