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JUDGING HERDWICK EWES AND A FUTURE FOR THOSE WHO FARM THEM.

In early October there is a prize show and sale of Herdwick draft ewes at Cockermouth Auction, a market town on the northern edge of the Lake District. The sale has taken place here for over a century. Draft ewes are older sheep that are perhaps no longer fit enough to survive a further winter on the fell. So they are sold to lowland shepherds where conditions may be less harsh.  The ewes may go on producing lambs for several more years away from the fell.

Many years ago in the old Cockermouth town centre market, not long after I had become the market manager and therefore the Herdwick Sheep Breeders official auctioneer,  Joe Folder from Cockermouth produced a fantastic pen of  ten ewes, some of the biggest and best in the market. He presented them in the prize show. They were to compete against some equally magnificent fell sheep from top Lakeland breeders from every corner of Cumbria.

Joe had spent a lifetime in the Herdwick breed, working hard fell farms across Cumbria. For many years he was a National Trust tenant at Baskell farm in the hills above the Duddon Valley. In his later years he had retired to Cockermouth but his passion for Herdwicks remained undiminished. He continued to breed superb sheep none of which would live on high fells. This meant that his sheep were always bigger than many traditional fell- going ewes. This was not in any way a fault, but simply a product of their environment, living and breeding in fields around Cockermouth and the Vale of Lorton. His sheep were always sought after and sold well.

The show judge picked out two pens to contest the draft ewe championship. Side by side stood Joe’s sheep and a lovely pen of draft fell ewes from Gordon Tyson, Troutbeck Park. Standing on the lower slopes of Kirkstone Pass, the farm was purchased by Mrs Heelis (Beatrix Potter) in 1923 to prevent it being developed thereby preserving it as a working sheep farm which was her avowed intent. She did this by personally taking the farm in- hand and establishing a celebrated flock of Herdwick sheep. The sheep grazed to the top of High Street at around 2,700 feet and still do to this day.

After her death in 1943, Mrs Heelis gifted a total of 14 farms covering 4,000 acres including Troutbeck Park, to the National Trust. She did this to ensure that her will would be met and the farms remain viable working holdings for future generations. Gordon Tyson, farmed the sheep for many years and continued to improve a fine flock of sheep until he passed away in 2015. The sheep he brought to Cockermouth market had spent every winter living on the high fells above the farm. Now it was time for them to leave the fell and live the rest of their lives on lower pastures.

Both pens of sheep looked beautiful in the market, fleeces rudded- up along their backs with gleaming white faces in contrast to the grey- blue of the coat below the “rudd”. The Judge asked me how I wanted him to assess the sheep. Joe’s sheep had a size and condition that the fell sheep as strong and as good as they were, simply could not achieve. Stupidly, I said that he should just pick the best pen of draft sheep. I thought I was being diplomatic. The judge awarded the championship to the Troutbeck Park fell sheep and then apologised to Joe because he thought he had the strongest sheep. The judge quoted what I said and explained to Joe why his sheep were placed second. Joe just smiled and shook his hand.

Later in the bar, long after the sale was over, Joe lay his wizened old hand firmly on my forearm. He was approaching 80 years of age but his grip was still like iron. “Young man” he whispered in my ear, using his other hand to remove the pipe from his mouth “You should have just said nowt”. He smiled and released his grip. His point was made and he was quite right. I learned a valuable lesson.

Joe became a friend after that and would rarely miss a Herdwick Sale and the subsequent gathering of shepherds in the bar, right up to the end of his life. In the happy glow of the auction bar following the Herdwick sales, we would enjoy a drink and some good craic above the singing and the raucous laughter of Cumbrian fell farmers, letting their hair down and enjoying the end of the sale season before hunkering down for a long winter often in semi- isolation deep within the Lakeland’s frozen valleys.

I would go on each year for many years to sell those super Troutbeck Park draft ewes, which had it not been for Mrs Heelis, probably would not have been there. Now once again we look to an uncertain future. If we do not find some balance to allow farmers to work the land, farm the fells sensibly and make a living then there may be no future at all.

How important then that we bring the young people through, to learn the fell craft, preserve the sheep flocks and manage our Lake District landscapes. We must persuade them and give them confidence that they have a future in shepherding. Their role is vital not just to Lakeland but every upland area in the country. Farmers are the lifeblood of many rural communities. Their work shapes the landscape for all to enjoy. They are the true conserver’s of the countryside. The days of over- grazing the fells are gone. Now farmers look to balance careful flock management with preserving habitats and protecting fresh water supplies to a greater extent than ever before. It is called stewardship. Tourists are welcomed for they too are an essential and important part of the fabric of the Lake District.

Balance is the key word in all of this. When the correct balance is finally achieved, we will have found a way to allow Lake District Farmers to farm sustainably and with some profit to re- invest, manage the countryside and cater for the visitors, almost 20 million of them annually, most of whom are thrilled to see proper sheep wintering on the hills that they were bred to graze. This includes the Troutbeck Park flock and so many more Lakeland Farms. Famous flocks that some would seek to destroy with unctuous talk of re- wilding and introducing lynx in their place. Madness and utter folly in an already green and pleasant land.

National Trust farms have been breeding grounds not only of fine Cumbrian fell flocks, but also successive generations of young farmers, starting their own careers, getting a first step on the ladder, learning unique skills and local knowledge often from previous tenants in order to survive and farm in Lakeland. Many farmers like Joe and Gordon chose to stay on and enjoy long and successful tenancies, happy in their work.

Today’s farm children, long after our generation has gone, will still be selling at Herdwick sales, gathering at shepherds meets and shows,  singing songs and enjoying a drink or two in the bar with the proud auctioneer, whoever he or she may be. We must never let this die. How important then that landlords like the National Trust and others never lose sight of the fact, that their farms are a vital weave in the fabric of Lake District farming life, it’s heritage, history and as importantly, it’s future.

I’m sure Beatrix Potter and possibly many of today’s Lakeland tenant farmers would agree. Perhaps now is the time to say something, rather than follow old Joe’s advice to “just say nowt”!

FOOD FOR THE MASSES – MAINTAINING STANDARDS AND WHY WE SHOULD SUPPORT ALL BRITISH FARMERS.

Over the last 30 years I’ve worked in the farming communities of Cumbria and to a lesser extent the Yorkshire Dales and the Lancashire Pennines too. In that time several million sheep and maybe a hundred thousand or more cattle have for a tiny part of their lifetime been in my care within an auction mart. I’ve worked with high turnover, low margin feeders, operating highly intensive fattening systems and also very extensive, low production, high nature- value farmers. No one can persuade me there is a right way or wrong way. The best and most successful farming systems are conducive to the type of farm, the area, topography, soils and climate. It is horses for courses. A one- size fits all policy of land management could never work despite what some “experts” believe.

In the auction mart, I owed both the farmer and his animals a duty of care. For the farmer it is important that the animal has safe passage to the buyer’s farm or indeed the abattoir for slaughter. For the animal we try to ensure that whilst in the confines of the auction it is as stress- free as possible, comfortably penned and where necessary fed and watered if the on- going journey is delayed. The duty of care is always impressed on auction staff. Most auction staff now have an NVQ qualification in livestock droving.

Animal welfare continues to be a major contributing factor in the design and operation of auction marts. Quite rightly the performance of the market and its systems are regulated and policed by DEFRA and Trading Standards. Sometimes marts are visited by other groups such as RSPCA and Farm Assurance inspectors. There are also occasional visits from other less desirable organisations, whose mission is to disrupt the market and by subterfuge or even plain lies, seek to pervert the truth about the welfare of animals in our care.

