The feathers are flying as hundreds of passionate devotees flock to the Crufts of Scottish fowls
‘THIS,” says Neil Watson, “is the Crufts of the Scottish poultry fancy. This is the one they all want to win.”
Watson, a farmer in his late forties from Plains near Airdrie, is chairman of the Scottish National Poultry Show, a highlight of the year for those fowl-minded folk whose interest in hens, ducks, geese and turkeys goes beyond – way, way beyond – eating them.
There are around 400 competitors here, and more than 4,000 birds. As the national and regional flags hanging from the ceiling of Lanark Agricultural Centre attest, the fanciers have come from all over, including as far south as Cornwall and as far north as Shetland.
One bus leaves Caithness at 8am and arrives in Lanark at teatime, disgorging a merry gaggle of Highlanders and islanders, and some 200 birds, all of whom have been quacking and clucking at the back of the bus since it pulled out of Wick in the bleary, beery dawn. It is the purest example of poultry in motion.
There is a tremendous sense of camaraderie at the show. Some of the fanciers won’t have seen each other for a year. “We are truly birds of a feather flocking together,” is how one puts it. Austin Shaw, a farmer from Larne in his fifties, here with 48 bantams, is more blunt: “This poultry business is just a lot of boys with the same interest talking a lot of bullshit. It’s a long hard life if you don’t have a hobby.”
A hobby? Well, maybe. A passion is how I would put it, and a kind of sculptural art. Just look at Austin, reaching into a small blue box and lifting out, in a sudden smirr of sawdust, an Old English Game bantam. He cradles the hen gently but firmly, smoothing and moulding its feathers into shape so that, when observed from above, the placid little bird resembles a greetings card love heart. He also wipes its comb with an oil intended to intensify its redness.
“This is like putting lipstick on a woman,” Austin says. “This is her wedding day. A young bride looks her best on her wedding day, and this one has to look really well, so she does.” Competitive birds receive the same levels of grooming as a pedigree showdog or a thoroughbred racehorse. Each is a Kauto Star in feathered form. They are washed and blow-dried a couple of days before the show, giving them time to preen themselves back into optimum shape. Wandering around, you see the fanciers applying lotions and potions, and clipping claws with the deference and care of a professional manicurist. Everyone is wary of giving away their own particular secret recipe, but rest assured these birds are thoroughly pampered and oiled, and in some instances perfume and aftershave seems to be involved. “It can smell like a tart’s boudoir,” says Neil Watson. Fanciers are well named. They fall hard for their birds. “He’s pretty special,” says David McVey, a 45-year-old from Bute, regarding his large Plymouth rock with a loving eye. This gigantic white cockerel has already been crowned champion at a show in Stafford, and McVey, who works as a gardener at Mount Stuart, has high hopes for him here. McVey was playing rugby in the back row for Glasgow when they won the championship in 1989, and says that poultry is an equally competitive world. He used to take a slagging for being a big rugby player who kept chickens, but he didn’t care. “They didn’t understand the excitement. When you walk into your birdhouse and see this fantastic specimen that you bred – what a rush.”
Better even than crossing the line for a try? “Better than an orgasm.”
One of the most tremendous things about the poultry show is the noise. You’d think dawn was breaking every second considering the way the roosters keep up the cock-a-doodle-doing. But in addition to such barnyard cliches, there is every kind of holler, shriek, bray, cackle and crow, ranging in pitch from the guttural to the shrill, and in tone from triumphant to – in the case of certain ducks – deeply sarcastic. Walk through the car park before the birds have been unloaded and it sounds like the most bizarre collection of car alarms all going off at once.
More impressive than the noise, though, is the look of the event. The birds are shown in metal pens, thousands of which are laid out in rows like a cell-block. But none of these captives slump prisoner-like and despondent at the back of their confines. Instead, they are up – chests puffed, combs regal, wattles flapping like Communist flags, each bird a dictator in absolute mastery of its territory. When they scratch at the wood-shavings it’s like a preening despot stamping his boot.
