‘Take one chicken, a tub of Vaseline, and some lipstick’ from The Herald Magazine. The prospect of attending, let alone writing 3,300 words about a poultry show is not something that has ever held much appeal. But photographer Kieron Dodds assured me the inimitable world of chickens would make for a colourful article. He wasn’t wrong.
THE following article carries with it an important warning: the next time you visit your local butcher, you may be overcome with powerful feelings of guilt. In supermarkets, the sight of a basting tray may be liable to reduce you to a whimpering mush. It is entirely possible, even, that a fully stocked shelf of Paxo will be enough to trigger a bout of emotional carnage decades of therapy will do little to curb. While no animals were harmed during the writing of this article, The Herald Magazine accepts that several birds were liberally daubed in Vaseline. Though these actions were carried out without the consent of the poultry in question, they were necessary to preserve artistic merit. And anyway, the birds seemed to enjoy it.
Poultry. They’ve always seemed something of a dud in the bird kingdom. They lack any discernible personalities or idiosyncrasies and, let’s face it, it’s difficult to find appeal in a pullet without half a dozen cloves of garlic hanging out its rear end. Try telling that to Robin McEwan, though. To him, all poultry is sacred. It’s clear by the way he handles each of his ducks, like a child holding a snowflake. “Look at that, ” he says. “A beautiful little thing. A good head. Very well presented.” In his palm, he gently cups a white female call duck. Around him, hundreds of birds line the walls of a marquee, a riot of feathers and squawking. With his free hand, McEwan reaches into a grotty brown Albert Arkwright overcoat and fishes out a pen. He is scribbling notes in an obscure personalised shorthand when a man with snow-white hair and a ruddy complexion appears at his shoulder. He wears a knee-length white coat.
“Mmm, what a lovely duck, ” he says. “Fantastic pout on her.” “Aye, ” McEwan replies, pointing at the bird’s head. “And a good eye too. A good eye . . . the eye’s where you want it to be.” “Mmm, the eye’s in the right place. It’s a good eye, right enough, that. Right in the middle of the head. Bang in the middle . . . the eye’s good.” “Aye, ” McEwan nods. “A right good eye.” Welcome to the poultry section of the Peeblesshire Agricultural Society Regional Championship Show. Here, on a sunkissed Saturday in August, beneath a small tent perched in Hay Lodge Park, there are precisely 219 birds, 29 plates of eggs, 35 exhibitors, three judges and a wealth of anticipation.
By 10am the site is bristling with a gentle, busy energy. Wooden boxes and cat carriers have been carefully stored away and hundreds of pullets – or young hens – line the walls in cages two-high. They are arranged by breed: australorps, hamburghs, Indian runner ducks, rosecombs, silkies, anconas, orpingtons, wyandottes, sebrights, Rhode Island reds, leghorns, call ducks, welsummers, black pekins. Some birds parade eagerly back and forth in their cages, others nestle in a corner oblivious to the hoo-ha. At the centre of the tent stand three collapsible tables, on top of which sit dozens of paper plates bearing eggs borne by a variety of breeds. It is a spectrum of shapes, sizes and colours: long, oblong, oval, small, large, brown, white, pink, blue, whitish-pink, whitish-blue.
“Younger viewers are well catered for too, thanks to offerings like Tractor Ted Grows Potatoes, Tractor Ted Makes Bread and the controversial sequel Tractor Ted Goes Milking, which sees the eponymous hero eschew the realm of carbohydrates for an ill-advised jaunt through the world of dairy”
Beside the eggs is scattered a selection of poultry-related literature for visitors to pore over. Magazines include Fancy Fowl (Poultry for Showing and Pleasure), Featherworld and Practical Poultry. A catalogue promotes specialist agricultural DVDs such as Tractor Story Vol 1: True Classics – Tractors of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Vintage Ploughing and Let’s Look at JCB Diggers. Younger viewers are well catered for too, thanks to offerings like Tractor Ted Grows Potatoes, Tractor Ted Makes Bread and the controversial sequel Tractor Ted Goes Milking, which sees the eponymous hero eschew the realm of carbohydrates for an ill-advised jaunt through the world of dairy.
