The Last Remaining Flocks of Gallos de León are Dwindling

For centuries, chicken breeders in a rural corner of Spain have produced feathers prized by fly fishermen. But economic hardships and environmental degradation threaten to end a way of life.

QUINO DIEZ THUMBS THROUGH the thick mane of feathers on a rooster he holds to his chest. The pattern of yellow-orange and brown identify this rooster as a flor de escoba, just one of the 80 variations of the Spanish chicken breed known as Gallo de León.

photo of gallo de leon
The Gallos de León, which belong to a millennia old breeding tradition, are now listed among Spain’s endangered species. Photo by Drow Male / Wikimedia.

The Gallos de León are considered one of Spain’s natural treasures and the world’s oldest known genetic hackle bird — birds bred for their feathers to make flies for fishing. They belong to a millennia old breeding tradition, but these birds are now listed among Spain’s endangered species. Keepers of the tradition like Diez are few, and the trout streams where their feathers are put to use are also in serious decline. The Gallos de León will likely become part of history, like the way of life that bred it — both victims of globalization and environmental degradation.

“When they’re gone, [only] then will they put in all the money to recover them. That’s how it works in Spain,” Diez says, shaking his head.

Diez would forgive you if you’d never heard of the Gallos de León. They are a niche within the niche of fly fishing. Many fishers consider them iconic for their history and singularity — and because their feathers are regarded as the best in the world for fly tying.

According to legend, the Gallos de León can only truly be raised within the 15-square-kilometer Curueño Valley in the province of León in northern Spain. The rural, almost unspoiled area sits at the foot of the Cantabria Mountains, out of which run over 3,000 kilometers of trout streams. It’s not surprising that the Leónese long ago developed an intricate fishing system adapted to their environment. The Gallos de León were an integral part of it.

In 1624, a cleric named Juan de Bergara from the city of Astorga, about 60 kilometers southwest of Curueño, was so impressed with the Leónese fishing system that he recorded it in writing. Called The Astorga Manuscript, his book described how the Leónese fishers, relying on “centuries of observation,” had developed an arsenal of 32 flies, each one matching the bugs trout feed on in every season and time of day. These flies were made with two principal materials: thread to form a bug’s body and feathers to imitate the wings and legs. Juan de Bergara describes them as elaborate, some requiring as many as five different types of feathers, typically from Gallos de León. It’s the oldest written record of Leónese fishing techniques, and the oldest known text to mention a bird specifically bred for confecting fishing flies.

The manuscript doesn’t record the exact origins of the chicken or the development of its breeding, but the Gallos de León have never been widely raised outside the Curueño Valley. At some point in time, it became commonly accepted that the quality of their feathers — the texture and sheen that so well imitates bugs wing even when the fly gets immersed in water — couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. As the saying in Curueño goes: “Take them on the train and they lose their shine.”

However, throughout the last century, people have attempted to breed the birds beyond the valley. The French were the first outside of Spain to discover the secret of the Gallos de León.

According to Laurent Lopez y Laso, a lifelong fisherman who grew up between France and Spain and lives in a village near the Curueño Valley, the Roma people frequently traveled between Spain and France, bringing Spanish fishing methods to French rivers. Their fishing was so successful, jealous French fishers wanted to know how they did it. A few Gallos de León were eventually smuggled over the Pyrenees and gained international popularity under the French moniker Coq de Leon, but with only a few specimens, breeders couldn’t keep the genetic line pure.

photo of Curueño Valley
Researchers have tried to figure out what makes the Gallos de León raised in the Curueño Valley so special, without coming to clear conclusions.. Photo by Rubén Marcos.

Tom Whiting, founder of Colorado-based Whiting Farms and the most prestigious hackle bird breeder in the United States, managed to get a hold of a wider sample of Gallos de León from the Curueño Valley in the 1990s. He took his breeding in another direction though, substantially transforming the bird’s qualities. He still sells its feathers as “Coq de Leon” but admitted in a YouTube video that he should probably change the name. For fishermen who have used feathers from chickens raised in the Curueño Valley, there is no substitute.

“It’s not the same,” says Miguel Blanco, a fly fishing guide from Fly Shop Salmon 2000 in Barcelona, of Gallos de León feathers that don’t come from the Curueño Valley.

