Showing sheep or not showing sheep

Writers Posted 16/09/20
The year 2020 will be one that people talk about for long into the future.

The year 2020 will be one that people talk about for long into the future; it is a year that will be memorable for a number of reasons. Most notably it will be Covid-19 and its associated issues, the impact of which will be felt not just this year. 2020 will also be memorable for the extremes of weather that we have experienced; just what those extremes were will depend on your precise geographical location.

I was at the Lleyn Breeders’ Society sale at Exeter at the end of August and inevitably, as is always the way when any group of farmers gets together, conversations quickly turned to the weather. This year, however, there were a number of very different and contrary tales. Breeders from north Wales and the west country were bemoaning the extremely wet weather that they have experienced over the past month and a half and the impact that it has had on hay and silage making, an embarrassment of grass, having to feed hay to stock to stop them scouring on the wet grass, some even having to pull cattle off wet grazing and into yards to avoid too much poaching, etc. Conversely producers from the South East generally are suffering from desert-like conditions, a dearth of grass, poor hay and silage yields and having to feed precious stocks of supposed winter feed simply to keep sheep ticking over. The further south and east, the greater the tales of woe. There is certainly no accounting for the vagaries of the British weather; sadly it is something that we may have to get used to in future years.

We have had our worst grazing season since we started with our sheep more than 30 years ago. A situation that certainly focuses attention on the weather, in particular rainfall and how acute local variations can be. Our main grazing block is in Hadlow, near Tonbridge, some five miles, as the crow flies, from home, and I have a rain gauge at both locations. Why two rain gauges? Hadlow is in a bit of a rain shadow, normally (whatever that is) reckoned to have about 50mm (2in) less annual rainfall than the surrounding area. This month (August) alone, however, has recorded a difference in excess of the average, with a total of 82mm in one location (significantly more than the August 50mm average) and only 24mm where we really needed it the most. The 14th August was particularly notable when we recorded 24mm (within about 40 minutes) at home (brilliant, I thought, a bit of grass at last), but rainfall at Hadlow was precisely 0mm, nothing; similarly this week, with some more general rain rather than isolated thundery showers, the figures are 20.5mm (home) versus a disappointing 7.5mm. That said, 7.5mm is better than nothing and paddocks are at least beginning to green over, no significant quantity as yet, but at least moving in the right direction. With a drop more rain we may even manage to get sufficient grass cover for a decent autumn flush before tupping.

Personally the lack of opportunities for showing sheep are yet another noteworthy feature of the current year; some breeders might regard showing as a complete waste of time, others really enjoy it and welcome the opportunity both to show off their breeding and to enjoy the social interaction that goes along with it. I must admit to falling firmly into the latter category.

We have shown our Lleyn sheep (mainly at the South of England and Kent Shows) for more than 30 years with a fair degree of success and, over the years, a reasonable number of breed champions, plus a Reserve Supreme Champion, the latter quite good going for a ewe breed in competitions dominated by terminal sire breeds. This year and Foot and Mouth year (2001), are the only years we have not shown, and certainly many others will be in the same position.

Unfortunately, some who have enjoyed not having the pressure of showing - not just the shows but all the preparation that goes into them - will, I suspect, not return to showing, and that will be a sad loss to the shows and farming community alike. Others will have missed the shows and will be looking forward to next year with an expectation of being able to show off their sheep once again. We certainly, all things being equal, will be back next year. I enjoy shows; winning is not the overriding factor, although a few rosettes are good, particularly if they are the right colour. It is also a great opportunity to show off our breeding. Not every year is a good year, some years you just don’t get it right or the judge just doesn’t favour your style of sheep, but that is life.

As far as I am concerned, showing is also a good social occasion, a chance to catch up with people you may only see once or twice a year and an ideal opportunity for communicating with the general public (who are, after all, our ultimate customers). It never fails to surprise me just how little some of them know or understand about our industry, but many are keen to develop their knowledge and, when provided with the opportunity, will ask all sorts of questions, with their opening gambit often being: “This may seem like a silly question, but… ” My view is that there is no such thing as a silly question (although some come fairly close) and I’m quite happy to help members of the public improve their knowledge and understanding of my (our) industry. I see it as part of the reason for being there; we owe it to the shows and to the public who pay to be there.

Showing does have its critics, and not just from within the animal rights lobby. There are also critics within the livestock sector and, if I am completely honest, it is a point of view that I don’t altogether disagree with. Many would argue that with showing there is a tendency to shift the focus on breeding away from purely commercial attributes. An absolutely classic, albeit non-sheep, example would be the division that has opened up within the Border Collie world; once it was recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club, breed points became the overwhelming consideration amongst some breeders, to the point where we now have two distinct and very different strains of Border Collie, one branch of which would not recognise a sheep if they tripped over one. An extreme example, but I’m sure you get my point.

Frequently heard comments around a show ring might be: “That’s a good breeder’s ram” or “That’s a good commercial sheep.” Shouldn’t the two be the same thing? If they are not, aren’t we doing something wrong? (NB rare breeds excepted; other considerations then become important).

Size is another issue; as a Society judge for many years I know that it is easy to be impressed by size. First impressions do count for a lot, but as the saying goes: “Size isn’t everything.” All too frequently size may be misleading; with some breeds it is earlier lambing, to get ever bigger lambs into the show ring, with others size comes not from breeding but out of a bag and with some a combination of both. My view (others may disagree) is and always has been that showing should be about presenting good examples of a breed, but good commercial sheep. This does not mean that they shouldn’t be well turned-out and presented, but they should be honest sheep. I and, I am sure, many other producers, have purchased big, strong rams in the past, taken them home and seen them simply melt. Will I buy from the same breeder again? No chance. I will however, if circumstances permit, be back to showing next year and looking forward to it.

Tweets from @southeastfarmer