They are, of course, quite right to be fierce and proud. Some of these breeds are remarkable, flamboyant, exotic. The untrained eye – mine – struggles to make sense of their appearance. Crested ducks look, basically, like an ordinary duck wearing a giant Cossack hat. Faverolles, French cockerels with great feathery feet, are bellicose dandies ready to fight a duel with any other bird they consider to have insulted their dignity. Silkies, meanwhile, are essentially a lunatic cross between a Klingon and an Afghan hound.
“It’s like walking into a sweet shop when you come to these shows, there are so many lovely breeds,” says Chris Ward, 56, visiting from Leyton Buzzard with her husband Nobby, and busy applying oil with a make-up brush to the comb of a cockerel. “I fell in love with the silver sebrights so we got a trio of those. Then I fell in love with golden sebrights.” There is a poetry to the names – leghorns and langshans, pekins and cochins, black Scots dumpies and Rhode Island reds. Each breed has its acolytes, some demonstrating their allegiance by wearing metal badges carrying a picture of the particular bird pinned to their woolly jumpers or to the front of deerstalker caps.
How the judges make sense of the profusion is beyond me, but somehow they do, walking through the halls in long white coats, examining each bird carefully, comparing it with the breed standard, and awarding marks out of 100. To be named Supreme Champion is a massive honour, a wee bit of history. The accolade is all. There is no money in it for the breeders, and no particular reward for the triumphant bird, although some fanciers will, perhaps, in a moment of ecstatic generosity, reach into their jacket pocket for a small piece of cheese, a foodstuff which chickens – I am told – regard with obsessive desire. “Cheese is a kind of drug to them,” one old fancier confides.
The first ever champion here was Billy Dalgliesh in 1974, and he’s back today, aged 73, to lend a hand with pen-building and judging. A white-haired, twinkle-eyed man in a dark blue boiler-suit, Dalgliesh hails from Berwickshire, and took the top prize with a black rosecomb pullet, a type of bantam. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It’s one of these things that comes into your life and makes you feel humble.”
When it comes to bantams, Dalgliesh won all the prizes going, even breeding the all-American champion one year. He keeps the black glossy tail feathers of all his former winners pressed between the pages of a book at home. Though he is an expert on bantams, he will also admit, in passing, “I ken a guid duck when I see it,” and prides himself on being the grandson of Sam Dalgliesh who won at the Crystal Palace in London in 1890 with some world-class waterfowl. Poultry-fancying seems to run in bloodlines like that.
The initial attraction to the birds was having something to call his own. His father had failed at farming, there was no land to inherit, and so Dalgliesh went to work on someone else’s farm as a tractorman. Having his own flock of bantams was a source of dignity and pride. He called the cocks Jocky, the hens Jenny, and for 34 years they brought him joy. He won here for the last time in 1986. “But when my wife Grace died I put the birds away,” he says. “My twin girls were only 14 and I thought that was where my priorities lay. Instead of being out at night looking at my banties, I had to see to them.”
Dalgliesh shakes his head at the memory of those birds, at the memory of his wife, at the aching loss of both. “Yes, I regret it, but, well, when you’re left yersel...”
It has been quite a day at the Scottish National Poultry Show; a day of beaks and geeks, wings and prayers, spectacle and poignancy. As I leave, I bump into Mike Hatcher, past president of the Poultry Club of Great Britain, a lanky man with long white hair and a long white beard who drifts serenely through the halls like Moses in a polka-dot cravat. He is 74 years old, has travelled from Berkshire in the company of some Indian runner ducks, and is marvelling that poultry-keeping – a fascination since his childhood – is showing no signs of dying out, and is in fact growing more popular all the time.
“Avian flu hasn’t stopped us, and the economic crisis hasn’t stopped us,” he muses. “It really is amazing how much we love our chickens.