Most markets will always welcome the general public in to the auction environment as long as they too are respectful and keep out of harm’s way. A Health and Safety inspection once recommended a total of 22 different warning signs to be placed in one of my markets between the unloading docks and the sale ring! By their very nature, markets must be efficient, smooth and professional work places. Knowledge and experience of working with livestock (and People!) is essential.

Markets are very much favoured by the farmer. They are seen to be independent sales centres, helping to add value (on most occasions) by bringing a range of buyers to the ring. In other words, a buyer for everything regardless of quality or size. The market also guarantees payment to the farmer. In an age where some meat companies can go in to receivership on Friday and their directors back in business by Monday, this is a very useful safety net for the farming community. There is also a very strong social element to the market in an industry where rural isolation can play a part. I know some farmers in these parts who only leave the farm and socialise with others on auction day!

On Prime stock days, cattle and sheep are brought to market and sold to a ring full of buyers representing a range of wholesale and retail meat buyers. These range from the high- ranking supermarket chains to catering butchers and local high- street butchers. Buyers from the ethnic communities are vitally important, particularly in the sheep meat sector. This market continues to grow year upon year.

Our job as an auctioneer is to ensure that any animal must leave the market in at least the same condition as when it arrived. It must not be bruised or otherwise injured. It must not be stressed, as this can affect the meat quality and the way in which the carcase cools and sets. Also it must not have lost condition or meat quality during that time. Buyers will only visit the market if they are confident that animal welfare is high on the auctioneer’s agenda and that what he buys, he will get delivered to the point of slaughter. In this respect there is a trust and a bond.

There is also a trust and a bond between the farmer and the auctioneer. Most farmers genuinely care about the animals they rear and want them to live the best lives they can. This maybe particularly so for farmers with favourite dairy cows, beef cows and even some breeding ewes. The message is hard to get across to the general public and one which needs to be done far better in future. Even among the more commercial and intensive farming operations, where there may be less of a bond between farmer and animal, there is a desire to ensure that the animals are healthy, in the best of condition and able to be sold for optimum value. In order to achieve this, animal welfare has to be a top priority.

The regulation in the auction mart industry as described above is even more intense and just as robust on livestock farms. Every bovine and ovine animal in the UK has an individual ear tag number specific to it. This must be recorded by the farmer or he may be financially penalised at a later date. Everywhere those animals go during their lifetime, their ear tag goes with them. As a result we have the best traceability system in the world. Without any shadow of doubt, our livestock production and welfare rules are of the most stringent with few countries able to bear comparison. This has been embraced by UK farming to a great extent despite past farmer grumblings about farm assurance being only for the supermarkets benefit.

As an industry we are passed that now. We are genuinely proud of the high standards we have achieved and are maintaining. That is why supermarkets, government and the general public should recognise that our standards, food provenance and traceability comes at a price, an on-cost to the producer which is not redeemable at the point of sale nor re- reimbursed by the supermarket. There is no added value to the farmer for giving assurances to the general public. It could be said that only supermarkets benefit when they choose to promote “assurance”, hence the grumbling.

Worse still is the fact that supermarkets are very happy to promote “farm assurance” with brands like “Red Tractor” but only at a time when it suits them. For when farm gate prices rise and there are several reasons why this can happen, the supermarkets like to have a Plan B. This takes the form of imported frozen meat such as New Zealand lamb which is pre- purchased several months before it is to be sold to the British consumer, shipped half way around the world and kept in frozen storage until the supermarket decides to off- load.

Time and again in recent years this has occurred at the time of peak lamb production in the UK, often in the autumn and winter months when public demand is highest. The frozen goods are then given premium shelf space, advertising and of course clever “two for one” offers designed to make the consumer think they are getting a real bargain. At this point our un- rivalled standards of welfare, traceability and provenance go out of the supermarket window. This is the biggest heresy of supermarkets who hide behind their public facing statements that British lamb is “out of season”. It is a lie and a slap in the face for the UK producer. It is disrespectful to both the farmer and the consumer as is the often deliberately confusing and misleading labelling system on meat products. There are many examples of this. Some of the larger supermarkets play on the consumer’s lack of knowledge and information. Time and again they market price over quality and provenance.

If we are to maintain our standards, support viable and sustainable farm businesses then these issues have to be dealt with and things must change. It is clear that governments are not prepared to act in any meaningful way. The Supermarket ombudsman has proved to be pretty toothless up to now.

We are at a crossroads leading up to Brexit. The farming industry perhaps like other industries too, is in a state of limbo. Few farmers may be prepared to invest in future development. Without the safe but some would argue penal umbrella of the EU common agriculture policy, we neither know what or where our markets will be. Like for like support measures are only guaranteed until 2022. We do not know what support measures (if any) will be in place thereafter for farmers, especially those that have in the past helped to keep food prices relatively low and stable (another supermarket win!) Also we don’t know what trade deals government may agree to increase the volume of imported food from around the world, where we know production standards, animal welfare and ethics are simply not up to scratch. Food production and farming may be the throw-away bargaining chip to sustain other industries through trade deals.

If future, farming policies are to succeed, government, supermarkets and other industry players need to step up to the plate. There is no shame in encouraging the message to “Buy British”. There will be no shame in explaining to the public why farming needs to be financially supported. Viable and sustainable farming business’s will ensure investment, best practice, encouraging a culture of more production from less inputs and in doing so, protect and conserve the environment. I have concentrated on my area of knowledge however I am well aware that across the country we have a wide portfolio of highly productive farms growing arable crops, field scale vegetables and fruit all of which I fear are under- valued and under- utilised by the good people of Britain.

There may be multiple benefits to be had in creating such a farming policy. As the population of Britain and indeed the rest of the world continues to rise, the pressure on food production and by association our landscapes and environment will continue to grow. We can make plans to tackle this head- on and be ready to do so but only by starting now. Ten years hence will be too late!

By that time, we may well be regressing to post- Second World War food policies, rationing, poaching and black marketeering to combat food shortages, and the pressure on clean water supplies. In that respect, and I have said this repeatedly since 2001, once again the farmer will become the “housewife’s” best friend. Forgive the term “housewife” in the modern age, but you get the gist. My concern leads me to question, at what price to our landscapes and environment?

The public will need our farmers and their food. Let’s make sensible plans and provisions to stock the larder now. It will provide far better value for money than crisis management, which is where one day we will end up, as the country starts to go hungry.

Finally there is a sadly misguided and ill- informed belief among many politicians that if the supply of imported goods fails and prices rise that British farmers can just “turn the tap on”. I have actually heard that phrase used. The connotations of such a policy are frightening. Trashing the land to feed a starving population would be such a backward step, akin to the American mid- west in the early twentieth century. I believe such stupidity adds even more weight to the argument to invest and support balanced sustainable farming and food production with looking after the land, improving soils and maintaining the environment. Take the fetters off farming, release the handbrake now and we have every chance in being able to sustain the British Isles and our people for generations to come.

Lazonby Auction – A Young Auctioneer learning his trade.

Lazonby is a small village built upon the steep western slope above the River Eden, only a few miles east of Penrith. Most of the older houses are constructed of red sandstone hewn from local quarries generations before. The Carlisle – Settle railway runs through the village and just below the station sits Lazonby Auction Mart. The mart has stood there for over 100 years and in that time has seen little change.

Over much of its life time Lazonby Mart has for 9 months of the year been nothing more than a small weekly market, beloved by local farmers along the River Eden and on the East Fellside of the Pennines. For a brief time in the 1990’s the weekly mart flourished in the Spring months with up to 3,000 prime hoggs per week rattling through the ring. The spring months were very cold and very dark. On a freezing Wednesday morning, the prime sheep buyers would alternate between touching the backs of the sheep to assess their condition and quality, to warming their hands against the giant glowing  pad of gas heater. As the auctioneer at those sales I was standing in a tiny auctioneer’s rostrum, with room for one person only. There was no heater for me and as the sale progressed my finger ends despite the fingerless gloves became ever colder as did my toes. Even despite this, everyone loved Lazonby with pen after pen of quality hoggs flying off the old manual weighbridge and in to the ring. My colleague David “Syd” Westgarth, would be working out the weights of the sheep on a calculator and writing the information on a frozen blackboard for the buyers to see.

