Janice Houghton-Wallace looks at this rare British breed.

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The Old English Pheasant Fowl (OEPF) is a British breed originating from the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire. It is a very old breed with documentation dating back to the early 1700s, which makes it one of the oldest native breeds. Throughout history it was given various names including Yorkshire Pheasant Fowl, Golden Pheasant, Copper Moss and Old Fashioned Pheasant.

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Photo: oldhallrarebreeds.co.uk

The name is somewhat misleading because it is not a pheasant but the striking spangled plumage is reminiscent of the gamebird.

History

The breed was given its current name in 1914 and soon after a breed club was formed.  Some Northern breeders continued to use the name of Yorkshire Pheasant Fowl until eventually it was known and standardised as the Old English Pheasant Fowl. It was bred as a revival of the original Gold Spangled Yorkshire Pheasant Fowl and Lancashire Money Fowl. Both these breeds were centuries old but over the years with their exhibition points being considered first and foremost the utility qualities had all but disappeared.

Along with other now less known breeds such as Bolton Greys, Bays and Moonies, the OEPF was one of the first to be shown at village poultry shows in the early nineteenth century. These early shows were held in local Inns and were really restricted to those within horse riding distance. The poultry shows were held before the abolition of cock fighting in 1849 but were a display of the entered birds breed qualities. Only the females were shown as the male birds were considered to be too ugly and unrefined. Prizes at poultry shows in those days were not money but useful household items with the exhibitor of the winning championship bird often receiving a copper kettle.

It is down to the dedication of a few enthusiastic breeders that the OEPF as a productive utility bird survived at all. Determined not to lose this old Northern breed they scoured remote farms in the North in an attempt to find surviving flocks of the old utility type in order to revive it.

The OEPF was then widely kept in Yorkshire, County Durham, Cumberland and Westmorland (now parts of Cumbria) by cottagers, smallholders and farmers who found that it was hardy and thrived in the bleak hill areas of the North.

The height of the breed’s popularity was between WW1 and WW2 when poultry keepers around the UK became interested in the OEPF. It was even bred commercially, appearing in Egg Laying Trials where it gained respect through creditable scores.  

By the time WW2 was over other traditional breeds had won poultry keepers over and numbers of the OEPF fell sharply into decline. The fall in numbers also resulted in the demise of the OEPF Club. Annie Whitehead of Kelleth in Westmorland persisted with the OEPF and continued to breed them commercially until the early 1970s.

When the Rare Poultry Society (RPS) was formed in 1969 the OEPF was again covered and the Rare Breed Survival Trust has it on its 2014 Watch List as being “at risk”.

Characteristics

The OEPF is very alert and active. The body is long and deep with prominent shoulders. The tail of the male is set well back and flowing. The head has a rose comb that tapers to a single leader (or spike) at the back, which curves gracefully downwards following the neckline but not touching it.

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Photo: Ian and Liz Allonby

The female characteristics are similar to the male except that her tail is moderately whipped (blunted), rather than flowing.

There are two colours of OEPF, the Gold and the Silver. However, the Silver has been unknown for a very long time. The plumage of the Gold male is a bright rich bay with a darker back. The breast is laced and the hackles striped and tipped with black. The shiny black tail has a beetle green sheen. The comb, face and wattles are bright red in both sexes and the ear-lobes are white.  Legs and feet are a slate-blue.

The female plumage is also a rich bright bay. Down the neck every feather has a heavy black stripe down the centre of each feather. The tail is a beetle green black sheen with a slight edging of bay from the base along the upper edge of the tail. The remainder of each feather is tipped with a crescent-shaped beetle green black spangle.  

There is a bantam equivalent of the large fowl but it is exceedingly rare.

The weights of the OEPF are:

Cockerel: 2.50 – 2.70kg (5½ - 6lb), mature cock 2.70 – 3.20kg (6 – 7lb)

Pullet: 2.00 – 2.25kg (4½ - 5lb), mature hen 2.25 – 2.70kg (5 – 6lb)

Good mothers

The OEPF can produce 160 -200 white eggs each year. They are very good mothers and the cockerels are very considerate with their hens.

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Photo: oldhallrarebreeds.co.uk

As the OEPF is extremely hardy and will tolerate cold weather it is best suited to a free range lifestyle. They love foraging but be sure to have them housed well before dusk or they will be up roosting in trees. 

Dale Price of Old Hall Rare Breeds in Lancashire says: “It is a very easy breed to keep and being dual purpose it makes them great for smallholders. They always run over when they see us, they just don’t like to be touched. They will eat out of our hands, talk away to you and follow us round. I think awareness for the breed would help massively with their conservation and definitely if more smallholders started keeping them.”

Another staunch supporter of the breed is Ian Allonby in Cumbria who was given a setting of eggs in 1973 by Wilf Parkin of Mickleton near Barnard Castle. He said: “I keep the breed as they are birds of great beauty and capital layers. I have bred, exhibited and judged them for 25 years and life without them would conjure up a dismal prospect.”

Thanks to: Ian & Liz Allonby 01768 372222 and Dale Price 07795533969, oldhallrarebreeds.co.uk.

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This article first appeared in Smallholder magazine. For more indepth information about poultry breeds subscribe or buy a copy from your local newsagent.