Showing Herdwick Sheep
Non-farmers stand three deep by our pens at the summer shows, and many of them are trying to understand what we are dong, and why. This is an attempt to explain it.
On one level showing sheep is a complete waste of time, an exercise is vanity; many hours of work resulting in perhaps a first prize of £6. Many hard-nosed commercial farmers would turn their noses up in disgust at such foolishness. Most people, of course, have to lose. On a wet day it can be miserable, cold and a drag. If your sheep don't quite make the grade it’s tough to be exposed to the contempt of your peers (most are encouraging and friendly enough, but you know when your sheep are not impressing anyone and aren't as good as you hoped). But, perhaps worst of all, there are different schools of thought on what makes a great Herdwick, so often after all your work you may have to endure the judgement of someone who you think is just plain wrong, and picking the wrong sheep. Trust me, that sucks, and saying so makes you look like a bad loser.
So why would anyone put themselves through this? What’s the point? Why do we do it?
Pride. And because it’s incredibly difficult, can be immensely satisfying, and can earn you the respect of your peers. A respected Herdwick breeder recently told me that when he was young one of the breed's most notable breeders complimented him, and he 'felt 10ft high'. We spend our lives trying to make a living from sheep in the Lake District landscape, we understand that money matters, and that what we do is commercial, with an environmental outcome, but we also represent an ancient landscape culture, a body of ideas, practices and beliefs.
Everyone has to believe in something, and have a focus, and breeding, rearing, showing and selling mountain sheep is ours. Anyone who has ever tried to breed, rear and show something to a high level will know that it is addictive. Men and women devote their whole lives to inching closer to an idea (perhaps always unattainable) of perfection. But with sheep on traditional hill farms its actually deeper than that, you are often building on your father's, or grandfather's, work, and in fact on everyone that has gone before you (because, remember, the sheep belong on the farms and have been there for many centuries). Whether you are lucky enough to inherit an already great flock of sheep, or inherit/rent a substandard flock, your work is to improve them, or at very least hold their quality. Unlike in most of the modern world, individuals don't matter so much, but are part of a much longer span of time, and chain of people who have done what we do. Surnames and farm names are interchangeable, and lots of us get called our father's names... the point is simple, the here and now is just a small part of what we are, and what we do. It may seem provincial, narrow minded and not very adventurous to anyone not used to our world, but it’s our world and it created, and still sustains, the Lake District.
We start preparing our sheep for shows 2-3 week previously (although actually it starts the year before, or years before, with the breeding and purchasing decisions we make), with lots of work in the last week - mostly redding and washing, but all sorts of other little cosmetic tweaks. Sheep are like racehorses or athletes; they can't look at their best all the time, so presenting them in perfect condition, not too fat, not too skinny, with just the right amount of wool etc, is an art, a complex cumulative mix of judgements and decisions. A great shepherd can have their sheep in their peak condition at just right time, never looking better than the day that matters.
The physical appearance of sheep matters. It makes a massive difference to what they make at auction, because we sell most of our sheep for breeding to other farmers, and all of them in livestock markets where their value is decided by our peers judging their value based overwhelmingly on looks. Scientists, biologists, environmentalists, economists, butchers, geneticists and other experts don't get it - they think we judge and care about the wrong things! We should care more about profit, carcass quality, carbon, ecosystem services... But they don't get what we do, how we do it, and where we culturally have evolved from. To use some very un-farmer-like words breeding sheep are our culture... our art. We can spend hours looking at, talking about, and thinking about sheep and what they look like. Sheep are why we get up in the morning, why we put the walls back up, and why we keep going when times are hard and money tight. Sheep are for us more than walking lumps of wool, bone and meat, and more than simply economic units. They are subject to our fashions, and gossip, and their value can be inflated by winning shows and attracting the attention of buyers. Shows put all of this to the test, and in the most public of ways, in front of our peers. Fail and your shortcomings are laid bare, succeed and you have shown our worth.
My earliest memories are of hanging around my father and grandfather's knees as they spent hours working on tups, listening to their talk, trying to understand their ideas of what made a good one, or a bad one, and quickly realising that respect in our family was linked to having a 'good eye' and being a 'good judge' of sheep. By the time I was 10 years old I had an opinion too, and it was starting to be heard. It had always been like this. The highest compliment in our family has always been to be a 'stockman'.
The great stockman don't die, they live on in their sheep, in the bloodlines they create, and in the stories and respect that they leave behind. My sheep mostly descended from some bred by Arthur Weir, he's still spoken about with reverence many many years after he died. If, when I die, people say 'He was a stockman' then I believe my life will have been well lived (whatever else I do or don't do). To earn that I've got a lot of work to do, a lot of great sheep to breed, and a lot of respect to earn. It may not happen, but I’ll try, and that’s the point. That's why we show sheep, to slowly try and earn that respect, that status.