SPPA on La Fleche
4 articles reproduced with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 1999, 4(4)
Costa del Sol, SPAIN
A book which my grandfather left to me was a copy of Lewis Wright's Illustrated Book of Poultry, published in 1890. It is one of the books I use whenever I need to find out more information on the older breeds of poultry. When I looked up La Fleche, I found a full page colour illustration of a beautiful pair of these birds owned by the Hon. C.W.C. Fitzwilliam which took first prize at Wolverhampton and second prize at Birmingham and Bristol in 1871. The illustration shows very clearly the glossy black feathers of the breed and the main feature which distinguishes it from other breds -- the strange pointed comb. The name La Fleche is French and translates as The Arrow, as the comb does resemble the head of an arrow, giving the bird a horned appearance which makes it very distinctive. It was never one of the popular breeds in Britain, and is on the lists of the Rare Poultry Society, where it is considered to be currently very rare.
Lewis Wright thought that the bird must have come originally from Spain, describing it as "high and rather gaunt looking, the whole frame and the character of the plumage denoting, evidently, a preponderating portion of Spanish blood." He goes on to say how much the French appreciated the bird for eating, but points out that it would be despised by English poultry processors on account of the black legs. Even today this is true of British taste, where poultry with white legs is much preferred for table. Lewis Wright ends his account of the breed by saying that, sadly "we have had some difficulty in framing a standard from actual results."
The current British Standards manages to give more details, giving the origin of the bird as French and related to the Crevecoeur, and saying that in the middle of the nineteenth century the breed was used to produce white skinned petit poussin for the Paris market. The carriage of the breed is bold and upstanding, with the wings being large and powerful, the breast full and prominent and the tail moderate in size. The general appearance of the head is described in the Standards as being "long, slightly coarse and cruel." The beak is large and strong with cavernous nostrils, and the comb a double spike standing nearly upright with very small spikes in front.
Females are very similar to the males and are equally as striking, with both sexes having very glossy black feathers with bright green reflections, black beaks, bright, brilliant white ear lobes, bright red eyes and legs and feet either very dark slate colour or leaden black. The breed can be found in both Large Fowl and Bantam, and in the large version the weight of the male is around 8 to 9 lbs. (3.60 to 4.10 kg) with the female weighing around 6 to 7 lbs. (2.70 to 3.20 kg). In the bantam version, the standard is exactly the same as for the large fowl, but the male weighs only 36 ozs. (1020 g) and the female is 28 ozs. (790 g).
In the 1930s there were several sets of cigarette cards which were produced in Britain showing poultry. These small cards are now collectors' items, but were at that time the pieces of card used to stiffen paper packets of cigarettes. Manufacturers discovered that if they put a colour picture on the front of the card and a short piece of information on the reverse of it, smokers would buy more cigarettes to collect the full set of thirty odd cards in each set. One series depicting poultry was brought out by the Anglian Mixture Tobacco Company and this series was recently reproduced (see illustration above). There are 48 cards in the set, and number 29 shows a splendid trio of La Fleche. The reverse of the card describes the bird as entirely black and strongly resembling the Minorca, with fine white flesh, with its name of The Arrow due to its peculiar pointed comb. The piece ends by saying that the hens are good summer layers but non-sitters.
That the bird was included in a set of 48 cards shows that it must have been more popular then, and it is to be hoped that these very decorative birds do not disappear entirely. I was delighted to be asked by Ed Hart for any information I had on this interesting breed, and I hope that the small amount of details I am able to pass on has been helpful.
LaFleche, A Challenging Show-Off
I have raised or kept LaFleche for fifteen years. I highly recommend them to any dedicated breeder who wants a challenge. The LaFleche has a rich history and is truly an antique breed. A correspondent recently traveled to France where LaFleche apparently has a breed club and is still being shown. I've not been able to contact the club, but I'll continue trying. The LaFleche is a ranging bird, partly due to its development as a range fowl in the lush La Sarthe valleys. It is believed that LaFleche was developed from Spanish, Crevecouers and DuMans. They lay an abundance of good sized chalk white eggs and are for the most part non-sitters. The breed has had the introduction of Minorca blood in recent history to regain size and vigor. This has led to some major comb problems but has helped keep the breed alive. Modern LaFleche are more prone to diseases than other fowl because of extreme inbreeding during the last twenty years. Several breeders are working on them and the breed does seem to be making a rebound lately.
