Chicks are a symbol of Norwegian Easter and so it is lovely to have 50 little chicky-babes to care for at this time. Last year we decided to get the only Norwegian breed of chicken in Norway called Jærhøns – ‘Jær’ after the Jæren region where they were developed and ‘høns’ for chickens. A little excited to learn about this breed, we went into research mode and found that information on the Jærhøns is very slim, even in Norwegian. So this begins our Jærhøns series. Everything you will need to know about raising Jærhøns. This series will go for a couple of years as we follow the life of our flock and by the end we hope to present a comprehensive read about the only true Norwegian chicken breed.
Norwegian Jærhøns are considered conservation worthy. This means that they aren’t in the endangered category but they are considered rare enough to have a government supported breeding program run by the Gene Bank to ensure the future of the chickens. From the Norwegian Institute of Forests and Landscapes and the Agricultural Museum, italics added:
The Jærhøns is a the only Norwegian Chicken race and is a descendant of the original Norwegian country hen. Norwegian land fowls were formerly a small homogenous group with a wide colour range, and the animals could have feather-top or beard/feathers on the feet. The country chicken was almost wiped out when the efforts to preserve and refine the Jærhøns began in 1916. When the breeding program started, the colour variation was bred out of the chickens. Man wanted the chicken to be in line with breeding ideology which clearly defines standard colour. Overtime the breed was able to produce a stable inheritance of colour.
The breed was named Jærhøns and was established as a breed based on single parents. Because of this, the Jærhøns have a high degree of inbreeding, and according to theory this should give poorer health, fertility and production. This has not happened, and Jærhøns are regarded as a robust and vital race.
Until 1973, when the Nationals Breeding Centre at Bryne closed, there was a drive in systematic control of the breeding of Jærhøns. The breed was no longer commercially competitive compared with modern production-lines of poultry. In 1974 the newly established Gene Bank for poultry created a breeding program for the Jærhøns at Hvam high school. The breed has since been in the charge of the Gene Bank with an unbroken line.
The Jærhøns is small in size, compared with other laying breeds. Body weight of chickens is about. 1.7 kg. Both the hen and rooster’s comb is simple, straight in the cock and slightly to the side in the hen. The beak and legs are light yellow color, and the tail is steep and elevated.
Roosters have a white base color and gray or amber color at the edge of each feather. The tail-feather and the collar is light yellow to white. The hen has a cross-striped gray/black base color on cover feathers and neck feathers, and a collar with a yellow-brown colour. The flight feathers and tail are dark gray with no streaks or edges. Feather color may vary slightly in both hen and rooster.
The Jærhøns is active, energetic and adept at finding food when it gets to go free. It can not easily be stopped by fences, as it is a good flyer – however, it is not a good brooder. The eggs have a white color, some are slightly cream-coloured, and shell quality is good. The breed is gender oriented (autosexing), ie there are gender differences in down colour in day-old chicks.
The situation for the Jærhøns today
A flock of 300-400 animals are preserved by the Gene Bank for poultry at Hvam. In addition, there is an active environment for Jærhøns with the Poultry Federation and among hobby farmers, which is very important to ensure the breed.
We ordered our Jærhøns from the Gene Bank preservation stock at Hvam. We had to order day-old chicks as eggs would freeze during shipment and starter-pullets (young hens) would be too big to transport, certainly when the minimum order is 25 birds. We ordered 50 in March and from the first hatching of the year, in April, our 50 chicks were sent up to us on an airplane.
Of course we were nervous the whole day. Warmth and dehydration are serious issues for day-old chicks and travel highly increases the risk. They had already gone through a lot – the day before the breeder tried to put them on the plane but a dog was also booked in cargo and they didn’t want to risk the chicks. The chickens were shuffled back and forth to and from the school again in their little box. However, the day of the flight was worse as our chickens missed their connecting flight and had to sit on the desk of a baggage manager at Tromsø airport for a couple of hours until the next plane. (Shipping from Oslo to Alta is the same distance from Oslo to Italy!) When they finally arrived at Alta four hours late we rang the special baggage bell and the girl had no clue about our chickens. She just walked away without doing anything. We rang the bell again and got another lady who was much more obliging and finally found our little chicks. We opened the box and they were all alive and peeping.
As soon as we got home we put the chicks in our special brooding cage. Our pet Brown Italian chickens are in the barn but the Jærhøns are in the rabbitry for the moment. As we don’t want to risk any disease exchanges between flocks, we are quarantining the Jærhøns for a time. In general the two flocks won’t live together, however, we will be using our pet flock to hatch and look after new stocks of Jærhøns as Jæhøns have had their brooding instinct bred out of them.
