Best in show – “The Judge is always right”!

Some farmers and also some auctioneers thrive in the show ring. That is acting as the master Judge, picking out a class winner or indeed an overall champion from a ring full of cattle and sheep. Many times in my career I have had the honour of being asked to judge livestock at agricultural shows throughout Cumbria. My preference was always to say no. Despite being an experienced auctioneer, the thought of putting myself up for even more criticism than usual from farmers was never that appealing.

How many times have we heard farmers with loud voices talking in the local vernacular around a show ring; “See yon Judge theer, he’s got that wrang he has. Ah would nivver hev given it to that owd yow. He’s wrang thoo nas, he’s wrang and that’s aw there is till it……”

Working on the premise that the Judge is always right, it should never have bothered me but hiding behind the excuse that I didn’t want to upset a potential auction customer, I always politely refused. Later in my career however I began to realise that the older I got, perhaps less chances I would have to do some show judging. Knowing as many farmers as I do, I thought I should perhaps start to do my bit and prove that I had learned something over the years.

As it happened the very next judging invitation came from an old friend, Richard Vickers, of Loweswater Show. Technically Loweswater was always my local show. Having been brought up in a little hamlet called High Mosser, on the most Northerly slopes of the North West fells, a short walk over the hill behind our farmhouse brought us down the steep fell road to Loweswater Lake.  Golden summer nights were spent swimming in Loweswater Lake beneath the wooded slopes of Burnbank Fell as the sun descended over Graythwaite Heights.

Loweswater show was the only show that as children, me and my sisters were allowed a day off school to attend. Indeed one year I managed to win the local boys under 14 Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling class, before being destroyed in the open U14 class by Dave Kirkby, a farmer’s son from Egremont. He was a highly skilled, experienced wrestler, strong as an Ox who simply squeezed me in to his chest picked me up off the ground and with my legs paddling in thin air, gently laid me on my back on to the ground. That was the end of my wrestling career!

During the many years working at Cockermouth Auction every single farmer in the parish was known to me, many but not all, becoming friends. Richard Vickers was an old pal from school days. He was truly a “Loweswaterite”, growing up at Askhill farm at the Western end of the Lake. As well as farming with his father Willie, he also worked for a few years at the old market in Cockermouth on leaving school. Then he set up a small contracting business which included cutting all the hedges around my father’s land. Later he was to build his own farmhouse and buildings at Mosser Heights which rose up and over the hill to almost join with his father farm in the Loweswater valley.

Richard called to offer an invitation from Loweswater Show committee to act as the master judge to pick the overall champion or best sheep in the show. I was about to give my usual apologies when I realised that this was a real honour and I may never get the chance again to judge at my local show. I had to say yes. The thought of standing in the show field to the south of Lorton Village almost in the shadow of the famous fells of Grasmoor and Whiteside, with Melbreak just to the south, was at the time, quite appealing.

Agricultural shows are a part of the fabric of rural life. They are celebration of all that is good in local communities. It is a chance to showcase the very best livestock, perhaps with a view to selling in the auctions later in the year. Shows are about people. It is as much about socialising as it is about business. Old friends meet up, stories are shared and there is always a happy atmosphere. The commentator drones over the tannoy, reading class results, calling competitors and sometimes just recounting a funny tale. In valley shows like Loweswater, the tannoy can echo and be heard as clear as a bell on fell tops. It is strangely comforting. Without the farming community, all of these shows would simply disappear and to a large extent so would many of the communities. That is why agricultural shows are so important and why so many people work on committee’s to ensure the shows take place. It has been done this way for generations. It is a wonderful custom and very much part of Lakeland’s heritage.

Before I knew it I was actually there on a bright sunny Sunday morning during the first week in September. The view of the fells was quite spectacular but no time to dwell, I was there to do a job. As I arrived, the judging of various breed classes was in full swing. I decided to keep myself at a distance, close enough to see what was going on, but far enough away to remain uninfluenced by the farmers discussions or indeed judging criticisms.

The craic was good with lots of banter among friends and soon the tannoy was bursting in to life again.  “Would our master sheep judge Adam Day make his way to the show ring please”. A quick hop over the pens and I was right there in the thick of it.

In front of me stood the breed winners from all the previous classes. These were the sheep that in the opinion of their own judges were the breed champions on the field that day. My job was to pick the champion of champions, the best sheep on the field!