Researchers have tried to figure out what makes the Gallos de León raised in the Curueño Valley so special, without coming to clear conclusions. “There could be several factors, from the soil to the food, but it doesn’t matter, there’s something there,” explains Vincente Gonzalez Eguren, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of León who was involved in the first modern studies of the birds in the 1980s.

Breeders in the valley claim there’s no secret to raising Gallos de León. Like other birds, they require good feed and living conditions. Still, these breeders stand by their legendary quality. To be more competitive in global markets, they created a seal about ten years ago to authenticate the origins of their feathers.

The feathers are typically harvested by hand from live chickens every three months. Breeders pluck the feathers from a two-inch wide circle between the wings without causing bleeding or dragging out skin and other tissues along with the feathers. Once the feathers are harvested, a soothing salve is applied to the area before the chicken is returned to the flock. Animal welfare groups have criticized live plucking as cruel, particularly in relation to feathers harvested for the fashion industry or for use as down. According to breeders of Gallos De León, their harvesting method, if done correctly and quickly, doesn’t hurt the bird too much or cause excessive stress. Overall, the welfare of the Gallos de León is key to getting quality feathers. Breeders raise their birds on quality soil, keep them free of bugs and parasites, and allow them to socialize.

FOR CENTURIES IN THE Curueño Valley, each farmyard had a small flock of several varieties of the Gallos de León to complement cattle and other livestock. Arrieros, or mule cart merchants, transported and sold the feathers all over Spain. Diez stepped into the local trade in the 1980s.

“My dad was a civil servant, so we didn’t have cows and so we didn’t have Gallos de León, but my uncle did,” Diez explains. “That’s how I started raising Gallos de León.”

By that time, the town of La Vecilla de Curueño was already feeling the double-edged sword of a modern economy. La Vecilla’s population had dropped from 1,100 people in 1960 to a little under 600 in 1980. At the same time, though, tourism and the outdoor recreation industry still offered a market for feathers and flies.

“Forty years ago, León was the capital of trout fishing. People were welcoming [fishers], selling them flies very cheap. It was another source of income” Lopez y Laso says.

Diez inherited his uncle’s flock of 40 chickens and increased it to 1,500 at the height of his business, selling feathers not only locally but all over Spain and Europe. Now he maintains 500, which make up most of the approximately 700 Gallos de León left in the valley, and is hanging on until he can retire.

According to Diez, at the same time that globalization brought in tourists, it destroyed the valley’s rural economy. When markets were primarily local, families could support themselves with small cattle herds and complementary agriculture such as raising Gallos de León. When markets started to demand that farmers sell their products in larger quantities with very little profit margin per unit while competing globally, cattle ranching in a narrow valley became financially unsustainable. A job in the city with several weeks of vacation time became much more appealing than tending cows year-round. Today, La Vecilla’s population is down to around 300 people. Only five people still breed Gallos de León, and they are all over 60.

But the worst blow for La Vecilla’s feather and fly business was the loss of trout. In the 1990s, the trout population in León started to decrease. José Rubén, president of Pesca León, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting fishing and the integrity of León’s rivers, blames it on the increase in mini hydroelectric centers and overuse of water for agriculture. The hydroelectric centers act like obstacles that keep trout from traveling widely up and down stream to mate and spawn. At lower elevations, streams once full of water and trout are now overgrown with grass or even dried up.

In response, government regulations have severely restricted trout fishing throughout León. It is almost completely limited to catch and release. Trout numbers have improved considerably, according to a recent study by the local environmental protection agency, but the regulations have been devastating for tourism, and far fewer locals fish, especially youth. The overall decline of the rural lifestyle—from farming to population to fishing—means there’s little incentive for a new generation of breeders to come forward.

“In ten years, it’s all over,” predicts Tomás Gil, another breeder in the Curueño Valley. No people and no fish means no Gallos de León.

The National Institute for Agricultural Research in Madrid has taken some measures to protect the Gallos de León for future generations. They have several Gallos de León at their main center in Madrid, as well as a sperm bank, but there is no program to preserve the chicken in situ and in all of its colorful varieties.

That’s why Gil hopes hackle bird breeders in the United States can continue the Spanish tradition. Gil had a sale of a complete set of eggs lined up with a major American fishing gear producer (which preferred not to be identified), but when borders closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the plans were postponed until next year. Gil said preliminary trials have been promising, but even if American breeders do successfully produce feathers from the Gallos de León, something about them just won’t be the same.

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