Clogging the utility room sink with feathers. The endless drone of hairdryers. Meticulously cleaning, filing, beak trimming … by this stage in my showing career, the pre-show preparation was practically a ritual.
It was the night before The Ulster Poultry Federation. I had left work earlier that day with my silkie tool-kit already packed in the car.
All day when my students had asked what my plans were for the weekend, I had expressed how excited I was for my upcoming show; being so interested in my unusual hobby, I knew they would be awaiting the result on Monday morning, and they left my room at 3.30pm with a ‘Goodbye Miss!’ and a hearty good luck. I would need it, I thought – silkies had received the show’s second biggest class as reported by the club page earlier that week.
Before long, the hours of preparation gave way to tiredness, and I tumbled into bed to catch a few hours before it would be time to travel back to the farm and collect the birds in the morning.
I love this part of showing, hunting through my clothes wondering what I should wear in anticipation for my Show Champion photograph for the FarmWeek (Ha!).
The soft hum of the car and babble of the radio was the soundtrack to my morning as I loaded the boot up with my boxes. The yard was frigid with ice, dyed warm pink by the weak rays of the morning sun just beginning to peep over the barns.
Everything about showing seems so personally involved; months of breeding and rearing and countless hours of show preparation was moments away from reaching its crescendo. It’s time.
I hit the tarmac on Shane’s Hill, steering my little Aygo up the hill and onwards to the Showgrounds, tackling a sausage sandwich as I went. Another part of the show ritual; my mum always packed me breakfast knowing I would be too busy with the birds to bother sorting myself out.
Before long I was penned up and ready to assume my next role; once exhibitor, now steward for Derek Moon from Cornwall, who was judging the Modern Game and True Bantams judged by our own Roy Davidson. Quite a change from my usual appetite for everything silkie!
Stewarding gives you a real appreciation for the work of the judge, who has tailored their knowledge and honed their skill in handling birds down to a fine art. It was an absolute joy to steward with both judges, and once Derek and I had worked out each other’s accent, the banter was flowing!
Ryan Liggett kept our energy up by appearing with biscuits and cake to see us through the final few pens. We cracked jokes and both Roy and Derek courteously answered my questions as we made our way through both sections.
Champion Modern went to the Kennedy Brothers and Champion true went to Richard Bett, and we shook hands on a job well done.
Relieved of my duty, I got the chance to watch the silkie judging with Ciara Sweeney, another breeder of silkies who has been a great ally and friend in the breed, who with her father Padraic can always be relied upon to be a friendly face at the shows in the North and South.
It was a solid entry of silkies, well into the teens in the bantam females, with a humble entry in the large. It was great to see some coloured bantams present as well.
Up until that point I had had a somewhat disappointing show season, with a few cards here and there, best of breed at Dromore being my highlight thus far. I wasn’t expecting what I saw – my little home-bred pullet selected as Best Silkie Bantam.
I watched her being ferried up to the front in a state of awe and disbelief, nestled into her pen that was swathed in rosettes. And better yet, when I walked over to admire her in the Champion silkie pen, I saw a familiar face in the pen below, peaking out amongst our beautiful gold and burgundy club rosettes. Best Opposite Size Silkie. My home bred large white pullet!
I felt weak with joy and surprise. I was met with a big hug from Padraic as well as another exhibitor and friend, Jimmy Corken. Congratulations came from other fellow silkie exhibitors.
It was this that made this show so special for me; the overwhelming support and genuine goodwill of my fellow exhibitors who seemed so pleased to see me do well.
Helping Jimmy Hughes as Cup Secretary meant I got a front row seat for observing our Championship Judge, Jed Dwight. And again I was astonished when I saw my bantam pullet switch pens. Best Soft Feather Light.
I’d achieved what I thought was an impossible goal, one I’d set at the start of the year – to get on Championship row with a home-bred silkie. Seeing her there amongst some of our country’s poultry elite was utterly surreal, and I kept wondering when I would wake up.
When I look back to that day, I realise what really made that victory worthwhile to me – it was not only my achievement, but one that we celebrated together as a community, and one that I also owed to those who had helped me get there: John Irwin for his support in the early days, always being available for his famous silkie ‘tour’ with complimentary tea and sandwiches made by his wife Fiona; the countless hours of advice and swapping tips from the likes of Chris Moore, James Weatherup and Mark Graham, all great friends; Daniel Moore and Gabbie Franklin for getting me set up with my bantams and large respectively, two more close friends; and all the aforementioned exhibitors who helped make the day not only a chance to show off the result of a season’s good breeding and hard work, but one of the best social events of the Northern Ireland poultry show calendar.
n See you all at the show in 2020!