In the ring there the sheep buyers were drawn from all of the Northern counties including Arthur Pooley from Chorley and Bob Sumner from St Michaels on Wyre. Local buyers were Jared Faulder and Keith Ewbank and there were other visitors occasionally. The banter was good natured and trade always competitive. This weekly market worked well. After the sale we would retire to the Joiners Arms for lunch, there being little appetite to rush back to company headquarters at Penrith.

The little weekly prime market was not what Lazonby was famous for. Ask any farmer in Cumbria and probably most farmers around the country what Lazonby Mart sells and the answer would be immediate, Mule Ewe Lambs. Known as Gimmer Lambs in this part of the world. The Mule is the by- product of the Blue Faced Leicester Ram and the Swaledale Ewe. This breeding produces a strong, hardy and prolific ewe lamb much loved by lowland shepherds the country over.

There are many markets across the north of England selling the Mule gimmer lamb. Lazonby was known as “The Foremost”. Why? Well for a start it was the biggest market of its type attracting buyers the length and breadth of the Country. Secondly the quality of the sheep was in those days, second to none. The Swaledale flocks of the high Pennines produced lambs that thrived wonderfully on richer lowland pastures. The Mule sheep and Lazonby market grew several fold under the tenure of auctioneer Norman Little. For years he promoted the sheep, canvassed the producers and earned the respect of farmers as far north as the Roman Wall, across Alston Fell and throughout the Lake District.

At its peak Lazonby could comfortably handle and sell over 30,000 gimmer lambs in a single day and still be ready for business the next day to sell up to 10,000 more castrated Mule Tup Lambs or Wether’s as they are known locally. The sales campaign would start in the summer when the Lazonby team would travel the high roads and by- roads visiting mule producers on the farm, canvassing their support and hoping for their custom during the autumn sales.

The huge list of Lazonby lamb buyers would be transferred to envelopes and catalogues and sales circulars sent out in good time, telling the buyers to make a note in their diaries of the all- important sale dates. Many buyers were regulars, arriving year after year, often purchasing the same sheep from the same producers if they had thrived and done well the previous year. The sensible farmers offered some good luck penny and this was often remembered by the buyers at future sales. Farmers who scurried away after receiving their cheque from the office, without paying their respects and some good luck to the buyers would often be marked down on the catalogue and ignored the next time.

Well-seasoned auctioneers knew which buyers bought which sheep and would deliberately look or “not look” at those buyers depending on how the trade was going. “Old customer” was a phrase auctioneers loved to trot out at the fall of the hammer, meaning these lambs can be bought with confidence.

On the farms the selling process began weeks before market day, with some producers feeding a little concentrate or cake to the lambs to bring them forward after weaning. “Learned to trough” is a phrase that some buyers wanted to hear so that they did not have to spend time teaching lambs the process of eating feed from a trough at their new homes. Also these lambs will follow a farmer shaking a plastic bag to the ends of the earth if they think there is cake to be had.

Closer to auction day the lambs were wormed, injected, scratched for oarf, which is an immunisation process against the oarf disease. Then a series of dipping’s in the sheep dip trough with a final soaking in pearl dip would produce a lovely dark hue to the lamb wool. Add to that a good face- washing and fleece trimming that any professional crimper would be proud of, then the lambs would right and ready for sale. So much work and so much time spent by the shepherds for one minute in the sale ring for the auctioneer to work his magic and draw the best price possible out of the crowd. A whole seasons work from tupping time the previous autumn for less than 60 seconds in the sale ring to achieve a year’s wages from those sheep. No wonder some farmers get nervous and stressed on these days. Maybe the auctioneers do too, although the farmers would never know it!

It is mid- October. Finally sale day has arrived. A myriad of trailers and huge wagon transporters are unloading constantly at the unloading docks. Local people know and accept that the tiny back roads to Lazonby will be a constant procession of trailers and wagons, for most of the day. These days are the “harvest of the fells”, the most wonderful time of the year to most local farmers.

The sheep are taken from the docks to pens with all haste. There is a constant noise of whistles and shouts as the lambs are ushered down the alleys. Some farmers are lucky and had been balloted or drawn in the concreted top pens close to the sale ring. Others are further down the field in grass pens. The unluckiest haven’t made the first penning and can only arrive later in the day for a second penning of lambs. On the very busiest days, there is even a third penning with these lambs unable to arrive before 6pm with daylight fading fast.

Farmers aided by drovers pen- up their lambs. Often the farmers are carrying huge sacks of sawdust. Too much washing and preening has gone on to allow the lambs to get dirty. They now stand on a thick crust of dry wood shavings. Nervously the farmers scan the sky for sign of rain. Rain turns the golden fleeces in to a bedraggled tangled mess, not what anyone wants to see. Farmers with pens for the prize show diligently work away with soapy cloths to give the mottled faces of the mule gimmer lamb a final wash.

Closer to sale time, buyers begin to arrive. There are warm welcomes from the auctioneers and the farmers. Many buyers have become friends over the years. They are in time to see the judging completed. A championship has been awarded and the winning farmer is photographed with the sheep, the judges and the trophy. The trick is to look reservedly happy without beaming. These farmers are modest and the real joy of success will be shared later either at home or in the pub, depending on prices of course.

9.30am and the sale is about to commence. Norman Little is the man in charge. He is the manager of the market and has spent years building up the trade, the breed and the market. He is in his element. A tannoy message calls the buyers to the ring and quickly the narrow wooden benches around the sale ring fill up as people take a pew and settle down for the sale. Beside Norman sits Gordon Teasdale a man who left school to work at the auction and has come through the ranks. After Norman’s day, “Tizzer” will start the sales. His photographic memory ensures that he never forgets a buyers face and can recall names at will. Norman and Gordon are experienced auctioneers at the top of the game. I am lucky to be an apprentice in this arena.

The first lambs enter the ring followed immediately by the farmer and his family all armed with sticks or crooks. Norman is immediately in to his stride. His style is beautifully lilting. He knows the sheep, their value and the buyers. He knows who will buy what and within a few minutes how far they are prepared to “travel”. Norman rarely has to take more than five or six bids to get to the price. He has the complete confidence of the both buyer and seller.

In less than thirty seconds, the hammer is down. “Let them run” shouts Norman. The ring drover and young auctioneers who police the huge oak doors in to the ring are trained to get the sheep out of the ring just as the last bid is being taken. At the same time the next lot of sheep is entering the ring. The trick is to let the new sheep just catch sight of the old sheep leaving the ring. If they do see them they charge in to the ring with ease. Get this process right and the sale runs swiftly and smoothly. Get it wrong and there is a mix up and a telling off from the auctioneer.

Behind the wooden doors and all the way back to the pens there is a team of drovers each working their station to get the lambs up to the ring. They rarely change their position except for a swift break and a bite to eat. They will spend many hours just doing the same job, pen after pen. Behind the doors the final drover is often a brilliant counter of sheep. I’ve known some men be able to count the sheep in fives as they work through a large pen of sheep. This is hand/ eye coordination at its very best. Most of work in two’s as we count. The sheep are counted in and counted out at Lazonby. Pride is taken in the job right across the chain.

