Above: Such a proud moment: Mark Jones’s father Walter Jones was an outstanding breeder of British hardbills, mules and hybrids. Here he is pictured at the 1992 National Exhibition where he was a supreme champion with a clear buff goldfinch x canary

Greenfinches run in the family for Mark Jones, who here looks back over the influential breeder/showmen who shaped the exhibition bird – and salutes the top exponents of today.

I WAS born in 1960 and for as long as I can remember my father Walter kept British hardbills, mules and hybrids, along with a few canaries for the production of mules.

My first memory of a bird show takes me back to Llandudno CBS in the mid-1960s, when I was first attracted to the diminutive foreign seedeaters for their colour and size.

At about that time, my father and I would borrow my grandfather’s car once or twice a year to travel across to the Isle of Anglesey. We travelled to the middle of the Isle to a place called Llanerch-y-medd. Approximately one mile beyond down a country lane and across the road from a dairy farm was a small cottage. There lived Alf Williams, who is widely acclaimed as being responsible for commencing the strain of greenfinches that we see on the show bench today. He lived there along with his dear wife Sally and son Mervyn.

I found the house to be quite relaxing, dimly lit with small windows.
I believe that the fire was used to do most of the cooking. In the corner were a television, a few cups, and some photos of birds and fanciers. Alongside the cottage and to the left was a large area used for growing vegetables. At the far end was a hawthorn hedge, beneath which was the toilet. This was also the area where Alf kept his birds.

The set-up was very small with no more than a small shed or two and some small flights. Alf kept a few birds; greenfinches, obviously, and I can remember a few goldfinches. Of the greenfinches then he probably bred no more than a dozen youngsters each year. He would stop breeding when he had the number that he required.

Due to the high demand for his greenfinches at the time, the numbers produced would be reduced by sale. He kept ahead by selling a bird here and there while retaining the best. My father had some involvement in the strain of birds that Alf developed, in that he provided the cock bird at the start. Apparently it was swapped for either a mealy redpoll or a goldfinch x bullfinch.

At the time, my father had another greenfinch cock that ended up in the hands of J.W. Arnold via Terry Evans of Rhyl. Some time later, at one of the major shows, Alf had first and second in the greenfinch cock class with the cock from my father and a son bred from it. Meanwhile, J.W. Arnold took third place with the bird that had come from my father.

Alf was quite a character. He did not drive, so he travelled to shows via public transport or by lifts from fellow fanciers. His wife Sally would usually accompany him at the local shows throughout North Wales. He also exhibited further afield at the English and Scottish Nationals, along with the National British Bird & Mule Club “all-British” show.

Alf would visit a public house while waiting for the birds to be judged and drink beer with a whisky chaser. Needless to say, he wasn’t always sober at the time of the show opening and wasn’t the best of losers if his birds weren’t successful! He had great success with his greenfinches, though, and they were sold all over the country for individuals to develop their own families further. What I took away from my memories there was that he kept ahead without a sizeable set-up and dozens of pairs. He simply kept the best that he bred and used them to produce more of the best. Quality kept on breeding quality.

Hens tend to be the birds that stick in my mind. I recall a hen exhibited by J.W. Arnold at the Scottish National in the early 1970s. It was either third or fifth in a large class, despite having one wing slightly off line. Next is a hen benched by Colin Paterson some years later. I judged it at a Yorkshire show where it was first in a class of 36. I then judged it later in the season at the Scottish National where again it headed a large class. This hen was a bird of many qualities: colour, shape and condition. It also stood well, unlike many that appear to have their feet attached to their chests!

Then there is a hen exhibited by George Nairn at the English National at the NEC, Birmingham. I recall it was fourth in the unflighted class, yet for me was the best greenfinch in the show. I understand it took best British there the following year.

Moving on to the cock birds, I remember one bred by Alf Williams towards the end of his reign. It was an unflighted bird, which didn’t get to the show bench. Terry Ball benched a flighted cock that I judged at Llandudno CBS, which wasn’t the best shape, but I don’t think that I have ever seen one of better colour. Another bird judged was an unflighted cock of Jack Lloyd’s at Staffordshire. It was very well balanced in terms of shape and colour. Jack told me that it had won every class that it had been entered into that year.

Others include Ewan Stevens’s well-shaped bird at the London & Home Counties BB&MC show. I noticed it as he pulled it out of the carrying case on the eve of the show and it was placed third the following day. Another bird of great shape, but poor colour, was benched by Grovenor Ridgeway at the English National when it was held at Telford. I recall that it was fifth in the flighted class. Finally, and another bird that was fifth in the flighted class, was Kevin Caldecott’s bird in a recent Nantwich show. It had excellent head qualities, which is seldom seen nowadays. Breeders need to remember that bigger birds need bigger heads, or else we see disproportion.

Of the modern greenfinch, there are still many fine examples. Foremost in my opinion are those of Andrew Hickson. He tends to win when I judge, not because I know his birds, but because they present what I am looking for: shape and colour with good condition while not being the biggest. Another is Kevin Caldecott with birds of similar qualities but perhaps slightly bigger.

However, the accolade for the best goes to Terry Ball of Holyhead, who dominated for years until he stopped showing some time ago. Terry won with cocks and hens, both flighted and unflighted, against all comers. His birds were of excellent colour and shape. I remember him showing as a novice in the 70s when he had a very good flighted hen. It was rumoured that he acquired the remaining birds of Alf Williams. Whether he did or he didn’t is irrelevant because he went on to dominate with the family of birds that he developed through the 80s and 90s.

Although the greenfinch isn’t my favourite hardbill, I have given many the top award. Over the years the greenfinches developed have deservedly taken best, irrespective of individual preference when it comes to particular species.

Mark Jones keeps, breeds and exhibits British hardbills. He is currently a member of the committee of the National British Bird & Mule Club.

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