While writing, we are two thirds of the way through July and half way through show season. Showing is a subject that divides stock people, some live for their showing, others have absolutely no interest with a few venturing to suggest that the show circuit is a negative influence within the sheep sector.
I surmise that for the majority it is the showing, rather than the competition, the social aspects, opportunities to catch up with fellow breeders and an opportunity to show off one’s stock that are the key drivers, others are motivated by the desire (overwhelming in some) to win. I fall very firmly into the former category, only doing a couple of shows each year. But, I must admit that it is always nice to win a few rosettes, particularly those of the right colour, regarded generally as a bit of a bonus, not as the main reason for showing.
This year I regard myself as being most fortunate in winning breed champion, plus plenty of other red rosettes, at both the Kent and the South of England Shows and I do not mind admitting that I have thoroughly enjoyed the accolade. Showing our sheep has to me always been bit of a social occasion, a chance to catch up with like minded friends, it is also a shop window for our sheep and the breed, it is also, very importantly an opportunity to engage with members of the general public, who are after all our ultimate customers, regardless of what breed or quality of sheep we have. And it is something that I enjoy.
The widening chasm between producers and consumers, the negative, often poor and ill informed, media coverage of agriculture and livestock production in particular, steers a jaw dropping level of ignorance among the general public, and I do not mean this in an unpleasant way, after all we are all ignorant of things that we do not know, or have never been told and this must be a cause for concern. Any opportunities to inform and possibly dispel a few urban myths are always welcome; I find engaging with members of the public and knowing that they are going away with a better (even if only marginal), understanding of the sheep sector and where their food comes from just as satisfying as winning a rosette. Sadly there are plenty within the showing community who will only engage with visitors if they think that it may generate a sales opportunity, who spend most of the time in little cliques, closeted in the sheep lines, ignoring show visitors. It is however the general public who are the majority of the spectators around the show rings, their entry tickets sustain the show societies, and they facilitate the payment of prize money. They are our ultimate customers.
I must also admit to having a degree of empathy with those who do not like shows and even those who regard shows as a negative force within the sector. This may seem a little duplicitous, hypocritical even, but I do see where they are coming from and I do feel compelled on occasions to question my own motives for showing and more importantly whether or not I change my system to meet the requirements of showing. And I am pleased to say that in general I am happy with the former and only make marginal changes to suit the latter. I will spend a little bit of additional time and effort tidying up show sheep as much out of respect for the breed and the judge as anything else and, in general just before the show provide a bit of additional hard feed, as much to adjust them to show conditions as anything else; I do like to take sheep to a show feeling that they are a good and honest representation of the rest of the flock left at home. Obviously I will select what I think are the best that my flock has to offer, not selected to suit individual judges. and I will also not select on size alone, probably one of the main criticisms of showing. As judge I know that it can be rather easy to be, certainly on first impressions, to be influenced by size, particularly if you have a good big sheep in front of you, but an excellent, smaller sheep should and generally does beat, even the biggest, of good sheep. Critics of showing will often cite both too much emphasis on breed points that frequently have no significant commercial impact, as problems associated with showing. However, breed standard, including certain specified weight ranges, are important, they are the very essence of different sheep breeds, they are what separate one breed from another.
I do however agree that they should be interpreted with a degree of caution, with most emphasis being placed on those characteristics that have an impact on the performance and the essential nature of the breed. The first criteria in judging should always be that it is a good sheep, only then should breed points come into the equation. I recall last year judging Lleyn at a show in Yorkshire, and was subsequently a member of the panel to judge the supreme championship. Of the 18 individual breed champions forward three were completely wrong in the mouth, two continentals and one down breed, all rams; two of the three were senior rams which, presumably, had been used for breeding, with significant risk of passing the fault onto their progeny. Classic cases of breed points being put before good sheep, which simply adds fuel to the arguments of those critics of showing.
Showing should ultimately be about having fun, an opportunity to promote one’s own sheep and breed and having an occasion to present, for critique, excellent and honest examples of one’s own breed to other sheep breeders and to the general public. For those that show, enjoy your showing, but be honest and don’t take it too seriously, the show is more important than the competition; for those that don’t, still enjoy the show and support your fellow sheep producers.