Jeremy Hobson talks to Sir Mark Prescott, Bt., renowned Newmarket racehorse trainer and well-respected game fowl fancier
With Jeremy Hobson
When did you first start keeping chickens – and were the Oxford varieties of Old English Game your first choice? I was first involved with chickens as a child – it was my job to look after the layers (Rhode Island Reds) at our home in Devon and then, on moving to Newmarket, I met up with Hartley Hawes – an excellent stockman of all things, but particularly Old English Game. He gave me a trio of birds to ‘walk’ and I looked after several trios for him before getting my own.
When Hartley died, his son invited me along to take some of his stock…. and those, together with birds from Felix Leach, were the nucleus of my strain of game fowl which I built up over a period of 22 years or so.
What is it about OEG that most appeals? Their history – apart from anything else, no other bird or animal has given so much to the English language as have game birds and the old sport of cockfighting: ‘flirting’; ‘coming up to scratch’; ‘showing a clean pair of heels’ are just some of so very many expressions still in use today.
Looking at your photos, it seems your game cocks were kept tethered in ‘teepees’ in the traditional way… how did you keep your breeding pens of birds? Yes, the cocks (or more properly ‘stags’) were kept tethered in this way … as to my breeding birds, I usually had about 10 trios set aside for breeding. With OEG, keeping them in trios is far better than flock-mating. I hatched using both incubators and broody hens but only retained the best specimens so as to ensure that I was always breeding from the best stock.
Are there any fundamental differences in keeping OEG and other breeds of chicken? It’s like the difference between keeping a domestic dog and a wolf. They don’t think the same… and they are more aggressive than other types of chickens. They are noisy too…
You gave up keeping game fowl in 1991 – do you still miss them? I do. I loved the showing but I couldn’t devote the time to them. The horses were taking up more time and the game birds gradually become a chore… and if you can’t look after a bird or animal properly, it’s best not to try, which is why I decided to put my birds up for auction. When I’m old and retired, I’ll very probably get some again!
Racehorse training must be pretty stressful – did you use time spent with your OEG as a time for relaxation? Time with your birds makes you think of different things… things totally unrelated to day-to-day work. Also, as you know, chickens and stables have also traditionally had a long connection and it was good to keep that connection going.
Perhaps a silly question, but are there any similarities between your training of a horse and the training of a bird for show? Yes. For both it’s important for them to be quiet and confident… give them time and don’t rush them; patience is paramount. You’ve got to get both to their peak and to get them to present themselves well – to stand up and show themselves to their best advantage.
Old English Game birds
Sir Mark Prescott, inset, and with birds in 1991