Gradually, the poultry exhibitors pop into the tent to check up on their birds and I engage them in conversation. James Hope, a 76-year-old retired diesel engine manufacturer, has bred for more than six decades. Birds, he says, have been in his family for generations. At his home in nearby Broughton he keeps around 70 white-crested black Polish bantams in two garden sheds. Petite, delicate birds, they have sleek black bodies with white-crested heads known as ‘top hats’.
“You can’t let these run about outside like the others, ” Hope explains in the curt, confident tone of a man with experience. A multiple prizewinner himself, his birds are always in demand, with breeders paying up to £65 for a chick. “Soon as they get wet, the head blackens and that’s it, ” he continues. “Ruined. Best keep them inside, and keep the water dishes high up off the ground. Can’t let the head get wet.”
Stan Simister, meanwhile, opts for sebright bantams, small, round birds with intricate black-and-white speckled feathers. “I had my first bird when I was three, ” he says. “I’m 72 now and I’ve kept them all my days. I’ve been showing for over 40 years, and I love it. They’re lovely little birds, the sebright. Very neat and tidy, but not the easiest to breed.” Simister looks around at the birds with a delicate smile and touches my arm. “You know, it’s wonderful this. It’s special this year. For a while there, so many people were put off and stopped breeding, but there’s people here. It’s still going, ” he says.
In the scale of things – at least compared to the major national shows – the Peebles poultry exhibition is small fry. Today, though, as Simister points out, holds extra significance. It is the first time poultry has been exhibited since bird flu came to Scotland. The centuries-old competitive tradition came under grave threat on April 5, when a woman in the Fife village of Cellardyke discovered a dead whooper swan washed up on a cobbled slipway in its 16th-century harbour. The bird carried the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza, the first such case in Britain.
In the days and weeks after the discovery of the Cellardyke swan, there were fears it would presage a human flu pandemic that would put the lives of millions at risk. Panic gripped the Scottish poultry industry, with some anticipating a return of the mass funeral pyres that scarred swathes of farmland during the foot and mouth crisis. With around 16 million birds being reared north of the border at more than 5000 poultry farms, the industry – worth £110m annually – contemplated a possible worst-case scenario.
Beyond the producers, the exhibitors were also under pressure. Organisers of the country’s largest annual poultry showcase, the Royal Highland Show, which exhibits hundreds of rare farm birds including the near-extinct Scottish dumpies, banned all poultry and live birds from the June event. It was, organisers said, a cautionary move. “If the H5N1 situation escalated, we didn’t believe we could take it upon ourselves to put at risk the poultry farmers and egg producers a short distance away from the show at Ingliston, ” explains Kate Stephen, the show’s livestock and competitions manager.
Those involved in poultry exhibitions reported a downturn in membership, with many halting their breeding programmes. One exhibitor at the Peebles event speaks of his anger towards the government agencies involved in the containment of the disease. His fury is still palpable. “Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] made a complete bloody arse of it, ” he says. “It was a complete over-reaction. I know people who’ve given up breeding that were doing it for years. It was all a bloody scare story and it’s a good job not everyone swallowed it.”
By the beginning of May, with no further positive tests for H5N1, a vast quarantine zone covering a 1000-mile tract of eastern Scotland had been lifted by the Scottish Executive. Those at Peebles are visibly relieved to be here. Sam Orr, a jovial, bearded stalwart of the local poultry scene, describes his pleasure at the turnout after the trauma of recent months. He shows me the licence from the State Veterinary Service, and the foot and hand washes that have been set up. The shows, he says, cannot die. “It’s great to see people from all over Scotland and England still coming here to exhibit, ” he says. “Avian flu knocked us back a bit. Some people got frightened and got rid of their birds, but there’s no reason to do that. We’re all trying to get on our feet now.”
It was in the early 19th century that the curio of the poultry exhibition first emerged in Britain. Predominantly a pursuit of the working class, such events took place in pubs in the north of England, where participants vied for meagre, albeit practical, prizes such as copper kettles or joints of meat. It was, however, the advent of legislation banning cock-fighting in 1849 that saw interest soar. While some gamefowl breeders continued to hold fights in secret, the vast majority of their peers saw exhibitions as a legally binding incentive to continue cultivating their birds. By the 1920s, a main British show had established itself at Crystal Palace, London, attracting around 5000 poultry entries every year. Such numbers continue to be reached at today’s large national shows, particularly impressive given the choice of breeds has diversified considerably – from around 15 in 1850 to approximately six times that number today.
