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Eat it to Save it


October 30, 2009
By Andy Blatchford The Canadian Press

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For several years, a small group of poultry enthusiasts has been pushing to save an authentic Canadian chicken from extinction.

For several years, a small group of poultry enthusiasts has been pushing to save an authentic Canadian chicken from extinction.

They finally cooked up a plan to save the rare breed of barnyard fowl from oblivion – and it involves tossing thousands of them on the barbecue.

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The Chantecler chicken, a bird once believed to be extinct, remains alive, but only around 2,000 of them are thought to be in existence and the majority of them are in Quebec.

The province now plans to ensure the breed's continued survival- by marketing it for the dinner plate.

Three organizations representing Quebec's egg and poultry producers recently signed an agreement to allow limited commercial production of the Chantecler.

"The only way to save the breed is to eat it," Fred Silversides, a poultry research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said from his office in Agassiz, B.C.

Silversides mapped out the breeding plan that will preserve the Chantecler's gene pool and create business opportunities for producers.

"Any breed, of any species, if you're using it, then the population is strong and stable,'' he said.

In 1908, Brother Wilfrid, a monk from Oka, Que., began to carefully crossbreed several chicken races to create a Canuck clucker that could withstand this country's harsh winters.

By 1921, the Chantecler, designed to produce meat and eggs, was officially declared a new breed by the American Poultry Association. The organization lists it among 53 types of chickens from around the world in its large-breed class.

Chantecler producers say the hearty, white birds have lived up to their billing as the chicken best-suited to thrive in the Great White North.

The red, fleshy appendages on the Chantecler's head _ also known as combs and wattles -are small, making them frostbite resistant.

Brother Wilfrid's birds soon became cultural symbols in Quebec, where they were designated as a heritage animal in 1999.

"It's a traditional race that at one time was part of our culture, of our heritage,'' said Andre Auclair, whose farm in St-Paulin, Que., is home to about five per cent of the world's Chantecler population _ or about 100 chickens.

Auclair, director of Quebec's federation of producers of heritage breeds, estimates there are fewer than 1,500 Chanteclers across Canada, and only about 2,000 in the world.

"It's on the brink of extinction," he said in an interview from his home northeast of Montreal.

He said the Chantecler served as a good commercial bird until the poultry industry created today's "high performance hybrids,'" which grow fast and pump out eggs at a dizzying rate.

Eventually, Brother Wilfrid's slower-growing creatures were no longer commercially viable.

But Auclair predicts the Chantecler, which he says has more flavour than most broilers, will sell in a specialized market.

On Sept. 25, Quebec's poultry and egg producers agreed to take the necessary legal steps to allow 10 farms to raise Chantecler flocks, each comprising 150 hens and 15 roosters.

Greg Oakes, who has been raising Chanteclers at his farm near Guelph, Ont., for more than 25 years, hopes the deal will trigger a similar initiative in Ontario, as well as other provinces.

He said the fowl would make ideal commercial poultry, especially compared with the mass-produced kind that are ready for the supermarket less than two months after they hatch.

"They're not raised at such a speed that they're prone to these health issues – they're not going to keel over and have a heart attack," said Oakes, who also serves as chair of Rare Breeds Canada, a group that works to conserve scarce breeds of heritage farm animals.

"Because they haven't been in cages for, like 30 years, they haven't had their natural instincts bred out of them.

"They still know how to be a chicken."

Silversides was introduced to the Chantecler in the 1970s by one of his university professors while he studied in Saskatchewan.

"He thought that the Chantecler was extinct," Silversides recalled.

"He actually had a stuffed Chantecler – that he claimed to be the last Chantecler – in his office."

Some 20 years later, when Silversides himself was a professor at Universite Laval in Quebec City, he started hearing stories about the iconic chicken.

"And it really appeared that maybe they weren't extinct after all," he said.

They weren't.

For 80 years, about a dozen farmers around Quebec had been quietly raising tiny flocks of the birds, striving to preserve the bloodlines.

Over that time, Silversides said the breed went through 30 to 50 generations of natural selection, making the race even more distinct.

"These people are committed to the cultural aspects and the rare breed aspects," Silversides said.

"It is special – it's a Canadian thing, as well."


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