Country Shows and Shepherd’s Meets are crucial events in the farming year. They’re not just an opportunity for farmers to show off their livestock, improve their methods, and learn the latest farming tech; they’re also truly social occasions, important for those in the agricultural world where occasions for socialising don’t happen very often.
Farming can be lonely.
If you want to know how Shepherd’s Meets and Country Shows started out, read on.
Gathering, returning, and learning
Shepherd’s Meets and Country Shows started being organised in late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Back then a lot of farmers were focused largely on improving agricultural productivity, so shows became a great way to achieve this. Livestock competitions were used to show desirable genes and animals, and the latest farming technology and tools would have been showcased to farmers and landowners.
For farmers in the Lake District and wider Cumbria in particular, Shepherd’s Meets were organised between nearby or adjacent dales (valleys) so farmers and shepherds could return stray sheep and borrowed tups (rams) to their rightful owners.
On most Common Land in the Lake District special holding pens, or “penfolds”, have been constructed for holding strays until the owners are notified.
In more isolated rural farming communities a tup might be loaned to a neighbouring Herdwick farmer; they’ll borrow it for its intended purpose, and then they’ll make sure it’s returned to its rightful owner at the end of the “assignment”. The Keswick May Fair is an example of a gathering where this historically happened. All the local remote upland fell farms would have helped each other out, supported each other, loaned tups out, and then gathered at the Keswick May Fair to return them. Once tupping season is over (October/November) they can have the rest of the year off (the tups, that is).
This was also how the Wasdale Head Show and Shepherd’s Meet came about. The original Shepherd’s Meet started off with farmers from Wasdale meeting up with farmers from the adjacent and nearby valleys of Ennerdale, Buttermere, Borrowdale, Eskdale, and possibly Langdale. They would walk their Tips/Tups (Rams) over the fells to Wasdale Head and trade, swap, or hire them. This is also why the show is held so late in the year in October: Tip Lousing (letting the rams loose with the ewes) occurs in the valleys in November so lambs are born in April, when the grass starts to grow.
An opportunity to catch up, compare, and compete
In time the various Meets and Shows throughout the year grew from purely practical gatherings into more social occassions; a chance to catch up with old friends and have a beer or two.
For a lot of isolated rural communities Country Shows and Shepherd’s Meets are rare social gatherings, the things that glue communities together and keep the identity of the event very much on the radar for all these farmers. Even today, Meets and Shows are focal points for communities in a large rural area.
As technology and infrastructure improved, Shows soon attracted a wider audience of people perhaps not connected to rural life. Competitions and the judging of livestock expanded into competitions for cake, shepherd’s crooks, and even beards. Other local and rural sporting activities soon joined in on these events, such as Cumberland Wrestling, Fell Running, and Hound Trailing. What started out as a purely practical annual event between a bunch of farmers and landowners in a local area soon evolved into a multi-activity, all-day, grand day out for all the family, open to locals and incomers alike.
To this day, it is still extremely important to preserve the traditions demonstrated in Country Shows and Shepherd’s Meets. They provide the perfect opportunity for young up-and-coming farmers, as well as the wider public, to learn from the masters, regardless of whether that’s in demonstrating what makes a great tup, hand clipping a sheep, or controlling flocks with a dog. The agricultural world understands the need not just to look back, but also forwards, with many continually evolving to stay current. This is probably one of the hardest balances to maintain: retaining the traditional while continuing to innovate.
The Herdy Fund and ewe
Ever since day one, Herdy has always maintained support of, and a consistent presence in, the Lake District’s various Shepherd’s Meets and Country Shows. We recognise how crucial these events are for the Herdwick farmers of the Lake District, not just for the practicalities of returning sheep and finding better ones, but also as social events that raise spirits and help mark the year.
That’s why we started the Herdy Fund, now an official charitable fund of the Cumbria Community Foundation: we donate a percentage of our profits every year to the Herdy Fund in order to support upland fell farming, Cumbria’s rural communities, and of course the lovable Herdwick sheep.
So come and support a Country Show or Shepherd’s Meet near ewe, and if we’re there say hi and grab a baaa-gain. You not only ensure the continued survival of these special events, but through Herdy you also directly make an impact on the lives of Herdwick farmers throughout the Lake District and Cumbria.