The brooding cage was halved and lined with cardboard to create a cozy, draft-free space. We used thin insulation curtain and some styrofoam on the outside. It is normal to use wood shavings for chicks as a base for the cage but we prefer sand. The sand heats nicely under the lamps and it won’t cause a fire, it is ok for the chicks to eat it and we use a compact bedding method for controlling droppings. A thick foam mat under the food area prevents sand being kicked into the food containers. For the first days we used an ice cream lid with ground chick feed so the chicks had easy access. We use two small adjustable heat lamps so we have maximum control over heating. A ground thermometre helps us to regulate the temperature. Under the lamps we aim for 90-100 degree farenheight temps as this means the outer rim temps will be just right for the chicks. Day-old-chicks generally need about 85 degrees and we can judge if the chicks are too hot or cold by where they like to stand.
The chicks were very jumpy and made a lot of noise from the beginning. Every time we put our hand in the cage they would run for the corner and squish each other in trying to get to the inside of the flock. They are very quick little chicks and run rather than walk everywhere. They have quite small feet and the feet are cold to the touch. This is because they have a two way blood warming system to keep their upper bodies warm. The warm blood going down the legs warms up the blood returning from the feet. But the chicks are certainly not cold because they like to hang out near the outskirts of the brooder. In fact, they prefer the areas that are around 60 degrees. They are very curious and active, and are fun to watch. Even though they are flighty they also have a tough attitude. After all they have been through, none have died, in the first five days, at least. (Many books and people told us to expect losses.) This is the main thing that has impressed us both about the breed – they are very strong, healthy and robust little chicks.
As Jærhøns can be sexed, we thought we better count our chicks to see how many Light and Dark, male and females, we have. The Light Jærhøns are easier to distinguish than the Dark. The males are predominately yellow, some feathers are grey, and they can have a tiny brown dot on their heads. The females have brown stripes running from their head and along their backs. Well, this is what authorities say the breed standards should be but not every chick can be so clearly defined. Below are genders and variations of Jærhøn chicks within the Light and Dark standards just in our 50 flock:
Light Jærhøns – Pullets
Dark Jærhøns are a little more tricky. They are both predominately dark in colour – browns and greys. The way to tell them apart is via the yellowing on their heads. Females have a small yellow spot on top whereas males have bigger yellow or whitish spots that can be blotchy over the head.
Dark Jærhøns – Cockerels
You can see in the cockerel above that the ‘dark’ feathering isn’t really that dark and can almost seem to be the colouring of the Light Jærhøns. The cockerel below has a grey colouring, which is not to the standard. It will be interesting to watch this one grow up.
Dark Jærhøns – Pullets
The Dark Jærhøn pullet below nearly looks like a cockerel because of the light area underneath the Light spot on the head. Only time will tell if we are right.
We think we have 25 cockerels and 27 pullets – but we will see. (The two extra chicks are usually put in extra to cover any losses during shipment.) 19 cockerels are Light and 6 are Dark. 18 pullets are Light and 9 are Dark. A fine mix considering Light Jærhøns are supposed to be less common. Why so many males? Why not more females? We bought a mixed batch that is cheaper. It works out to every pullet you get a free cockerel. We also intend to keep a breeding stock for ourselves. It would be inconvenient to have a regular air-shipment of birds. The extra roosters will be put to good use. Three roosters will be kept with their ladies for flock management (two roosters are likely to fight themselves to death). Three of each standard will be kept in their own area to create a diverse flock for the future. Normally roosters would fight but these will have grown up together and the number will create a pecking order to keep the peace. When the flock size grows it will be necessary to have more roosters – usually you have one rooster for every 12-20 hens. It is not necessary to keep roosters unless you intend on breeding, however, we feel that having roosters enables our chickens to explore their ‘chickeness’.
This last day we have extended the brooder and the chicks are loving the extra space. They don’t seem to need the warmth as much as all the books say. They prefer to hang out in the colder areas. They are vigorous foragers. They sharply peck at everything. They are more noisey than our other Brown Italian flock. This makes it easier to locate them – one jumped out of the box when we initially go them home and ran behind the rabbit feed. We only knew where it was to catch it because of its loud peeping. The chicks also have those endearing chicken qualities such as falling asleep in warmth and security. It didn’t take long for the chick below to close one eye, then the other, and nod off for a little cat-nap.
Meanwhile, the Trønder rabbits don’t mind one bit the extra activity in their space. In fact, they lap up the extra attention. Rabbits and chickens go well together, especially on range.
We have great expectations for our new Jærhøns flock. In five months time we will have eggs!