From the ring the sheep are taken to the buyer’s pens by another team of drovers working as fast as they can. Some large buyers have four deck sheep transporters waiting at the docks to be loaded. At the largest sales it has been known for a wagon to be loaded with over 400 lambs and be driven down to Salisbury Plain, arriving before the auction staff have left the market at the end of the sale day. Other sheep are driven on past the field pens and in to the huge paddocks at the far end of the market. The paddocks can hold hundreds of sheep. This process is vital ensure the smooth running of the sale without any great delays. The whole droving team is working flat out to achieve this, all day and in to the night.

As every lot of sheep is back- penned, a message detailing the buyers pen and the pen number is relayed by walkie- talkie back to a trainee auctioneer in the office who compiles a list in order to make it easy for buyers to find their sheep after they have finished buying, The young auctioneer is desperate to get out of the office and back in to the buzz of the market.

All day long the auctioneers maintain their rhythm, stopping only to clear those buyers who have chosen to stand in the way of the sheep exit gate. Eventually the young auctioneer gets his turn to sell and for a couple of hours he is in a whirlwind of endless lots of sheep, trying to value them before he starts to sell them ,remember buyers names as they bid and generally not make a cock- up on his shout. Very often a senior auctioneer sits close by with a steadying word or an odd new buyer’s name.

It is late afternoon and darkness has fallen. The ring lights are on, and way down on the field pens the temporary light twinkle brightly as they dance in the evening breeze. A chill is settling in the auction ring, but the seats are still full and the lambs keep coming. The same phrases keep coming over the tannoy, “high- gone lambs”, look at the colour”, “here’s some power”. Meanwhile the drovers are working away at the same pace, never breaking stride. At the bottom of the yard the café is doing trade. Up the stairs on the loft, farmer and buyers are sharing the long tables, eating pie and peas or a selection of cold meats. The young auctioneer hopes there will be something left for him at the end of the day. He has no wife to go home to and no supper waiting. That will come rather later in life.

It’s almost 10pm. The sale has been running for 12 ½ hours non- stop. In the Joiners Arms some of the farmers who were sold in the first half an hour, have been in the pub since them. Two of them are now downing their 30th pint.

In the sale ring, all of a sudden the shout comes from behind the oak doors “last chance tonight”. In a flash the last pen of sheep for sale has entered the ring and been sold. The auctioneer, the fourth of the day, thanks everyone for their attendance and bidding. In seconds the ring seats have emptied and an eerily cold and still calm pervades the air along with the rank smell of sheep dip and soiled sawdust. A drover quickly begins to sweep the steps. He once found a tenner under the seats after a sale and has been looking out for another after every sale since.

There is a large queue of buyers in the auction office. The clerks are exhausted, white faced with the mental strain of a 12 hour shift, counting money, writing bills and taking cheques. As soon as the last buyer is accounted for they will be away.

The two youngest auctioneers scroll through the lot sheets writing the sale report and selecting the highest prices and best flock averages. Immediately after they head for the café for foo,d a warm up and plenty of banter with the lasses.

Norman Little sends a message that the auctioneers are needed to check buyer’s pens and count sheep. In the distance throughout the sheep pens there are flash lights moving backwards and forwards as buyers look for their lots. Some are even dosing their lambs before they leave. Gradually the hive of activity quietens down. Some of the full- time drovers will work through most of the night, counting, moving, loading, counting, moving loading.

Now the office is closed down and the ring- lights are turned off. Even with the big doors closed, a cold draft whistles through the gap. The ring has become cold and lonely, where just an hour or two before it was buzzing with people and lambs and the rapid fire lilt of the auctioneers. Now the sale is done and lambs will be on their way to new homes to live the rest of their lives.

The young auctioneer is dead tired but makes it to the pub for last orders. It is still heaving with a swell of farmers, still in auction gear. The mood is joyous. Trade and prices have been good all day. It is a fantastic atmosphere. Lazonby the “Foremost” mule market has done its job once again. Everyone heads for home tired, rosy cheeked and happy. Meanwhile the handful of dedicated droving staff are still there trudging through the mud of the field pens, finding lambs for anxious hauliers who want to get on the road and drive through the night.

In the morning, it will all start again, with 8,000 wether lambs to sell, because this is the back- end, the harvest of the fells and no one working at Lazonby Auction blinks an eye. This our job and our life. It’s what we know and what we love. It is also why some of us will it miss very much as we progress our careers and move on. There is always a feeling that it would be good to go back and with the knowledge gained in later years, do it all again.

Now the times have changed. There is less sheep on the hills and less buyers to purchase them. Lazonby still goes strong and always will but we never again see the days when 30,000 lambs go through the ring. Boy did we enjoy it!

“I know that man”!

It is early July in the summer of 1991. I am 26 years of age, a qualified Chartered Surveyor but still an auctioneer learning his trade. My only hobby is playing rugby but last season was very hard. My right knee has been hurting badly for months. I am playing on a Saturday then hardly able to train through the week. My coaches think I am being lazy. In the end I decide to visit my doctor and I am referred to a specialist. He says I have cartilage damage and need surgery. There is a waiting list and I may have to wait six months. I tell him that I have private medical insurance and he tells me he can do it next week.

I am admitted to a private hospital in Carlisle in less than one week. The surgeon tells me that he will perform open knee surgery. I ask him why he can’t do keyhole as I know other rugby players who have had this type of non- invasive surgery performed and their recovery was extremely swift. That operation is not possible in this hospital or so I am told. I am then reassured that the operation will be straightforward and that my cartilage will be tidied up. I am guaranteed to be back on the pitch and fully fit by October at the latest.

I am pre- opped, anesthetised and sent down to surgery. The next thing I remember is waking up in a recovery room. My injured leg is elevated and wrapped in a huge bandage. A nurse is repeatedly smacking me on the back of my hand and telling me to wake up. My eyes focus and I see a large print on the wall. It is an old farmer pal of mine from Ennerdale called John Hind. He is pictured in a show line up, proudly holding on to a Herdwick Tup. I keep trying to focus on John but he is blurry.

“Adam, what are you looking at?” questions the nurse. I am still concentrating on John.

“Adam!” The nurse now has an edge to her voice.

“You see that man there” I croak. “I know him, he’s my friend”

“Yes of course he is” I sense her tone and realise she doesn’t believe a word I am saying.

“I know that man” I respond.

 “Yes of course you do”.

“No… I really do. He’s called John”.

“Yes of course he is”.

Then the pain hits me. My knee is burning with pain. I can’t move my leg one centimetre without agony. I desperately need to pass water but I just can’t do it in to a cardboard bottle while lying down. I try and try but I can’t push water uphill.

Eventually I realise I must sit up and get my legs over the bed to do it. The nurse doesn’t want me to. I insist. So she and my girlfriend Paula, later to be my wife, drag me up and lift both my legs over the side of the bed. The pain makes me scream but I have to do it. I manage to pass water and the relief is fantastic but then my legs have to be lifted back on to the bed. I have to scream again.

I spend 4 days having to do this until eventually the surgeon arrives and removes the bandage. My knee is grotesquely swollen but the stitched up wound is clean.

“Bloody hell what happened?” I ask the surgeon

“Ah well when I got in there, your entire lateral meniscus was in flakes, so I whipped it all out”.

“But I didn’t ask you to do all that”

“Ah well I had to and you did sign the consent form. I’m afraid your recovery will take longer but when it’s healed you should be able to play rugby until you’re at least thirty. However you will most definitely suffer from ostio –arthritis by the time you are 40. I’m pretty sure we will have a cure by then” He smiles as he whips round and leaves the room.

Exactly one year later, my knee has not healed. I have not managed to run a step in that time. The pain never goes away. Any exercise produces massive swelling around the knee. I re- visit the surgeon and he tells me it is just one of those things. Some people heal and some don’t. Then he delivers a bomb shell. Unless this knee finally heals up in the next few weeks, I am going to have to accept that my rugby career is over.

