Poultry breeding in the Peak District

Brian James meets the enthusiasts breeding new life into a traditional hobby

The Peak District has long been renowned for its high quality poultry breeding and championship birds. It even has its own special bird – the Derbyshire Red Cap, whose outstanding feature is its crown, affectionately known as a ‘flat cap’.

And that flat cap symbolises a well known  fact – poultry breeding and showing was historically a man’s world.

Some years ago this was made abundantly clear to one young solicitor from Buxton who had  persuaded his girlfriend to come along and help him exhibit his birds. Among those taking part was a champion veteran called Sid Brassington of Youlgreave, a man the young solicitor regarded with great respect ...

‘I introduced my girlfriend to him and Sid spent some moments looking her up and down,’ he recalls, ‘until he looked at me and said: “Aye lad, I can see yer improving yer stock.” She never came again!’

The young man was John Bunting,  who 30 years on still breeds and exhibits Red Caps. He acknowledges that things have changed a great deal since then.

This is confirmed by Derek Alsop of Chinley, a champion breeder and exhibitor for over 60 years and now a senior poultry judge, who noted, ‘Nowadays 30 per cent of the breeders and exhibitors are women. Mind, they prefer the fancy breeds, and the exotic birds.’

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As exemplified by Louise Hidden, of Charlesworth who at 18 is one of the youngest judges in the field and someone who has already established herself as a champion breeder specialising in a breed called Silkies.

‘They are a very feminine bird,’ she explained. ‘They’re so fluffy and when you stroke their plumage it’s like stroking a cat.’

But back in the late 1940s the poultry scene in the Peak District was a long way from being fluffy or showing any hint of feminine influence, as Derek Alsop clearly remembers. ‘Every village had its own poultry club along with pigeons and brass bands. It was undeniably a flat cap culture where boys followed in the footsteps of their dads, keen to breed winners.

‘In the winter months there were shows every week, held in village halls and clubs. It was easy then as nearly every village had its own railway station, so you never had to travel further than a 30 mile radius.’ Derek recalls.

‘For two and six pence (121/2 pence) you could send a basket of birds to shows around the country without going yourself. Then when it came back on the train you’d open up the basket and look inside to see if there were any prize labels!’

According to Derek the value of breeding birds for shows is that it maintains the standards of perfection for every breed. ‘The most important aspects in judging a good bird are shape, carriage and colour.’

Despite John Bunting’s embarrassing moment all those years ago when his girlfriend was put in her place, he has continued to follow his love of breeding Derbyshire’s own bird, the Derbyshire Red Cap, something he became involved in during his teen years. ‘I spotted it in a book lent to me by a friend of minewho was a farmer’s son,’ he says. ‘What attracted me to it was that it represented not only an old English  tradition but a local one as well.’

In the early 1970s the Redcap, along with other breeds, was in danger of dying out as poultry clubs disappeared, along with the railway stations. However, the hobby is reviving as more women and younger people are buying birds and wanting to show them. ‘I think it’s because people want to go back to nature and  to keep hens in their back gardens.

‘Mind you, it’s difficult explaining such a daft hobby – you end up mumbling and disappearing,’ he confessed.

For Louise Hidden it all began when she was 9 years old and her father began looking after hens and she loved taking care of them. A family friend, Geoff Tinsen, who is a well established breeder, introduced her to Silkies and she began to rear them herself.

‘I was only a teenager but I bred some good ones and took them along to my first show at Glossop and got a second for a White Silkie. From then on I was hooked and won first prize at another show with that hen’s sister.’ Since then she has won a champion’s cup at the Scottish National Show.

Before a show there’s a lot of preparation to make sure the bird looks its best – a bit like an entrant into a beauty contest.

‘First of all you have to get them to be quiet and tame before a show so we handle them a lot and give them treats and that way they learn that you’re the boss,’ says Louise. ‘You wash them carefully to clean all their plumage and I use something that you would soak your net curtains in to bring out the whiteness.It’s completely harmless.’

Geoff, her long-standing mentor, continues, ‘My job is taking over drying the birds. It’s very funny seeing them all lined up on the work- top in the kitchen – four and five of them at a time. I use a hairdryer on them and they stand there without a protest.’

‘You can see why they are so popular,’ adds Louise, ‘there’s such a variety in colour and they’re so friendly. They’ll come up to you and want to be fussed just like a cat!

‘Last year the Glossop Poultry Club held a display and the families were queuing up to stroke the birds. One woman asked me, “Is that a new type of animal that’s been crossed with a cat?”’

Women judges and fluffy birds that want to be stroked like cats? One wonders what old timers like Sid Brassington would have had to say. He would probably have been speechless.

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