The Asil

Sheila Holligon
Costa del Sol, Spain

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2001, 6(2):5

The Asil, or Aseel as it is sometimes spelled, is one of the oldest known breeds of game bird. Of all the birds we kept during our years in England, the Asil remains one of Cliff's favourites. Bred in India for over two thousand years for its fighting qualities, its very name means "of long pedigree" in Arabic. It was bred in its native land to fight, not with spurs attached, but only with its own natural spurs and high courage. This way of fighting produced a very muscular and powerful bird with a strong beak, which the Asil still is today, even though in Britain, cock fighting has been banned many years. We have had conflicting answers as to whether it is still legal here in Spain. The whole subject of cock fighting is a very motive one, and the problem is that too many people associate the breed of fighting cocks with the actual fighting. The breeds themselves are some of the oldest and rarest and deserve to be preserved as much as the non-fighting varieties. We kept many breeds of poultry which in the old days were used for cock fighting and we had no desire whatsoever to fight them, but we got a great deal of pleasure out of what are some of our most interesting breeds.

Given a mark of high esteem in India, the Asil was valued and treasured so much that their breeding line remained totally pure and it was in this pure form that they came into Britain through trading links. Their status nowadays is sadly less than its original purity. Two Asil cocks were given as a gift to Charles II of England and he kept them to fight.

The word "fight" is one which comes readily to the mind of anyone who has kept Asils. They practically come out of the egg fighting, and youngsters will be seen sparring up to one another at a tender age when other chicks are still cheeping and looking cute. And this is no juvenile fight over who has the biggest worm, this is a fight to the death if you donŐt stop it. Keeping as many as two hens with one cock is fraught with trauma as the hens are equally pugnacious. So this is definitely not one for the novice breeder to consider. If you have some experience of game birds and want to try the Asil, then you need space for them, enough to keep them well away from other birds and also from each other. We kept ours in England on a stretch of river bank in a little strip of woodland, and they thrived very well there, ignoring the houses we put out for them and preferring to roost at the top of trees.

In his Illustrated Book of Poultry, published in Britain in 1890, Lewis Wright says of the breed that "We have never handled any fowls which weighed apparently so heavy, and whose muscles felt so amazingly hard, as we have found in good Asils. There was a special Asil Club formed at one time, but in spite of this, we have noticed that the variety usually has less than a dozen possessors. The fact is that the breed is the most quarrelsome known, as well as most courageous. It is difficult to keep even two hens with one cock, and as eggs are exceedingly rare likewise, there are obvious practical difficulties in breeding them. We have noticed, in fact, that Asils are rather apt to be given away every now and then! Nevertheless they have staunch admirers and may be recommended to such as seek fowl which, at all events, never becomes common."

We never showed any of our Asils, because the idea of taking one of these pearl eyed, muscular birds to a show and letting him lose on some unsuspecting judge was never possible, even if we could have actually caught one and got it inside a travelling box. We much preferred having them in a happy feral state in the wood, where even the cats went very carefully. The hens make wonderful mothers as they are very protective of the chicks, none of the other poultry ever dared approach a mother Asil with chicks.

The American poultry standard states that "both males and females are possessed with an aggressive disposition and generally are regarded as trouble makers when maintained in close confinement. Asils are very vigorous and tenacious survivors." The breed has no fixed colours in the British standards, the main colours seen today being light red and dark red with grouse coloured and red wheaten females. Blacks, whites, greys, piles and duckwings have also been seen. Again, there is no fixed colour for beak or legs, although the comb, face, jaw and throat are red. The beak is usually yellow or ivory coloured and the legs willow, white or dark olive. The male weighs around 4 to 6 pounds (1.80 to 2.70 kg) and the hen 3 to 5 pounds (1.35 to 2.25 kg). There is also an Asil bantam, which should be the exact miniature of the large fowl with the male weighing around 40 ounces (1130 g) and the female weighing 32 ounces (910 g).

The Asil is a breed which was rare when Louis Wright wrote of it in 1890, and it is rare today. Anyone who is interested in the Asian hardfeather breeds should contact Julia Keeling in the UK. She works very, very hard to promote and preserve these game birds and is now the Secretary of a newly formed Asian Hardfeather Club, a Club which has taken these breeds off the lists of the Rare Poultry Society in the UK which was previously looking after them. The address to write to is as follows: Julia Keeling, Secretary, Asian Hardfeather Club, Ballasee, Staarvey Road, German, Isle of Man, IM5 2AJ UK. Whether we will manage to get any Asils out here in Spain is doubtful, but nothing would give Cliff more pleasure than to breed them again.



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