He sends me on my way in shell shock. The following day I get a bill from him to add to the £4,000 paid out by my insurers. It is £1500 for rehabilitation and after- care. I write him a stinging letter telling him why he will not get another penny from me.

Two months later and my knee is finally feeling a little better. I pluck up the courage to go for a gentle run. I expect the worst but the next day, my knee does not swell and I am ok. I start to build up the runs and my leg is getting stronger. Soon I get back to training and eventually I start to play again. My knee never heals properly again. From then on after every game my knee swells to an enormous size. I keep persevering and I am getting through games and training but my knee is now permanently swollen, all the time.

I love my rugby so much that I play a few seasons for Aspatria in the National Leagues before returning to Penrith I keep on playing in to my late 30’s. By now my knee has deteriorated and I run with a permanently shortened stride but I can still play, so I keep going as long as I can. Eventually with a young family in tow, I give in. I hate not playing, sitting at home on a Saturday not able to visit the rugby club to watch games. I have started to sing in a band so that is an ocassional distraction.

It is the autumn of 2006. I am forty one years old. It is a Saturday morning. The previous day I sold several hundred suckled calves in Cockermouth market, a hard and long day’s graft. It is the last big autumn sale of the season. I could do with a release, may be a few pints in the pub tonight.

The phone rings and it is my old rugby pal John Sealby. He is the same age as me. He still plays rugby every week for Penrith 3rd XV. He tells me that they need a front row replacement for a league fixture away at Ambleside in the heart of the Lake District. They will only use me if they really need to. My heart begins to pound. A game of rugby, after all these years!

I am ratching about under the stairs when Paula catches me.

“What are you doing?”

Looking for my rugby boots”

“You’ve got to be joking”

“No”

“Well you are a …… idiot”

She doesn’t speak to me until I am picked up by the lads. The deal is supposed to be that if we are winning comfortably, they give me a 10 minute run out at the end, buy me a beer or two in the clubhouse and give me at least four stops on the drive home from Ambleside to Penrith. We settle on The Travellers Rest, Grasmere; the Kings Head, Thirlmere; The White Horse, Threlkeld and The Sportsman’s Inn, Penruddock. All of this is agreed. I have to be home by 8pm for X Factor or I won’t be spoken to for most of the following day either.

We arrive at Ambleside to find that there is no referee and three people haven’t turned up for Penrith. An Ambleside committee man agrees to Ref but admits he doesn’t really know a lot of the new laws. I am happy to hear it because neither do I. However the bad news is that we only have three front row players and one of them is me. So I am in the starting line-up. The day is now going downhill.

I struggle to lean over and tie my old boots that have not seen the light of day for four years. They are dried out and won’t bend. One is missing a couple of studs. My bad knee is locked at about 70 degrees because I have so much strapping on it.

The Ambleside captain comes in and asks for a word. He tells me they don’t have an experienced front row. They have a young boy barely out of school playing hooker. Can we have a gentleman’s agreement that we all just take it steady in the scrums? I nod my head in complete and full agreement. So we run out on to the pitch which after the incessant rain of last night is most definitely water logged. In fact the corner in front of the clubhouse is actually under water.

The first and only other time I played on this ground was for Cockermouth as an 18 year old, 23 years earlier in 1983. It was December and it snowed so hard on the way home that my pal Ray Faulder who was driving, actually turned off the A66 and in to The Pheasant Inn near Bassenthwaite without realising it!

Back to 2006. The teams line up, Penrith in their traditional myrtle green and white hoops, Ambleside or “Side” as the local supporters prefer to scream are in Black with Gold cuffs. I stand to receive the ball with my boots already full of water. I am at this point beginning to agree with my wife’s last comment to me.

The whistle blows and the ball is kicked to us. We gather the ball, there is a melee and I get elbowed in the face. Then we spin the ball down the backs. There is a kick and the ball sails in to the Ambleside half. I run across the pitch towards the ball. They retrieve and spin the ball down their backs. There is another kick and the ball is again in our half. I run back across the pitch and find myself back where I started. I’ve run two widths of the pitch and I am totally knackered. I stand with hands on knees fighting for breath.

The ball is now on the far side of the pitch. The whole Penrith pack bar one, is advancing. I walk up the wing in attempt to at least be in the same half as my team. Then the ball starts to spin through the Penrith backs. Now I may be old and fat, but I can still read a game. If I can keep up with our backs and they don’t drop the ball, then there is an overlap with me on the end of it. I run as fast as my stick thin damaged old legs can carry me and sure enough the ball is delivered to me, unmarked. I have a 20 metre run in to the near corner. I waddle over and dive head long in to a 6” deep pond of cold, muddy water. On the TV you see internationals players dive over the line and slide 10 yards. I belly flop to an immediate halt. It is my first touch of a rugby ball in four years and I score in the corner.

The team is ecstatic. I am embraced and slapped on the back and I hear words like “legend” and “superstar” being uttered. I’m so exhausted I can hardly walk back to the half way line. They kick to us and we immediately knock- on. “Thank God we are taking it easy in the scrums” I think.

So we form the scrum, make our binds and I gently lean in ready to lightly make contact with my opposition. Bang! He thumps in to me so hard that he knocks the wind out of me and I see stars. He then begins to wrestle my arm, and bore in to my head with his own, growling fiercely. The scrum breaks up and I look at their captain on the other side who just shrugs his shoulders.

“Right oh” I say “let’s have it”. So I spend the next 75 minutes battling for all I am worth in the most competitive scrummaging I have had since my first team days. My try scoring run is the only time I actually touch the ball during the entire game. I am there for nuisance value, nothing more.

Later in the game, I spy young Jonathon Benson playing for Ambleside. He is a farmer’s son from Langdale that I have watched grow up from a young boy. He is passionate about Herdwick sheep and he is a decent rugby player for an 18 year old. He is aggressive and good with the ball in hands. I decide to slow him down. I find him at the bottom of a ruck and manage to rub his face in the mud. Look, don’t feel sorry for him! I’ve had it done to me plenty, and I was smiling all the time to show there was no real malice. He gets up spitting mud out of his mouth and he is smiling too.

The game finishes after what seems like an entire day. We line up by the changing room doors, clap the opposition through our tunnel of players and shout the traditional “three cheers for Ambleside”. It takes me 20 minutes to get my boots, bandages and shirt off. By the time I get to the showers, they are cold and I can’t get the claggy Lakeland mud out of my hair. Back in the changing room it takes me another 20 minutes to get dressed. My neck and back have seized up after 30 scrums and my right knee won’t straighten.

In the clubhouse, there is pie and beans which is taken with my first pint. Across from our table I spy young Benno. I call him over for a pint. This is one of the best parts of the game of rugby. No matter what has gone on during the game, back in the clubhouse, it is all forgotten. We stand at the bar and down a few pints in quick succession. Benno is not a big drinker and he is getting fairly merry already. It is not the last time over the next couple of years that our paths cross on the pitch and in the auction. He is a likeable young man and I try and support him in his early farming career as much as possible.

Soon it is time to leave. We shake hands with the opposition and make our goodbyes. Four pub stops and a couple of hours later I am home in time for X- Factor. I am so stiff I can’t move and I’ve had a few pints. I am sound asleep before the first advertising break. Never mind X Factor, It is a big “No” from the Missus…

By the middle of the following week I am still as stiff as ever and I limp around the auction. I bump in to John Hind, who now works part time in Cockermouth auction as a drover. My sore knee and his presence reminds me all those years ago of my hospital visit. I tell him the tale. “I know that man”. He laughs and says he has a copy of the self- same print.

For the rest of the rugby season, I don’t miss a game for Penrith 3rd XV. I lose two stones in weight and feel great to be a rugby player again. It also gives me much pleasure to coach some of the young players. There are certain tricks to be used in the front row that don’t get taught at school! If wasn’t for that bad knee, I would still be playing now!

