THE stakes were high at the weekend when people from across Victoria, South Australia and southern NSW descended on Echuca.
Gathering in the showgrounds to compete for the Border Tall and All Game Group’s 16 prize categories and; most of all, the most prestigious of them all – Champion Bird in Show.
With the exception of an eight-year-old schoolgirl, nearly everyone else who had turned up for a shot at the title was a retired – or as one wag said on the day, “just plain tired” – farmer.
They came off big farms, a lot from small farms, and they all came chasing that elusive title.
Club president Len Wills said since the Melbourne Royal pulled the pin on bird shows (to make way for MasterChef, which wanted to take over the hall they traditionally had used) the Echuca title has become the de facto championship for breeders.
Len said while a few of those involved were getting on in years they couldn’t hold a candle to the birds on show.
He said some of the breeds stretch back to antiquity and were as familiar to the ancient Greeks as to the people gathered in the tin pavilion on a bracing Echuca winter’s morning.
Or the Dorking (although none had been entered in Echuca), a breed believed to stretch back to the reign of Julius Caesar.
It would follow the Romans into Great Britain, where most of its subsequent development took place.
Eventually it would appear in the first British poultry show in 1845 and is a breed that has always been prized for its white flesh and its eating qualities.
Len said people going into chooks need to be aware of their particular foibles and characteristics.
For example, he said Modern Game and Pit cocks don’t need an excuse to start a fight; they just need someone to start it with.
“If you had three cockerels (up to 12 months) or cocks in the one yard each one would stake out his territory and woe betide any bird that wandered across the boundaries,” he laughed.
Len agreed while the interest of entrants in Echuca was strong, the competition is starting to struggle for numbers – not chickens, humans.
He said most of the competitors were already in their 70s, a lot are retired farmers and many have birds still held on family farms because of council regulations in urban areas.
“I have about 300 birds and nearly all of them are out on the farm,” he said.
“You need to rotate them, I would estimate a bird is good for two to three years on the show circuit but after that they start to lose a bit of their lustre a bit like us old guys.
“We got more than 350 birds here today but when we run the open show in July it will pull more than 1000 birds, including ducks,” Len said.
“Winter is show time for these birds; they travel much better in the cooler weather and there is a show somewhere nearly every weekend,” he added.
The youngest competitor at Echuca was Hannah Reed.
An enthusiastic eight-year-old who has been running her own birds for almost four years, she picked up champion Indian at the show, backing up her champion ribbons at Deniliquin and Cohuna in the previous two weeks.
“I sort of got into the chooks because of dad (Greg) who has had them most of his life,” Hannah said.
“This is only our third show so we are doing pretty well and I really like my Indians,” she said.
“I like everything about chickens, looking after them and showing them, even though they are not good layers.”
Len said people such as Hannah and her father are the future of the chicken show circuit and maintaining these rarer and heritage breeds.
“It’s great to have them here, it is great they ask a lot of questions and want to learn as much as they can,” he said.
“And it’s great to see young people turning out for events such as today.”