An endearing and beloved hen, the Sussex breed has been with us for at least a couple of centuries now. It has been bred as a dual purpose hen, excelling at both.
It has an interesting history and has endured through the ups and downs of the poultry world fads.
The Sussex has enjoyed a steady, if not spectacular, success for many years now and is poised to increase its’ presence here in the US because of its’ reputation as a steady layer, good meat bird and gentle disposition.
In this article we will cover the breed history, known varieties, egg laying capabilities, special care requirements and finally, if the Sussex is the right bird for you.
History and Background of the Sussex Chicken
The first ever poultry show was held in London in 1845. One of the first exhibits was a chicken simply called Sussex or Kentish fowl. This was the beginnings of the ‘Sussex breed’. Although Kent was mentioned, the birds’ beginnings were actually in Sussex.
The original birds are thought to have been in England at the time of the Roman invasion of 43 A.D. Of course, at that time they looked nothing like the chicken of today.
It is thought that the original colors were speckled and possibly a brown/reddish color. Over time they were bred with the fowl that the Romans brought with them.
However, the time of breed and color refinement really started in the Victorian era when hen fever took the nation by storm. The importation of many types of ‘exotic’ chickens gave the poultry enthusiasts much to play with in terms of creating new breeds.
The counties of Sussex, Surrey and Kent were the main suppliers of poultry for the London markets and the development of the Sussex hen fit this market very well. It had great success in this area until the rise of the broiler industry in the 1940s and 50s.
The Sussex was considered the finest of the eating fowl at that time.
Although the broilers surpassed the Sussex in demand, the Sussex never really went away. It was pushed aside for a faster maturing bird but was still sought after by those who were more traditionalists – and so the Sussex endured.
Sussex Standard and Appearance
As always accepted colors vary from Continent to Continent. The Poultry Club of Great Britain recognizes:
- 1902 – Light, red and speckled.
- 1913 – Brown.
- 1920 – Buff.
- 1926 – White.
- 1948 – Silver.
- 1936 – Coronation (the original line died out so it was re-created in the 1980s’).
The American Poultry Association accepts:
- 1914 – Red and Speckled.
- 1928 – Light.
The Sussex can be described as a heavy, soft feathered breed with close fitting feathers. There are several different colorations of plumage for the Sussex:
- Speckled – as its name implies, a beautifully mahogany and white speckled plumage that gets better with successive molts.
- Light – white with black neck and tail feathers.
- Coronation – created for the Coronation of Edward VIII. A white bird with light blue (lavender) neck and tail feathers.
- Brown – deeper coloring than the red. This hen has a partridge pattern to its feathers.
- Buff – buff with black neck and tail feathers.
- Red – deep red, similar to a Rhode Island Red coloring.
- Silver – black with silver penciling especially in the breast area.
- White – self-explanatory!
All of these birds have red single comb, wattles and earlobes. They are white skinned birds and the legs are considered to be white with 4 toes to each foot.
Depending on the variety of bird you get, their eyes will be either reddish or orange.
Sadly, the silver, brown, buff and red are now extremely rare varieties.
The Sussex is a graceful bird with a long, broad back, wide shoulders and a rectangular shaped body. The tail is held at a 45 degree angle to the body making them look ‘perky’.
Temperament and Disposition
The Sussex is described as a docile but confident and friendly bird that is easy to handle. They love to forage and are very good at it, gathering much of their needs from the garden which makes them thrifty hens.
They are intensely curious so may follow you around, ‘helping out’ in the garden or waiting for treats.
Sussex are all around hardy, especially in the cold. Summer heat is tolerated as long as they have shady spots to rest in and of course, access to cool water.
They are non-aggressive birds; even the roosters are reported to be mellow. They should not be put in with pushy or aggressive breeds as they will be at the bottom of the pecking order and may suffer from bullying.
As gentle and friendly birds they make a fantastic bird for beginners as they are low maintenance hens and they are pretty fast to mature; with the exception of the speckled variety which matures slowly.
Sussex Egg Laying Capability
Egg laying ability varies with the particular variety of Sussex that you choose, but in general the Sussex will supply you with 4-5 large brown eggs every week.
The really great thing is that they will continue to lay through the winter when most other hens have shut down production for the year.
It has been said the only time they take a break is when they are molting!
They do have a tendency towards broodiness and make great mothers. The extent of broodiness will depend upon the variety you choose – the Light Sussex is said to be rarely broody although this may depend on the line you buy from.
Health Issues and Special Care Requirements
The Sussex is a robust bird and hardy to a wide range of temperatures and conditions. They really don’t have any notable health issues except a propensity towards obesity.
If you want them fattened for the table that’s fine, but if you want them to continue laying eggs, then you need to keep their weight down.
The respective weights should be roosters 9lb and hens 7lb. Bantam Sussexs should weigh between 2-4lb.
The Sussex is a low maintenance, no fuss sort of bird and will not require any special handling or treatments.
Is the Sussex Right for You?
The Sussex is a great breed for families to have. They are docile and very tolerant, enjoying the company of their humans. They do not mind being held and stroked so children also love them. They will often join you in conversations as they are known for being talkative!
They will give you a good supply of eggs and if you are so inclined, they can be easily fattened up for the table.
The fact that they are low maintenance is important to many families since we are always busy these days. They need the basic care of food, water and secure shelter but love to interact and socialize with people.
The Sussex is a great starter chicken for novices because of the ease of care for this particular breed. It is also an excellent bird for 4H projects too.
The Sussex is a fine breed for the backyard poultry keeper. As we have already noted they are great foragers so they keep your feed bill to a minimum.
If you are interested in breeding them, the Light Sussex is one of the breeds that are commonly used to produce ‘sex link’ chicks. A Rhode Island Red rooster over a Sussex hen will give you chicks that are easily identifiable from hatching.
These lovely birds are extremely popular in Canada, England and Australia. They are now starting to be more common here in the US with the Speckled, Light and Coronation varieties leading the way.
We hope you will consider adding this delightful and personable bird to your flock.
If you already have some please let us know all about them in the comments section below…