The La Gournay Chicken
A Very Rare and Very
Beautiful French Breed
By Stuart Sutton
The story of the La Gournay goes way back but myth has it that shortly before the French Revolution, a local peasant decided to cover his white chickens with black soot so that the local Lord would think they were crows and thus the peasant would avoid paying feudal rent. At first he was overjoyed as the plan seemed to have succeeded, however only a few days later it started to snow and the snow splashed away the black soot revealing the underlying soft white feathers of his hens. Thus the Gournay was born… although history doesn’t relate what happened to the poor peasant.
The La Gournay chicken is a robust and hardy French breed.
In fact, there are various conflicting theories about the real origins of this ancient race. Some see the result of a cross between a French and Asian race, others feel the Gournay has its roots in the "Dutch-Norman."(fifteenth century) group of birds that includes the "Crevecoeur." "The Merlerault," "Caumont,"and "Pavilly." While some feel they originate from the Vikings who brought poultry that had mottled plumage when they colonized Normandy. Today the same mottled appearance can be seen in the Swedish Flower hen.
My own experiences with the breed are of seeing them as an occasional large flock ranging in the Normandy countryside and seeing them close up in a pen while trying to help a French damsel catch some large and pretty wild French Marans cockerels. I have also been fortunate enough to photograph the breed, both large and bantam, at the farm of Bruno Lomende, President of the CSRAN (Club pour la sauvgarde des races avicoles Normandes). Indeed while there I was "assisted"in my work by the family sheep dog puppy. I’ll try to explain: Like many photographers I use a range of whistles and noises to attract an animal’s attention in the pursuit of a better photo, however on this occasion every time I used my ‘pursing the lips’ noise I inadvertently attracted the hairy but playful mutt who proceeded to climb and slobber all over me. The La Gournay here seemed fairly oblivious to my problems and is evidently usually seen roaming the farm along with Bruno’s other magnificent Normandy breeds, the Caumont, Merlerault and Crevecoeur. Seeing a large group of the La Gournay bantams foraging naturally with the light dancing on their mottled feathers is a wonderful site.
The large breed was standardized in 1924 by a Mr. Lourdelle. Originally widespread in the region of Gournay-en-Bray in Normandy as well as in the Beauvais area of Picardy in France but more broadly in the Pays de Bray countryside, it flourished on the grassland. It is a very strong breed, even a little wild, if it is unused to human company, and the large fowl appreciates free ranging where possible, or else they are prone to getting too fat.
Above: A La Gournay bantam hen.
It is elegant in appearance being somewhat svelte, especially the bantam, having a black and white mottled plumage, called caillout in French. It is variegated or multicolored as it includes white feathers mixed with black feathers and black spotted with white. It is a very robust and hardy breed and well suited to free ranging, seemingly suited to all climates and weather. Being hardy the chicks generally grow without any problems.
The Standard is a medium-size, slightly rounded bird with a single red comb, medium size wattles, white earlobes, orange/yellow eyes, long slightly sloping back, abdomen well developed, attractive long tail with many sickles, legs pink/white or mottled blue/black.
Large fowl sizes are ideally 2.5kg (5.5 pounds) cock and 2.0kg (4.5 pounds) hen. Bantam weights are 900g (29 ounces) for the cock and 800g (28 ounces) for the hen.
Problems: grey or red feathers, bearding, fully red earlobes.
For breeding purposes an overall darker color should be strived for, not offspring with more white than black. It should also be noted that like a lot of other breeds, the animal’s feathers tend to whiten over the years.
Its hardiness and its taste make this race a great bird to keep. The eggs are white and quite large (at least 60 grams—about 2.2 ounces—in the large fowl), and around 150 per year are produced. Because of the La Gournay’s fine taste it has earned the nickname "Norman Bresse."
Like all ancient races, the breed collapsed due to the global commercialization of poultry production post war. Only a few determined breeders between 1970 and 1990 have conserved it through the twentieth century without incident. Today, it seems that enthusiasm for its superior taste is again encouraging a growing number of consumers. The bantam can also be satisfying to keep for hobbyists who want to have a graceful small backyard flock that also provide eggs and chickens. The large fowl are more suited to free range.
The La Gournay is looked after by The Club for the Protection of Poultry Breeds Normandy (CSRAN), who actively promote its merits and its conservation: CSRAN, 156 Route Du Four Pain, 76750 Bosc-Roger Sur Buchy.
Stuart Sutton offers a photo gallery of domestic poultry breeds mainly in their natural surroundings with an emphasis on the rarer breeds of the UK, France, Belgium and Holland. All inquiries welcomed.