By Tasha Greer
Looking for an old-world chicken with modern appeal? The Sussex is the perfect choice. Rumor has it this breed’s ancient roots go back to when Phoenician traders introduced the British to the benefits of chicken breeding for food production. That’s before the Roman invasion of 43 A.D.!
Though the world has changed in two thousand years, and chicken breeds have evolved to meet modern productivity demands, the Sussexes stand the test of time. Known for tender meat, good egg production, companionship, and adaptability, these pretty poultry are ideal for almost any homestead.
Their only notable drawback is that this chatty breed likes to tell tales of their proud history to anyone who will listen. As such, they may not be well-suited for quiet communities.
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The exact origin of the Sussex chicken is hard to trace. However, like the Dorkings, the earliest landrace lineage of this breed is likely ancient. In modern times, this beautiful bird made its exhibition debut at a poultry show at the London Zoo in 1845. There it was referred to as the Old Sussex or Kent Fowl.
Despite its long history, this breed was left out of the first edition of the Standard of Excellence in Exhibition Poultry of William Bernhardt Tegetmeier in 1865. Then, in 1902 the Sussex was formally accepted in the U.K., for light, red, and speckled color variations.
Today, eight color varieties have been accepted in the U.K. for both full and bantam size classes. Those later added colors include brown, buff, silver, white, and coronation.
The Sussex in America
Several years after its debut on its home country breed standard list, the Sussex breed was also accepted by the American Poultry Association (APA). The original three colors of light, red, and speckled were listed as acceptable color varieties. Bantams of the same colors are also accepted.
At present, the other five colors have not been added to the APA standards. Additionally, only the Speckled Sussex is easy to find. However, if you’re willing to scour poultry forums or breeder lists, you can find other Sussex color variations in full and bantam sizes.
Sussex Breed Characteristics
Sussexes are notable for their deep broad body, close fitting feathers, and their tail angled 45° from the body. They also have white skin, shanks, and feet. They are a dual-purpose breed used for meat and egg production.
Beyond these similarities, Sussex chickens have a checkered past when it comes to the maintenance of breed lines. Until the early 1900’s, they were mainly a landrace with different adaptations that varied from farm to farm.
Common traits likely included fast growth rates, white flesh, and tender texture. They were also excellent foragers with friendly manners towards keepers. They were good at putting on fat since that was a highly desirable quality until just a few decades ago.
In the late 1800’s, the Brahmas, Javas, and Cochins arrived from ports in Asia. That kicked off the chicken craze. The intermixing of new arrivals generated new breeds like the Orpingtons. It also launched a host of new color variations among the classic favorites.
In the process of making old breeds relevant in the new age of ornamental chickens, some of the original Sussex utility was lost in translation. The meat became less tender as ornamental features like distinctive feathering were favored. The pre-Asian chicken landrace Sussexes of ancient renown were nearly lost forever.
In 1903 a rousing speech, given by a poultry writer named Edward Brown, inspired efforts to save local landraces. A poultry person named E.J. Wadman formed a club for Sussex chickens. Farmers worked together to find older strains of the chickens bred in Sussex.
For a brief moment, the Sussex had another heyday, at least in England. Then, the age of factory farmed chickens began. Industrially farmed hybrid chickens surpassed the Sussex and the Jersey Giants as the broilers of choice.
After that, Sussex lines were only maintained in small numbers. At present, the breed is enjoying another revival in backyards and on small homesteads everywhere.
To give these old-world breeds greater utility, breeders have improved egg production. Some strains of Sussex chickens can lay between 200-250 eggs per year.
Despite some loss of meat tenderness over time, this breed is still a delicate, delicious meat production option. Even older hens and roosters remain semi-tender, not stringy, due to their good fat content.
That’s good news, too, because you will probably need to process extra cockerels or unruly roosters if you bring home this breed. Sexing at birth is only about 70% accurate. Plus, Sussex chicks are often sold only as straight run (unsexed). Also, some of the roosters do turn aggressive as they mature.
Processing can begin at about 4 months. However, Sussex chickens are good eating with careful cooking at just about any age.
Like the Orpingtons, the color variations found in the Sussex chickens aren’t the result of naturally occurring color variations. They come from crossing the original Sussex with other breeds to create new colors while retaining certain Sussex qualities.
This approach leads to wider variances in attributes like flavor, texture, egg production, and personality depending on feather color. For example, the buff Sussexes may have been crossed with Cochins. They may be more prone to weight gain and reduced egg production. They may be less well-suited for pasture than the speckled or red Sussexes.
Following are a few basic color details to get you started. But make sure to check with the breeder for details about utility and disposition.
- The light Sussex is white with black coloring on the neck area. It’s similar in appearance to the Delawares. However, the light Sussex do not have black and white barring on their tail feathers.
- The coronation Sussex is nearly identical to the light Sussex. However, instead of black feathers on their neck and tail, they have the slate gray or lavender colored feathers that breed true.
- The buffs have buff-colored bodies and black feathers around their neck areas. They were most likely bred to resemble buff Cochins or Orpingtons for ornamental utility.
- The silver Sussex has primarily black feathers on the body with white to gray feather coloring around the neck and some gray speckling on the body.
- Browns are hard to find but tend to be ae dark, reddish brown with darker neck and head feathers.
- Reds have similar coloring to Rhode Island reds with hints of the black feather patterning on their necks.