Advice from Jos Naylor

I’ve met and worked with most Lake District farmers over the years. Here i recall a farm visit to Jos Naylor in the Wasdale Valley one cold January morning.

Photo taken by my friend and ex- rugby team mate Ian Mallinson.

 

It is a freezing cold January morning as I make my way along the narrow roads of Wasdale. This is a truly remote part of the Lake District. Only a few miles from the Irish Sea, the Valley is dominated by some of the highest fells of Lakeland. Great Gable stands magnificently at the head of the valley flanked by the Scafells to the south and the Ennerdale fells to the North. Wasdale Screes fall sharply in to Wastwater. At 258 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in Cumbria. The lake bed is actually below sea level. The geography is stunning on any day of the week. A mass of tumbling rocks and boulders, with great swathes of scree, carved out and exposed by dying glaciers at the end of the ice age. At this time of year, with the winter wind and rain howling in from the Irish Sea, it is no place for the timid.

One can but imagine the Norsemen of the 10th century clearing the valley bottom to settle and colonise. For them perhaps it was almost a taste of home. Much later William Wordsworth was to describe the valley as “long, stern and desolate”. Perhaps he was visiting on day rather like today!

The working farms up here a hard places and it takes a special type of farmer to work them, in a land where local knowledge and custom is time honoured, trusted and proven.

Beneath the highest mountains at the head of the valley sits England’s smallest church. Dedicated in modern times to St Olaf, the main church beams are reputed to be taken from a Viking longboat over 1,000 years ago. My journey will not take me that far today.

It has been snowing hard and freezing at night. There is a bitter nip in the air and the swirling eddies of bitingly cold wind, chill to the bone. My car heater is on full, as I press on up the lake side road, my tyres smashing through the icy puddles.

I am on my way to see Jos Naylor at Bowderdale Farm. Jos is a legendary character. A world champion fell runner, he was often called “The King of the Fells”. His achievements on the hills are incredible.  In 1975 one of his greatest feats was to conquer 72 Lakeland peaks, running over 100 miles ascending 38,000 feet and in a time of 23h 20m.

The Cumbrian hills are both his work place and his hobby. Passionate about this landscape, he is both proud of the sheep he breeds and the landscape they live upon. Naylor’s have worked this valley for a few generations and Jos’s son Paul is following on behind and doing a great job. These are hard, cold and wet farms on the western fringes of Lakeland. It takes special people with unique skills to thrive in this environment. The sheep bred on the hills are also hardy. If they can survive harsh winters grazing on these fells then they can certainly do well later in life when they are often sold as draft ewes to more lowland climes. In my time as a Lakeland auctioneer in the autumn months, I sell many thousands of sheep from most of the farms in the valley. These are my dog days and the sales that I will later look back on with most pride.

I arrive in to the yard, and Joss is working amongst some young Herdwick sheep he has penned up. There are snowflakes scurrying and diving around the in the air. The cold makes me catch my breath. From the boot of my car I quickly don extra layers and some fingerless gloves. Jos acknowledges me and keeps working. I’ve come to see the sheep, and I start to work with him. After a while the job is done. He is satisfied with the outcome.

Only then do I notice that on his upper body Jos is wearing nothing but a cotton checked shirt, sleeves rolled up above the elbow and unbuttoned down to the navel. He is it seems oblivious to the cold. I expect that as the snow begins to fall faster we will retire to the kitchen for a drink. Not a bit of it. Jos leans back against the sheep rails and folds is arms across his chest. He begins to question me about Cockermouth Auction. This is the late 1990’s and we are still no nearer to getting our much- hoped for market. The old town centre site is working at maximum capacity and we are selling thousands of lightweight lambs from most of the farms in Wasdale and nearly every other valley.

“You would wonder where all these little lambs go” he says. I tell him that the vast majority of the lambs are slaughtered in Britain and sent in carcass form to countries all over Europe. Thousands of little fell lambs produced by Cumbrian farmers weighing around 30kg as they are sold, end up on tables from France to Turkey. This growing market is a godsend to all hill farmers who breed such lambs in the hills that have a limited market in our country.

I crack a joke. “You know Jos, these little lambs are Cumbria’s second best export after nuclear reprocessing. Jos laughs because he has a working relationship with BNFL and the Sellafield plant is just a few miles distant from Wasdale.

By now my fingers and toes are going numb. Jos doesn’t seem to notice. He is impervious to the cold. He asks me if I am still playing rugby. I tell him that I am however at 33 years old, I’m getting towards the end of my career, and my knees are hurting more and more.

Jos looks me in the eye. “Listen lad. If you enjoy it and still want to do it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t as good as you used to be. Just keep doing it, because there will come a day when you just can’t”………

Those words stick with me and I often think of them years down the line when I am in my forties and still lacing up my boots. I still love it and still want to do it. I do so in the knowledge that soon the day will come when “I just can’t”.

“Still running then Jos” I say though chattering teeth. “Oh aye” he replies.  “I like to get up on the tops, clears me head, and gives me time to think”.

“Not on a day like today though” I joke. “Oh yes” he says in all seriousness, “wouldn’t be a problem. You see I know these fells, every bit of them, and I know me, what I can do and what I can’t. Too many people go on to the tops and they don’t know them, and they don’t know when to get off. Then when they realise they need to get down, it is too late”!

He goes on to tell me that not too many years ago, a crack squad of Special Forces people approached him to go out for a training session on the fells. Jos says that one by one he left them for dead as they gave up and dropped out, until the last one finally could go no further. Jos had to help him back down to safety, so exhausted was the soldier. “I kept him going with boiled sweets” he said. “He thought he could break me but it “nivver” happened”.

Jos tells me that all his power is in his legs. He is remarkably tall for a fell runner, but he is stick thin in the upper body. His legs are made of steel and judging by his dress code on a freezing January day, he is impervious to pain.

He does admit though he does like to warm his bones and has rather taken to spending time in the Canary Islands where he has bought a home. The thought of being in such a place at this very moment is very appealing, at least to me.

Our meeting has come to an end and Jos is eager to get on with more sheep work. He is going out in to the fields to “look the sheep”. I bid him goodbye and by the time I remove my winter clothing in order to get back in to the car, I lose Jos in the gathering wisps of winter snow as he half walks and half runs up the in- bye land above the farm. In a minute he is gone from view. It is a good job that I am not required to go with him. I couldn’t keep up!

By the time I leave the valley, my fingers and toes are coming back to life. His words of advice stick with me for years as I carry on dragging my ageing body around the rugby pitch, loving every minute of it until at the age of forty four I am forced to retire, because finally, “I just can’t”.

Jos also heeded his own mantra. For some years later at the age 70, he successfully ran over 70 Lakeland fell tops, covering more than 50 miles and ascending more than 25,000 feet. All of this in under 21 hours. I don’t think the words “Just can’t” are in Jos Naylor’s vocabulary.

KESWICK HERDWICK TUP FAIR

It is the autumn of 1995. I am 30 years of age and the new manager of Mitchell’s Auction Co Ltd. Mitchell’s operates the livestock mart in the town centre of Cockermouth, the market town bedecked by Wordworth’s daffodils each spring, and full of Lake District sheep in the autumn, brought to the market for sale from every valley in the county. The market company is one of the oldest auctions in the country having been created in 1873. As a boy at Fairfield junior school I could hear the auctioneers in full flow and so wanted to run across the car park to the auction. Now I am here managing the place!

