by Joan Smedinghoff
October 06, 2017
A hen watches over two Java chicks it adopted at the Accokeek Foundation in Piscataway Park in Charles County, Md., on Sept. 20, 2017. The Accokeek Foundation raises heritage breed animals as part of preserving the experience of a typical 18th century farm.
The Java chicken is what is known as a “heritage breed,” a term for traditional livestock that were raised by farmers before changing practices led to the rise of a few, specialized breeds. The Java is the second oldest breed of chicken developed in the Americas, coming into existence sometime between 1830 and 1850. It was raised both for its eggs and its meat, and the birds do particularly well when given free range.
Heritage livestock were bred by farmers for traits that would make them self-sufficient and suitable for their local environment and circumstances. For chickens, this meant that scores of breeds were developed that included a mixture of traits including fertility, foraging, longevity, maternal instincts and resistance to disease.
Over time, due to the changes in farming practices, a few species have risen to prominence that exemplify traits such as rapid growth, feed efficiency, or continuous egg production. This has led to concerns that the genetic diversity and cultural history that heritage breeds provide will disappear as they are overlooked in favor of the favored faster-growing breeds. In fact, the Livestock Conservancy identified 11 of 53 heritage chicken breeds as “critical,” meaning that there are fewer than 500 breeding pairs in the United States, and an estimated global population of less than 1,000.
The Accokeek Foundation is working to preserve that history by raising heritage species at Piscataway Park. Along with heritage chickens, they raise milking Devon cattle, Hog Island sheep and Ossabaw hogs.
Learn more about the Accokeek Foundation’s work with heritage breed livestock conservation.