These excellent notes on the origins and history of The Marans breed are included with the permission of David Hancox (co-author of The Genetics of Chicken Colours)
The Origins of the Marans
What did this landrace hen, which originated in the swampy farm country near Marans and La Rochelle look like before being crossed with non-local fowl? We will probably never know. These farmyard fowl had very little selection, and this ‘swamp’ hen didn't really receive any particular care.
The first out crosses
In the 12th century, with her marriage to Henri of Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou, who became Henri II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine brought to England a dowry consisting of a part of South-west France: Poitou, Paintonge, Aunis, Perigord and Limousin.
This English domination lasted two centuries. English ships often stopped over at La Rochelle (near Marans) and unloaded gamecocks, which had survived the cockfight, at that time highly prized by sailers to cheer up their sea isolation. In return, poultry, which furnished fresh food and eggs, were taken on board the ships.
The gamecocks were naturally crossed with local landrace hens. The products born of these crossings had a more stocky figure and laid darker coloured eggs. The fighting cocks, of many varied colours, are the origin of various present Marans varieties and are responsible for the proud bearing, heavy figure and of the sometimes quarrelsome character of the cocks, they would have more game characteristics if it were not for the original hens.
Old English Game
Other French breeds that played a part in the development of the Marans included the feather legged Cocou de Malines including the pea combed ‘turkey head’, the clean legged Cocou de Rennes, & the Gatinese.
Introduction of the Asian breeds
The second half of the 19th century was a decisive time for the evolution of the French Marans breed often linked to the introduction of the Brahma and Langhans. Brahma Croad Langshan
Mr Geoffrey Saint Hilaire and Mr Foucault imported some Croad Langshans.
Mr Louis Rouille, famous amateur breeder, was fascinated by an Asian breed that didn't possess yellow feet, whose fleshing qualities weren't negligible, and laid nice highly coloured eggs. Louis Rouille farmed a lot of Langhans hens in Fouras, situated at 12.43 miles south from La Rochelle. These birds spread in the area and it was by this way that the second crossing processes of the Marans took place.
From that moment on, the main characteristic of the breed was set - big red eggs.
It was not the same however for the totally heterogenous plumage colours dating back from the ancestral origins of very numerous game varieties.
Early French Developments
The first Marans presentations
In 1914, at the national exhibition in La Rochelle, took place the first presentation of this poultry under the name of "a country hen".
In 1921, Mrs Rouse from Ille d'Elbe seriously selected the future Marans for the size and the colour of its egg.
In 1928, in order to make its plumage a little bit uniform, Mrs Rousseau showed in La Rochelle a pen of homogenous Cuckoo variety hens and their big extra reddish-brown eggs.
Fortunately for the future of Marans, the editor of the "Aviculteur Français" ("French poultry farmer"), Mr Paul Waroquiez, visited this exhibition and was very interested in the unknown producers of such nice eggs. He published, in this respect, some articles in this magazine notably on July 1st 1929 on the "Maransdaise" breed origin.
In 1929, in order to protect the breed qualities, a "Marans" section was created within the Aunis Saintonge poultry farmer society, and the Marans hen was accepted at the local poultry exhibitions.
Mr Waroquiez suggested the creation of a club. The Marans Club Français presided over by Mr Bouyer, and it was created in September 1929.
In 1930, the Marans was presented at the exhibition in Liege, Paris, Lyon and Lille. During this same year, the standard commission made up of Professor Sebileau, Mr Waroquiez, Mr Sangalli and Mr Mace, visited about hundred farms that raised Marans fowl.
From these observations a standard, which called for a feathered shanked bird, was produced. A committee gathered at the Aulnoie Manor studied this at the end of 1930. The Standard was defined by the commission of April 2nd 1931, & was published in various poultry farming magazines, the Général Assembly ratified it on November 22nd 1931 and it was noted down in the SCAF catalogue.
From that moment on, the Marans breed spread almost over France and especially in the Nord Pas de Calais department, which sent eggs in England, and in the Seine, & Oise regions.
