Years after being banished into the show wilderness, the world of the Tall and All Game birds is on the comeback trail. And no-one could be happier than Echuca’s Len Wills, who has been the local bird group president for the past 42 years and been invited to judge at this year’s Melbourne Royal.
LEN Wills doesn’t like to count his chickens before his eggs hatch, but he reckons the poultry and game bird business is starting to take flight again.
For a start, the Melbourne Royal has once again embraced him and his feathered
friends following four years in the wilderness after show heavyweights deemed them surplus to requirement in the modern era.
But that slight, and exile to the provinces, is all forgiven and fast being forgotten
because the chooks and ducks are back.
With a vengeance.
GOT THE EYE-DEA: More than 400 birds were at the Echuca Tall and All Game annual show. Photo: Steve Huntley.
At the Echuca Tall and All Game annual show, on the first weekend of June, 400- plus birds from three states turned up in the northern Victorian river town – 50 more than at the same time a year ago.
It was, Len crowed, an “absolutely brilliant day” and “one of our better shows in years”.
The jubilant 75-year-old has been involved with birds so long he can’t really remember what or how it started.
Growing up on farms around Lockington and Bamawm he does recall when he first headed into Echuca and its technical school he already had a sizeable collection of “mongrel chooks” and a “heap of pigeons”.
I’ve spent much of my life off farms but remained connected to the land by the need to have a base for my breeding stock and to keep bigger numbers of birds,” Len said.
“Today I am focused on the Pit Game, which is an Australian bird, and I was pretty chuffed to get a couple of wins at this show,” he said.
“And let me tell you it was a lot tougher this year, I’ve been to shows where I was mostly competing against myself but this year the Pit Games came out of the woodwork and look to have really taken off again.”
Len won the breed award with a Black Pit Game and his big cockerel showed its class with a class win in Ballarat a week before he rolled them out again at Echuca.
And it would have been a good mortician who could have got the grin off the big fella’s face.
“It’s pretty simple for me,” Len added.
“I just love it.”
ARE YOU GAME? Len Wills is a life member and president of the local bird group. Photo: Steve Huntley.
As well as his Pit Games amongst the 80 birds he has at home and the 100-plus on the farm you can also find Malay and Aussie Games.
He said the resurgence of showing was highlighted by the Indian Games taking part that weekend.
A strong field would normally be as many as six birds on the day – at Echuca there were 33.
“We had breeders come from South Australia, Victoria and southern NSW – and it was great to see some new father-daughter combinations competing for the first time,” Len said.
“That’s the sort of long-term interest that will secure our passion for another generation,” he explained.
“The same could be said of show judges – we brought two from NSW and neither one had ever judged in Victoria so a lot of people wanted to come and see how their birds fared with new eyes.
“We had Alan and Stephen Bailey, they live barely 10 minutes apart but are not related and it took some time for them to meet.
“They are both high-profile and successful breeders and showers in their own right as well as being experienced judges so they came with all the right credentials and there is no doubt a lot of the birds were here for them.”
CHICKEN LEGS: Glenda Roberts from Geelong shows off her interesting attire. Photo: Steve Huntley.
Len said a woman who had never showed in Echuca, and who lives about 30km north of Swan Hill in pretty scrubby country, turned up out of the blue with 30 of her own birds.
“It’s all about getting birds on the benches and the better we run our regional shows the better our chances of staying on the agenda at the Melbourne Royal,” he said.
The weekend after his Echuca triumph Len had agreed to drive an older mate to Canberra where the veteran is judging.
But for Len the sign that all is well in his poultry powered planet is his invitation to judge at the Melbourne Royal, which starts this year on September 21.
After they were booted Len said many thought they would never again be given access to the sacred soil and would slowly wither on the vine.
Len admitted he also had his doubts about any return to the glory days – and he had been there for nearly every one of those.
He has been president of the Border Tall and All Game Group – for the past 42 years. Although he said he hoped in vain each year other people would be nominated and his name would not be one of those.
“They certainly know a sucker when they see one,” the septuagenarian chuckled.
“So I told them I would do just 12 more months and then it would be time for a very overdue new backside in the chair at the head of the table,” he said (although later confessed even the secretary laughed when she heard that one).
“One chap at the most recent AGM got up and said he reckoned I was good for at least another 20 years.”
FOUL? I'LL BE THE JUDGE: Stephan Bailey. Photo: Steve Huntley.
Right now, though, it is all about September and a triumphant return to the Royal, even if the birds are only there for four days.
“This is the showcase for us all, a win at the Royal is strong stuff and everyone wants to win there,” he added.
“But for as many winners as you will get there will be just as many, maybe more, sore losers who won’t think much of the judging decisions.”
Speaking of decisions, champion bird at the Echuca show went to South Australian breeder Laurie Barber, whose blue-red Old English Game cockerel outclassed every other bird in the shed.
Speaking with his judging hat on, Len agreed it had been a nice bird, and on the day had looked pretty hard to beat from the minute it was brought into the shed.
“It certainly didn’t take our new judges long to make up their minds.
“They had a quick walk around the finalists, and an even quicker conflab and bingo, it was all over.”
Over, perhaps, is the wrong word.
Because Len, and his feathered friends, are proof everything comes to he who (probably) prays.
In the world of the Tall and All Game birds never say never again.