The Speckled Sussex
The Speckled Sussex has become an American favorite for good reason. They’re beautiful birds that stand out from a crowd, even when the crowd is full of other stunning heritage breeds.
Against the rich mahogany of the Speckled Sussex feathers, the daubs of white, rimmed with black seem painted on. Their exact patterning changes with each molt. The density of white increases each time they renew their feathers, making the mature matrons of your flock the most striking beauties.
Full-Size and Bantams
Sussex chickens also come in full size and bantam versions.
How much do Sussex chickens weigh?
- Pullets: 6 lbs.
- Hens: 7 lbs.
- Cockerels: 7.5 lbs.
- Cocks: 9 lbs.
How much do Bantam Sussexes weigh?
- Pullets: 28 oz.
- Hens: 30 oz.
- Cockerels: 32 oz.
- Roosters: 36 oz.
Sussex Chicken Temperament
Many people consider this breed docile, but I think it depends on how you raise them. They can be docile if you handle them regularly after hatching. But they can also be fierce, predator-aware, and outstanding wild foragers in a free-range situation if left less coddled. In fact, Sussex chickens seem to adapt and do well in just about every environment.
They stay healthy in confinement. They’re attentive pets that will follow you through the garden or out to free-range on a suburban lawn. They’re also resourceful, independent foragers who do well on open-range pasture. They’re good with children. Yet, they can also be watchful in woodlands and territorial.
Overall, I’d rate them adaptable and intelligent rather than docile.
Caring for Sussex Chickens
Sussex chickens are a hardy breed with broad utility. Once they reach mature size, keep the food bowl filled and water freshened, and they will do the rest themselves.
As chicks and juvenile chickens though, their natural curiosity and eagerness to learn about their surroundings can get them into a little trouble. Since they aren’t natural homebodies, even when young, make sure to set clear boundaries for where they can’t go with good fencing.
Overall Sussex chickens are both cold and heat hardy if they have sufficient winter shelter and summer shade. However, large-combed specimens will require extra protection to prevent frostbite damage in winter.
Though the Sussex can tolerate quite a bit of cold, they aren’t good winter layers. I’ve also had several molt so late in the season that they needed cold protection until they feathered again. Deep litter to bed down in and access to nest boxes for sleeping got them through.
Sussex chickens aren’t at the top of the predator resistant breed list. But they do have good natural predator awareness and the instincts to avoid dangerous situations. They will require some protection on pasture during the day. They’ll also definitely need overnight protection in any setting.
In terms of roosting, this breed doesn’t seem to need a particular style of roost. But they do appreciate a variety of roosting options so they can pick spots away from conflict.
They’re also likely to be first off the roost in the morning. Give them a place to wait near the door that’s not in the drop zone if possible.
Sussex roosters can range from docile to aggressive and sharp to dull on the intelligence scale. Be prepared to cull any that don’t meet your needs.
Sussex hens tend to be submissive to rooster attentions. In both confinement and on pasture, a 1 rooster to 10 hen ratio is sufficient. It’s also better not to keep them confined with roosters with above-average libidos or their natural submissiveness can lead to health challenges.
Sussex hens are noted for going broody. In my experience, it’s more common in older hens. Also, an isolated nesting location, will make them more likely to stay the course for 21 days of incubation.
As previously mentioned, Sussexes are sweet talkers. They prattle on while laying, roosting, nesting, and foraging. They announce arrivals, departures, and any bit of gossip like an egg laid or inter-flock conflicts. The volume of the general chatter isn’t particularly loud. But it’s constancy can be an issue.
The roosters can be more frequent in their crowing too. They also seem to have a few more vocal variations than other crowing crooners.
Pros and Cons of Raising Sussexes
Here’s a quick run down of the pros and cons of keeping Sussex chickens.
- Terrific all-around breed
- Very adaptable
- Long history of usefulness
- Hard to find color varieties
- Noisier than average
- Culling unwanted males is common
From my perspective, if you like chicken company, I highly recommend keeping a few Sussex chickens in your mixed flock. But if you are squeamish about processing, pick breeds that are easier to sex at hatching or buy started pullets.
Sussex Chicken FAQs
There are a few more things you might find interesting about Sussex chickens.
Why is the Coronation Color so Scandalous?
The coronation color on the Sussexes was created specifically to commemorate the coronation of Edward VIII to the British throne. However, that coronation never took place. Edward was forced to abdicate the throne to marry an American socialite and two-time divorcee for love.
Edward’s kingship was short. But his marriage lasted the rest of his life. Likewise, the coronation-colored Sussex only enjoyed a short period of popularity following the failed event. Today, a revival in interest in this beautiful color may be underway.
Wouldn’t it be fun to bring home an ancient British breed in a color tinged by American scandal?
Are Sussex Chickens Prone to Being Bullied?
In my research, I found many reports that Sussexes are low on the pecking order. None of my Sussexes fit that description. They’re front and center for food, leading the charge to pasture, and early to roost to pick the prime spot for an early morning exit.
Given their evolution from landrace farm birds to backyard beauties, I suspect that their pecking order attributes probably differ among lineages. Also, the amount of rooster attention they receive may influence whether they are fit enough to avoid being hen-pecked.
Bringing Home Living History
In this fast-paced world of constant change, connecting to the long and storied histories of heritage breeds reminds us that some things do stand the test of time. Sussex chickens certainly do. This ancient breed, rejuvenated with modern dual utility, is the perfect poultry for almost any flock where chicken chatter is appreciated.
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