I believe that LaFleche are better suited to the outdoors and free range rather than being penned. They are more flighty than most of the other French breeds, more like a Hamburg, but I find that are more easily tamed than Hamburgs! My wife calls them the devil birds with their unique comb not having the crest of most V-combed breeds. A flock presents a memorable sight scratching about the yard and roosters are quite the show-offs, really strutting their stuff when given the chance. Dedicated enthusiasts should give them a trial. There are few breeds that have the stature and character of LaFleche.
Thirty Years With LaFleche
I have raised LaFleche for many years, beginning somewhere during the late 1960s. I believe my original stock came from Henry Miller of Blue Stream Farm in Lebabon, PA. In my experience, LaFleche are good layers of fairly large white eggs. My birds have never been crossed with Black Minorcas or anything else. In my breeding pens I use two or three males, always selected for largest and best looking V combs.
La Fleche: The Old Horned Breed
The breed La Fleche takes its present name from the French town of La Fleche. The breed may actually have originated at Mans, but by the 1800s, production was centered around La Fleche. It is generally believed that the breed represents a combination of Crevecoeur and/or Polish with Spanish stock.
This is a fairly unique breed in the English speaking world. While other clean headed, horned breeds existed in Europe and were imported to the U.S. from time to time, only the La Fleche has been recognized by the A.P.A. Historically, the breed was noted as a competitive layer and was once esteemed in France as a top notch table fowl. Despite attracting some dedicated fanciers both in England and America it never became an important production fowl in either country. In that respect, Crevecoeurs, Houdans, and Faverolles were all more successful. There are two somewhat related factors that probably explain this. First of all, despite its popularity at home in France, the La Fleche never produced a carcass well suited to the biases of either the British or American markets. Secondly, the French had not historically bred the La Fleche to a rigid standard. The first English importation included fowl with small crests and tassels as well as clean headed individuals. This kind of varition was not in line with the English view of what was proper in a single variety. As a result, English fanciers used fowl from the Spanish group for crossing with the La Fleche to insure a smooth head, to perfect the white ear lobes and to counteract foreign color. (Red in the hackles and saddles and white in the wings and tails were common faults particularly among males.) The crosses tended to reduce size and competitiveness as a dual purpose fowl. Like many firm fleshed larger fowl, the La Fleche is slow to mature, further handicapping its competitiveness as a layer and a market bird.
Most American imports of La Fleche were from England. American fanciers made additional use of Spanish blood (mostly Minorca) to perfect type and, in recent years, simply as an outcross.
Perhaps because it never obtained great popularity, the La Fleche's history has always been little known in the English speaking world. Sometimes its date of origin is given as the 1850s. Fowls of this type are actually much older. Even in France the Horned Fowl's history is clouded, as with so many relatively ancient breeds, by the historic use of numerous names for the same bird. In this case not only La Fleche, but also Bresse, Caux, Mans, and Mizeray. Some of these names now denote entirely different breeds. Old histories date fowl of this type to the 1400s, but the actual date of origin La Fleche could be much earlier. The early stock certainly was fixed in terms of color. Writing in 1580, Prudens Choiselat suggested that the blacks, reds, and fawns were the best. Very likely the French settled on black during the last century for the same reason that governed American markets during the same period: black fowl commanded premium prices. There is some indication that Americans followed the French lead in the matter.
The La Fleche is a fowl that deserves a corp of dedicated breeders. Its unique appearance could make it a favorite in the show room, and it could be a practical backyard fowl. Those who take up the La Fleche should select glossy greenish black breeders with prominent combs having erect nicely rounded points. Look for strong, well spaced, rangy legs, broad shoulders, full breasts, and long broad backs that slope downward from shoulder to tail.
Victor Corson, who raised La Fleche in the 1960s, reported that from time to time his birds produced a youngster with a tassel or small crest. I recently read in the Poultry Press that the French standard requires a crest. Bruce Lentz claimed that the French variety had a small crest or tassel, although I observed very large clean headed La Fleche in a fancier's yard near Strosburg in 1971. It is possible these birds were from English stock. Some English Marans are now raised in France, so why not English La Fleche, too? Although they may no longer survive, at one time La Fleche existed in blue and white strains. La Fleche bantams have also been developed. (Photo above from Old Poultry Breeds, F. Hams, Shire Publications Ltd., 1978.)
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