There is one important sale that does not take place at Cockermouth Auction although it is always conducted by Mitchell’s. It is the famous Keswick Herdwick Tup Fair. For decades this event has taken place in the park lands above the Twa Dogs pub heading out of Keswick towards Penrith. With great care and precision, Herdwick breeders set up temporary pens in which to hold the annual crop of Herdwick rams, or tups as they are known in Cumbria. Not long after first- light, a procession of vehicles and trailers arrive at the field and the tups are expedited to the grass pens in preparation for the prize judging and eventual sale.

The manager of Cockermouth auction always conducts this sale. It is a long- standing tradition. This year for the first time, the sale is in my hands. I have been nervous for days leading up to the fair. I am new to the job, I don’t really know Herdwick sheep and I only know a few of the local vendors and potential buyers. It is a big responsibility but none of the Herdwick breeders seem to bat an eyelid. They all seem happy to have me selling at their main annual event of the year. Either that or they are good at hiding it!

I arrive early to show willing. It is typical tup fair weather, wet and windy. The clouds are lying low on the southern slopes of Skiddaw, towering above Keswick. Even the top of Latrigg is hidden from view. In front of me I observe a sea of green waterproofs, plastic leggings and wellies. There is an autumnal nip in the air and the leaves are falling from the trees and swirling in the breeze. The Lake District Herdwick farmers are impervious to the rain and cold wind. Winter hasn’t started for them.

Generally speaking the weather is always the same for the Tup Fair. The green landscape is broken only by the magnificent sight of the Herdwick Tups in the pens. There in front of me are 250 of the finest Herdwick males penned together side by side. It is a beautiful view. The older tups now in full bone and full bloom are pumped up like African lions. Striking in their familiar rudded – up (red) fleeces, another long- standing Herdwick tradition. They are testosterone filled pocket battle- ships ready to fight each other or ready to serve ewes, whichever opportunity happens first. The smell of the sheep, the wet wool and the rudd is all- pervading. It is the smell of autumn sheep sales.

It is getting towards tupping time when in just a few weeks’ time, the Herdwick ewes will be brought down from the high Lakeland fells and introduced to their new male friends. This is the only sale of registered Herdwick rams in the year. Each tup has been inspected by a panel of Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association members and has been judged to be physically correct and fit for sale.

Before me stands the cream of the crop, the pride and joy of each and every Herdwick Farmer who is selling. Many of the sheep will have been shown at various Lakeland agricultural shows throughout the year culminating late in the season at Eskdale and Wasdale. The Tup twinters often attract most interest. These are three year old sheep that are about to live through their second winter (twinters). They have not had the chance to serve any sheep being too young the previous autumn. As such they are untried and unproven. Some have massive potential and have been observed by potential buyers at various shows. Some have only been brought out to show at the very end of the season once the opposition has been assessed.

It is good fun watching potential buyers trying to get a good look at the sheep without appearing too interested. It doesn’t do for some buyers to broadcast that they like a certain tup. This can attract other potential buyers who respect the opinions of others and might even out- bid them at sale time. Herdwick tup buying can be a furtive business. Many times in later years I take a bid from a surreptitious hand flapping over the top of the wall, the owner of the hand trying hard not to be seen other bidders. More often than not everyone knows whose hand it is anyway. It is even more fun to knock the tup down to the hand and give the correct name out without even seeing the person. The thumbs up over the top of the wall was the sign that I had got it right!

But this is Keswick and today there are no walls. There isn’t even a rostrum. I have to stand on the ramp of a sheep trailer looking out over the sheep pens, with many bidders standing even further away behind the pens, and many farmers standing either side of the trailer. There is no microphone and I am expected to shout for about 5 hours which is how long it takes to sell 250 Herdwick Tups, one by one.

The judging has taken place, the prizes awarded and it is sale time. The rain is incessant and I stand on the trailer ramp with a shepherd’s crook which I use as a gavel, banging it down on the ramp to signify that a sale has been made. My other hand is trying to hold on to an umbrella, but it is a forlorn hope. There is water dripping in to my eyes and I am having to shout above the wind and rain to a large group of several hundred farmers all around me.

I have one asset by my side. Stan Edmondson from Seathwaite Farm is going to help me. He is a director of the auction company. He is also both a Herdwick legend and a Lake District legend. Anyone who has walked through the farm yard at Seathwaite heading for Scafell or Great Gable will have been greeted by Stan. His cheery wave and standard shout of “Aye- aye” will have been heard by thousands of Lake District visitors over the decades. He has a life- long experience of breeding and working with Herdwick sheep. He takes and interest in the people who visit his valley. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” is a phrase oft heard from Stan as people walk past.

Prior to the sale Stan tells me that he is going to stand with me and “keep me right”. This means he will point out sheep that he thinks may make a good price and to tell me the names of all the buyers who I don’t recognise. Stan knows every person on the field and probably their fathers and grandfathers before them. The problem is that Stan isn’t that good with names. Throughout the sale I am offered a number of suggestions as the hammer comes down. “Oh that’s what his nyam, thoo knaas, Johnny’s Grandson, thoo knaas him” and so on!

Stan is nearly 80 years old. His days as a world champion fell runner are long behind him, but he knows Herdwicks through and through. Despite being crippled with arthritis, he stands for 5 hours bent over his trusty shepherd crook, his eyes alive to the sheep in the ring, and the people bidding for them.

One by one The Herdwick tups are brought in to a little ring area in front of the auctioneer’s trailer. They charge about between me and the sheep pens. The vendors wave their arms frantically to try and make the tup show to attention. Occasionally they grab hold of the sheep to ensure it stands in the correct way, or to stop it jumping out of the ring. It’s a constant whirlwind of motion that I have to ignore as I urgently scan the crowd for bids.

I start the sale and manage to get quite a few sold but it is without doubt the hardest I have ever had to work. Herdwick Sheep Breeders are slow bidders. You cannot rush them. You cannot jump them up with big bids. You have to let each lot take its course. The grim reality is that no one actually knows how much a Herdwick tup is worth. Certain bloodlines are prized and there is only a limited gene pool within the breed. Tried and tested aged tups can reach a decent price. Young twinter tups of good potential can make a few thousand pounds. It depends on the breeding and of course the conformation.

Auctioneers pride themselves on stocksmanship and knowing the true value of the stock they sell.  A Herdwick auctioneer must accept that neither he nor many of the Herdwick shepherds have much of clue as to what the sheep are worth. Nobody minds how low you start, so you just keep taking the bids until they cease. At that point the stick is banged down on the ramp, the hammer has fallen and the sale is made.

In time as I gain experience, I learn to do the exact opposite of many top quality pedigree auctioneers that I have watched and admired. For in other breed circles the auctioneer judges the animal and the people bidding for them. If circumstances allow, they go big from the start, taking large bids in the knowledge that certain buyers will go with them and maybe even new records will be created. When I sell Herdwick tups, I take smaller bids as the lot progresses. This way I can often eek out an extra 500 guineas beyond where I might be were I taking much bigger bids. It takes longer but in time record prices will be broken using just this method.

I’ve been selling or rather shouting for over 4 hours without a break. In that time I have only sold 200 tups, but that is normal. Old Stan has been doing his best with the names. It is also a tradition in Lakeland to sometimes give the name of the farm rather than the farmer. So I am knocking sheep down to Nook Farm, Brotherilkeld, Troutbeck Park, Fell Foot and many more famous Lakeland farms. Often I have no idea who actually farms there. In time, I will grow to know each and every one of them. Even better, the course of my work as a Lakeland auctioneer will take me to so many of these farms on a regular basis. Time and again I am made welcome, and made to feel like I am part of the Herdwick world. So often I travel over the famous mountain passes of Lakeland on my way home from visiting Lake District farms. Always I feel I am blessed to do this for a job, and get paid for it.