There were several sheep of all breeds in the line-up. Slowly and methodically I worked my way along the line. Every shepherd was known to me. They are trained how to handle and show sheep from the moment they can walk. There is a huge skill in breeding these quality sheep, in other words putting the right tup on to the right female sheep to produce a top quality lamb. The shepherds have an honest eye for the best traits in both the ram and ewe. In their minds they see what they hope will be the perfect match to produce a sheep of showing potential.

The shepherds are also taught how to present the sheep to best advantage at show time. Each one is washed, dipped and crimped to perfection to highlight best features and perhaps even to disguise an odd gentle fault. This is a skill akin to any beautician or hair stylist trying to make the most of their clients attributes.

When showing, the shepherds are taught to watch the judge at all times, make sure the sheep is standing perfectly with four square legs under the body and a high head carriage to show off a straight back or top line. As a judge you can feel the eyes watching your every move as you proceed along the line. Each sheep that I came to needed a soft steady appraisal, looking from the back, side and front. Then a closer inspection, a quick look or feel along the sheep’s teeth. The mouth should be correct, the teeth, neither over- shot nor under shot. Then a firm pressure along the back to judge the amount of muscle, the width across the loin and on down to the hind legs. These are the basic requirements of all sheep breeds, good strong head, correct in the mouth and square in the leg.

Each breed also has different characteristics which are important to them. The lowland breeds producing the very best quality butchers lambs need lots of muscle and a good coverage of meat on the carcase though not too fat because that is not what the modern housewife likes to buy or cook. The hill breeds need to be strong in the leg and tight- woolled to keep out the rain in the winter months as they graze the high fells. There are also breed trends in terms of colouring on the legs, the fleece and even the hair on the faces.

Soon I had reached the end of the line. I immediately picked out two special sheep that I knew in my own mind would be champion and reserve, but which one?  The words of one of my old auctioneering mentors Peter Sarjeant came back to me. “If in doubt, stick to your first instinct, it is usually the right one”. But there is a protocol to be followed and that is to ask the shepherds to “lowse” the sheep, meaning let them go. All of the sheep ran together and huddled in the corner of the pen, here I was able to judge different sheep side by side, trying to pick out why one sheep was better than the other. Nothing changed my mind from my first viewing and now we were down the nitty gritty on judgement day.

The sheep were “gathered up” again, each shepherd generously helping all the others, as there is always camaraderie and respect in the sheep show ring. It was time for a last look, a scratch of the chin, a final glance and short walk and a gentle pat on the rump of my champion pick. This I followed with a hand shake and a respectful kiss on the cheek for Barbara Stagg, the owner of the Herdwick Twinter. Also a handshake for her partner Andrew who was holding the sheep.  The crowd of farmers and show visitors clapped respectfully as I congratulated them with a few words of praise for their lovely sheep. I have known Barbara for many years and her father and grandfather too. In fact, many, many years ago, her grandfather Gordon Stagg from Croft House Farm, Buttermere was the first Herdwick Breeder to sell a tup for 100 guineas!

Quickly I moved over to my reserve champion, a tap on the rump of the Swaledale ewe and a shake of the hand (no kiss) for The Gill family from Newlands near Caldbeck having originally farmed in Loweswater. Two outstanding sheep, the young, previously un- shown Herdwick and the older Swaledale ewe that had delivered much success in the show ring in recent years. So why the Herdwick? Well she was so clearly an outstanding girl, the muscle and power meant she was solid as a rock to handle. She had a beautiful head and very strong legs, with a tight brown fleece that will lighten in colour as she ages. My instinct was always to pick her. Thankfully a few other knowledgeable farmers told me they couldn’t have gone past her either. When Arnold Lancaster from Torver thumps you on the back says and says you haven’t done so badly, then you know you’ve got it right. Had I not then he would soon have told me. Only at that point did I begin to relax a little!

With the judging completed it was time to enjoy the show, have some lunch in the catering tent enjoying good banter with some of the sheep breed judges as to why I didn’t pick their sheep! Then a final look around the show field before setting sail for home.

As I pulled away from the show field I took a last look down the Lorton Vale, past Melbreak and on to The Buttermere Fells, Red Pike and High Style. It is quite simply a beautiful landscape, created by sheep, managed and conserved by shepherds and enjoyed by so many people who visit and admire our county. These are my fells, my farmers and my friends. I have enjoyed working for this community very much over the years, every farm visit a pleasure, actually being paid to drive through and work in these Lakeland valleys. Driving my car over Whinlatter Pass heading for home I felt contented, honoured and proud. I’ve had a good working life as a Lakeland Auctioneer. I hope it’s not quite finished yet.