The British movement is overseen by the Poultry Club of Great Britain. Founded in 1877, the organisation considers itself guardian of all British poultry standards, safeguarding stock bloodlines that have been maintained for generations. The club has more than 120 affiliated organisations in Scotland, with around 1500 members UK-wide, of whom 250 or so partake in poultry exhibition. Simply put, these folk take their chooks extremely seriously.
One such aficionado is the Reverend Edward Lobb. A 54-year-old expository Bible preacher, he has been breeding poultry since the age of six. At the unconscious side of 7am on the morning of the Peebles show, I arrive at his farmhouse on the outskirts of the east Ayrshire hamlet of Lugton to witness his preparations. After a hurried slice of toast and marmalade, he hops into a pair of wellington boots and bounds out into an adjoining field.
Stepping over an electric fence erected to ward off bloodthirsty foxes, he paces towards a small coop. The thick tufts of grass are peppered with chicken droppings and the remains of field mice. He approaches the mesh, behind which bustles a gaggle of birds. At its centre lies a motionless pile of purewhite feathers. “Oh, that’s a shame, ” says Lobb, sighing as he picks up the bird’s corpse. “I thought he was a bit sick yesterday and might not make it through the night. So it seems. These times are very emotional.” Lobb’s voice drifts off for a moment, leaving only the occasional cluck to punctuate the early-morning silence. “And to think, I’d planned having him for Christmas dinner …”
Undeterred, the reverend returns to the coop. Opening the hatch, he carefully places a foot inside and shuffles towards the group. The birds emit a panicky squawk and huddle in a corner. In a flash, Lobb snatches a pair of feet from the feathered throng. They belong to Bernard, an unwieldy 10lb faverolle cock who is less than pleased at having his arse pointing skywards. Tucking the frantic pullet ungracefully beneath an armpit, Lobb makes his way over to a small stone outhouse. There, his seven-year-old daughter, Emily, has prepared the equipment for the chicken bath – a kitchen chair, a bucket containing warm water and washing-up liquid, and a scourer. Sitting down, Lobb begins scrubbing Bernard’s feet. Clean shanks, he says, are vital if a bird is to impress. It is time for the special ingredient.
“In the Edwardian era, exhibitors went to the extreme of wearing ornate ladies’ hats while handling poultry so the birds would remain calm before the public, and such methods have filtered down the years. Some people who show white birds, for example, bathe them in fabric whitener, while the odd clandestine individual will resort to using shoe polish or lipstick to enhance a bird’s colour”
Many fanciers are known to make use of bizarre implements and approaches. In the Edwardian era, exhibitors went to the extreme of wearing ornate ladies’ hats while handling poultry so the birds would remain calm before the public, and such methods have filtered down the years. Some people who show white birds, for example, bathe them in fabric whitener, while the odd clandestine individual will resort to using shoe polish or lipstick to enhance a bird’s colour. In some cases, eggs have even been stolen from shows in the hope that after incubation they will hatch a prizewinner.
Lobb’s idiosyncrasies, though, are perfectly legal. Twirling Bernard 180 degrees, he takes out a tub of Vaseline and eases the lubricant up and down the bird’s bright-red comb. “It keeps the colour and leaves it bright and shining, ” he explains. All the while, the cock wears the expression of a hyperactive toddler having its shoelaces tied. Bernard is just one of the preacher’s 100-strong flock, housed in 11 coops. Mostly, his birds are of the welsummer breed, a variety originating in the Netherlands and best resembling the Kellogg’s cockerel. He also favours araucana, faverolle and crele. Lobb normally attends around four to five shows a year and his birds have won several major prizes at the nation’s most esteemed exhibitions. Every day he records the number of eggs laid, taking note of which birds are good producers. This helps him decide which to breed with one another to produce yet another generation of prizewinners.
“Breeders are very clever, astute people, ” he says. “They are creating new hybrid lines all the time, developing lines for strong birds. They’ll maybe a breed a hen with its son, or a daughter with a cock, to make the strain stronger and create a really good bird. But if you inbreed too far, matching brothers and sisters for instance, it affects fertility and that’s the end. In some ways it’s very like a science, but I do think of it more as a hobby. You study a bird, see the eggs it lays, then use your best judgment to see how you can keep the line going. But I’m still learning.”