Here are some facts concerning the Marans representation at this time during the Paris exhibition :
In 1931 : 16 trios , 16 class entries, 8 exhibitors,
3 varieties : Silver Cuckoo, White and Black Copper-neck.
In 1932 : 10 trios , 43 class entries, 9 exhibitors,
6 varieties : White, Ermine, Golden Cuckoo, Silver Cuckoo, Red, Black Copper-neck.
In 1933 : 9 trios, 51 class enteries, all the varieties were exhibited.
The decline of the Marans in France
From 1934, the Marans were in decline.
In 1936, in the Paris exhibition there were only 2 trios, 11 class entries, and 2 exhibitors.
During the Second World War, the Germans occupied the Marans area and, due to restrictions on movements, farming was almost reduced to nothing, marketing was impossible.
In 1946, just after the war, the situation of the Marans in its birthplace was the same as it had been in 1929.
In 1950, a cooperative poultry-farming centre for the Marans breed was created in Lagord, in order to try to remedy the situation. (Faubourg of La Rochelle) with the Marans club, the SCAF and the regional poultry farming organizations. This centre was then moved to Dompierre sur Mer (commune of Belle Croix) near La Rochelle. It functioned under the direction of the Departmental of Agricultural Services. It practised selection by a hatched-nest system, birth records by individual pedigree, & the systematic study of the genetic factors. It furnished eggs for settings, and chicks to the agricultual cooperative members.
In the first year of selection, the egg average was of 168 eggs per hen.
In 1952, it nearly reached 200 eggs.
In 1953, the centre possessed 150 Silver-cuckoo Marans and 150 White Marans hens.
In 1954, the projects to have between 500 & 1000 birds but this target never come into being. The centre, which was at the time managed by a person who found more advantages in farming ordinary commercial chicks than in Marans, collapsed.
Chronicles of 1960 – 1970...
In spite of the setbacks met the 50’s and the 60’s, the research and the selection of the Marans were continued thanks to the MCF president, Mr Bachelier. So he took on Mr Priouzeau, in Marans, who selectedion and setting activities went on the two following decades.
With an impeccable constitution, a good conformation and laying more than 200 eggs a year, the Silver-Cuckoo Marans had already started to lose the darker eggs that were characteristic of its ancestors.
… a decline aspect
This period foreshadowed the Silver-Cuckoo Marans decline.
The productivity was going to destroy the unquestionable qualities of the Marans on the one hand, because there is a certain negative relationship between the produced egg quality by a given age flock and the shell colour, (as Bernard Sauveur from the NIRA said), and on the other hand, because the natural possibility of the Marans to lay very big eggs represents a certain handicap for an excellent hatching.
It was also at this time that in France a lot of industrialists widely used the Marans hens to produce foundation birds for sex linked crossbreds, tending to make people forget this bird as a pure bred hen.
About 1970, a supply of Russian hens having a phenotype close to the Black Copper-neck Marans contributed to improve size in this variety but unfortunately it was at the expense of the egg, and shank color. The birds, which were born of these crossings, had to be eliminated.
Fortunately, some amateurs carried on, in obscurity, taking an interest in the Marans and especially of the Black Copper-neck Marans, which has already had the reputation of laying the darker eggs.
The fancy that was born for the Black Copper-neck Marans went on but the vagueness of the Standard, notably in the description of the plumage, represented quite a handicap. Some farmers even specialized in the production of exhibition subjects, developing both separate cockerel and pullet breeding lines. Others accepted the extreme heterogeneousness of the types and plumage as a fatality. They solely dedicated themselves to the extra reddish-brown egg production, and thus ignoring all the improvements of the type characteristics of the Marans.
We have to wait until the 1990s that the breed, supported by a hundred or so of selector farmers spread all over France and Belgium, guided by the work of a renewed practice of the MCF. In 2000, the MCF was made up of more than 400 members and delivered more than 12000 official rings to its farmers.