CHRIS GRAHAM tells us why this utility bird from France offers something for everyone
THE Marans, as we know it, is a comparatively new breed. It arrived here from its native France during the late 1920s, when 60 hatching eggs were imported by Mr J.S. Parkin, manager at Stanbridge Earl Poultry Farm in Kent (then owned by Lord Greenaway).
Straightforward utility breeds were all the rage between the wars, and the Marans joined a group of useful, practical breeds that included the Barnevelder and Welsummer, which arrived in the UK from continental Europe. Mr Parkin’s eggs hatched to produce a range of colours.
In France at that time, the Marans was very much a regional farmyard fowl. It had been developed in an area about halfway down the west coast, and took its name from a town just north-east of the port of La Rochelle. Enjoying a reputation as a hardy, no-nonsense breed, the Marans got on with its typically active life, producing plenty of eggs and being good for the table.
The originals were smaller than the birds we have now, and had feathered legs too. The story goes that Parkin’s eggs produced a collection of cuckoo, white, black and gold cuckoo examples, and that all laid copious numbers of a wonderfully dark, chocolate-coloured eggs; still something of a novelty at that time. But Parkin and his associates – including William Powell-Owen, the notable utility breeder and author – wasted little time in refining the breed, selecting and breeding for what they considered to be its best points.
One of the primary objectives appears to have been the removal of the leg feathering, to avoid unwanted similarity with the North Holland Blue, another cuckoo coloured, feather-legged breed. They succeeded with this aim and, nowadays, feathering on a Marans’ legs is a serious fault for birds being bred to the breed standard.
The result of Parkin’s careful breeding work was the Poultry Club-approved standardisation for dark, silver and gold cuckoo versions, plus black. The original white fell by the wayside early on and, today, blacks plus the silver and golden cuckoo versions are extremely rare.
In real terms, enthusiasts now are left with the dark cuckoo as the only practical option existing in workable numbers. The Marans caught on pretty quickly here after its introduction.
In those days, eggs with dark, chocolate-coloured shells were the big attraction, and the breed soon built a reputation around this desirable characteristic. However, its popularity was destined ultimately to remain strongest among backyard keepers. The onset of the Second World War, followed by the “hybridisation” of commercial poultry during the post-war era, spelt the end of any serious farming interest in breeds such as this one. While the Marans’ dual-purpose attributes proved very attractive to the small scale and enthusiast keeper, they weren’t suited to those involved in the new, intensive approaches to egg and meat production.
The Marans Club was formed in the 1950s, and continues to flourish today. This enthusiastic organisation caters for the feather legged French version too, even though these types are not yet standardised in the UK. Their popularity is growing steadily here, with the two favourite colour varieties being the copper black and the wheaten.
The French birds are smaller overall, but they lay just as well as the English variety and, although the eggs are more rounded, they normally boast an even richer chocolate brown shell. A bantam version was created in the UK during the 1950s although, in those days, it wasn’t laying the characteristic dark egg... in fact, the shell was white!
This problem had been caused by the out-crossing needed to get the bird down to the appropriate bantam size. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Andy Marshall and Ken Bosley set to work putting this right. Ken had a large fowl Marans that accidentally mated with an Old English Game on his farm. The offspring were mated with a small, prize-winning Marans large fowl cockerel, and there followed a five year breeding program in which Andy and Ken carried out two hatchings a year and selected purely for egg colour and breed conformation. The result was a dark-egg laying dark cuckoo Marans bantam.
Getting hold of good Marans is reasonably easy, as long as you work with the breed club. Seeking out birds on the open market is much more risky, and can be fraught with problems.
The fact that the cuckoo markings are a dominant characteristic means that it’s relatively easy to breed examples that look OK, but which fail completely to produce the desirable dark-shelled eggs. These “less accomplished” birds can be sold as the genuine article, and the inexperienced owner remains none the wiser until the hens come into lay and plain, tinted eggs start being produced.
But bag yourself some good birds from a top utility strain supplied by a recognised breeder and you won’t look back.
At A Glance
Size – Large, heavy; soft feather
Origin – France
Large male 3.6kg (8lb)
Large female 3.2kg (7lb)
Bantam male 910g (32oz)
Bantam female 790g (28oz)
Egg laying – 220+ pa
Colours – Black, dark cuckoo, golden cuckoo, silver cuckoo.
Yes or No?
Dark eggshell colour
Simple to keep
Good table bird
Males can be protective
This extract is taken from Choosing Your Chickens published by Kelsey Publishing, price £9.99.