As with many fanciers, Lobb’s obsession is hereditary. One afternoon in 1924, his father attended a market stall in London and came across some eggs with a deep, dark-brown hue, unlike the pallid variety common at the time. Having purchased them, he took them home and tried to incubate rather than eat them. This decision was to bring about the successful birth of welsummers, making him one of the first fanciers in Britain to keep the breed. From then on, he looked after around 300 birds at any one time.
Lobb moved to Scotland from Burton-onT-rent, Staffordshire, with his family – wife Catherine, 46, and daughters Emily and Harriet, 10 – a year ago. His day job sees him working at St George’s Tron in the heart of Glasgow, and he is about to begin a new post training would-be gospel preachers. Given the demands of his work and hobby, the words of Jesus from Matthew 23 have particular resonance for Lobb: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.”
Bynoon at the poultry tent in Peebles, greater numbers of exhibitors are gathering in advance of the judges’ rulings. Not all are of a pensionable age, either. Harry Fletcher, 14, lives on a nearby farm. A fully paid-up member of the local agricultural society, he has been breeding since he was eight. The task combines caring for his birds with school – tricky, given the size of his brood of 65 to 70 birds. Yet nothing can dampen his enthusiasm. His black australorp sits perched peacefully on his arm like a parrot as he watches Robin McEwan and his colleagues carry out their final rounds.
A 62-year-old from Dunbar in East Lothian, McEwan, like many here, has a lifelong love of poultry – he kept araucana chickens when he was Harry’s age. He has been judging shows since 1976, a role granted by his peers in respect of his time spent in the fancy. “It’s an honour to be a judge, ” he says. “When you’re keeping birds you get to become part of the community. Over time, [the people who show] grow to value your opinion, and ask you to judge.”
It is a demanding job. Some of McEwan’s colleagues in the Poultry Club admit to having received criticism verging on abuse from exhibitors, and numerous long-standing friendships have broken down after the lacing of a rosette. Along with a thick skin, a judge requires knowledge, integrity, honesty, ability, empathy, confidence and a sprinkling of humility. Decisions are made subject to a bird’s compliance with the British Poultry Standards, a set of rules drawn up by breed clubs and administered by the Poultry Club. Heads, beaks, eyes, feathers, colours and balance are all key.
For the past hour, McEwan and his colleagues, Jimmy Finlayson, Eckkie Robertson and Jock Dalgleish, have taken every bird out of its cage and examined it in their hands, besides using an extendible lecturer’s pointer to see how it stands in its cage. Having inspected all 219 entries, they form a huddle of overcoats. It is here the impenetrable mystique of what makes a prizewinning bird is discussed. The show has not been easy for the trio. Summer is the birds’ natural moulting time and many of the entries, although good pedigrees, are missing tail and neck feathers.
“A good head, a good eye, and a good beak, ” one chimes. “Yes, a good eye, ” I hear McEwan say. “Well balanced, ” adds another judge. “Beautiful presentation.” “Mmm, the other’s not got the size on here. She hasn’t got the size, has she?” “No, not the size. Mmm. And the eye’s not as good, ” McEwan says. There follows yet further murmuring. “Good eye.”
“Yes, a very good eye.” At 12.08pm, the overall champion is announced. Class 21, pen six. Yes, the eyes have it. It is the white call duck, its cage now decorated proudly with a bright blue-and-red rosette. The bird belongs to Peter Gray, a 65-year-old from the Borders village of Newcastleton. He has bred ducks for 30 years, and shows all over Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Germany. “I’m delighted, ” he says, beaming. “I knew she was good, an ideal little duck. She’s nice and compact.” And a good eye, I say. “Oh yes, a very good eye. Right in the middle.”
For Gray, a lot of hard work has paid off. Only recently, he says, he was forced to take drastic action to prevent foxes getting at his brood. In his small back garden he has built a 26ft-long concrete pond covered by thick gauge wire netting. “I call it Callducktz, ” he says with a smile. Like Lobb, Hope and Simister, Gray eschews any pretension that breeding birds demands an amateur grasp of genetics. They prefer to see it as a social hobby. Such is their cumulative wealth of experience, though, that fancying seems neither science nor pastime, but rather a queer kind of folk art. It is not a straightforward branch of agriculture, but a labour of love, albeit one prone to subterfuge, inbreeding, lipstick and Vaseline. Once you have witnessed the fancy, every chicken dish seems that bit more difficult to digest.