Stan is also good at pointing out the sheep he likes. “This might mek a bit”. He is generally right, but not always! Eventually we are down to a handful tups left to sell.  A little Herdwick tup lamb comes in to the ring. Tup lambs are rarely sold, being given the chance to grow in to their second winter and sold as a twinter. This little lamb is only a few months old and is striking in that is jet black all over. Herdwick lambs are born very dark or even black. Their fleeces lighten with age. This little ball of fluff really is jet black.

It has been bred by another legendary breeder, Joe Folder now residing near Cockermouth. Stan lights up. “Ah now I like this” he says. “Set it off at 400 guineas”.

“What?” I am incredulous. It is a tiny little ball of fluff. “Set it off at 400 guineas” he repeats. Rather non- plussed I set the bidding off at 400 guineas. After one minute of scanning the crowd and constantly repeating “400 guineas, I’ve 400 bid, any more this time”. I turn to Stan and quietly apologise. “Sorry old lad, no one is bidding”

“Nay” he says “ah thowt it would mek all of that”. So I drop down to 50 guineas and immediately there is interest. 5 minutes later the bids have been coming in thick and fast. Finally with a last shout “all done? Last chance, hammers up, goes this time”…. The Herdwick tup lamb is sold for 400 guineas. Stan is triumphant. He thumps his shepherds crook on the trailer door “there thoo is” he beams “I telt tha”.

Joe Folder, smiles and winks at me. It is a sign of approval and we become friends from that day forward. The buyer of the lamb is non- other than Jean Wilson, a lady feted within the Herdwick world and far beyond. Jean Wilson is synonymous with Herdwick Sheep. Her rock by her side is her husband Derek. Years later Derek tells me that “Jean was bred to breed Herdwicks”. It is in her blood. She will travel the world to promote Herdwicks and her wise council is sought by many a young breeder starting their Herdwick career.

Like so many of the old school breeders, her knowledge of the Herdwick sheep and her skills are all encompassing. Meet Jean at any show or sale, and she will know the history and breeding of not only all of her own sheep but probably most of the other farmers sheep too.

Years later I was required to inspect and value many of Jeans best sheep and also the sheep of many other Herdwick Breeders in the foot and mouth epidemic of 20011. This was without doubt the hardest, most upsetting, soul- destroying job I was ever asked to undertake. For in 2001 these sheep were wintered away from home on the fertile soils of the Solway plain on the northern shores of Cumbria. Jean and so many other farmers could never visit those sheep or see them again for foot and mouth disease was raging in north Cumbria and the government  deemed that the sheep, healthy or not, could never return home and worse still, had to die.

The sorrow in having to speak to Jean after the deed was done will stay with me forever. Even then through the tears and upset, she was able to tell me which sheep I had inspected, their breeding, their bloodlines and their value to her which far outweighed the monetary valuation I had placed upon them. Later that night I cried my own tears behind closed doors. Tears for Jean and all the other breeders and for the sheep themselves most of which were not diseased, but slaughtered in perfect health. What joy to see Jean and so many other Herdwick breeders rise again although it has taken a long time and the pain of those times will never be forgotten.

Recently while speaking at a farmer’s dinner I told the tale of the little jet black tup lamb. I had forgotten that Jean had bought it and was telling the story simply to mention Stan’s instruction to “set it off at 400” and how I eventually got to the price.

As I started to tell the tale. Derek Wilson who was in the audience with Jean, stood up and stopped me. “Do you remember who bought that lamb” asked Derek?

“Err no” I replied.

“It was Jean and when she got home with that laal black thing I bollocked her for bringing it back”

Jean immediately stood up. Leaning backwards with her eyes almost closed as Jean does, she came right back at Derek “ah but you’ll hev til admit” she said to her husband, “eventually he did make a fair decent tup”. Derek had to agree and of course Jeans idea of a decent tup is normally a pretty good recommendation! 22 years had gone by since Jean purchased the little jet black lamb but she remembered the sale as much as I did. “There was just summat aboot him I rather liked” she would tell me later.

So my first ever Herdwick Tup Fair in Keswick is over. I have survived. It even stopped raining and I was able to remove my waterproof jacket. The business is concluded, tups loaded into trailers or just left in the pens, and everyone retires to the Twa Dogs Inn. I sit with Geoff Edmondson from Langdale and we have a pint of Jennings Beer. Geoff sits back in a relaxed position with his rudded waterproof leggings shoved down over his wellies to protect the pub décor. He takes a sup then folds his hands across his chest. “Well Adam Lad, do you think you were getting the hang of it”. “I didn’t think I did too badly for a first go Geoff”. He laughs. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been among Herdwicks all my life and I’m still learning the bloody job… like”

Soon the traditional singing has brought the bar to life. Glen Wilkinson from Tilberthwaite whose flocks run across the Coniston fells, has his thumbs shoved firmly down in the pocket of his jeans. His head is cocked to one side, cheeks ruddy from the warm glow of the fire. Eyes closed in concentration he breaks into a bass baritone version of “Black Velvet Band”. We all sing the chorus in raucous fashion. Then David Bland from West Head stands up. His sheep run high up along the Helvellyn range. He takes a deep breath and then word perfectly sings “Old Shep”, in a version as good as the King himself. Some of the younger farmers cajole Syd Hardisty from How Hall on the shores of Ennerdale. “Come on Syd, give us Jobby Teasdale’s Warlick!” Syd stands up and his own unique rambling style, half sings and half recites his famous party piece.

I am relaxing in the warm glow as day turns to dark and thinking to myself, “This is great but if I’m doing this sale again next year, I’d like to have it in Cockermouth auction”!

The following year after some hard work on my part I have persuaded the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association to allow Keswick Tup Fair to be held in Cockermouth Auction for the first time ever. The older breeders who have been to Keswick come rain or shine for decades are unhappy. Tradition is tradition. Some of the younger breeders and one or two influential Herdwick Council members have backed me and are prepared to give it a go. That is another story!

 

Welcome to the Lake District – Wasteland or Wonderland?

Recently a journalist from a national newspaper described the Lake District as a sheep- wrecked wasteland. It is not the first time journalists have sought to de- cry farming in Cumbria. This man has been making a habit of it having written about the need to re-wild areas like Cumbria, claiming that sheep compact the vegetation and soils on Lakeland’s fells, exacerbating surface water run- off, contributing to flooding issues, destroying flora and fauna and so on. You get the picture.

His comments were generally not well received in Cumbria. It wasn’t just farmers that bristled but also owners of tourist businesses  and I have to say some environmental bodies who work with farmers in Cumbria too and found the approach unhelpful. People who know and love our county may not be dissuaded by controversial sound bytes designed to increase the author’s profile, but to anyone reading newspapers and considering visiting Lakeland for the first time, they may well have been dismayed to read those damaging and deliberately provocative comments. Farmers maintained a dignified silence to the point where they were goaded on social media by the journalist, desperately seeking a reaction. Few bothered. The most ardent environmentalists are of course singing the praises of this re- wilding approach.

I cannot comment on those books or articles. I haven’t read them in full. I have however heard other people’s thought’s. Whilst most have found the extremes of sheep removal and re- wilding unpalatable and for some quite laughable, there was an acceptance that farm management could and should make positive contributions to protect and conserve Lakeland’s environment in future, but not at the expense of the farmers or all of their sheep!

So is our beloved Lake District a wasteland or a wonderland? 40 Million Tourist’s visit Cumbria annually spending around £2 Billion. That doesn’t sound like a wasteland to me. I’ve never met a tourist yet who doesn’t love to see sheep on the fells as they grind and sweat their way up the well- trodden paths of Lakelands finest fells. What better a back drop can you have as you sit and eat your sandwiches in the gentle summer breezes on the tops, watching the Herdwicks grazing the slopes, listening to the faraway bleat of lambs, momentarily lost from their mothers in the thick grasses and swathes of bracken?

Farmers tell me that on many fells and commons the grass sward is quite thick these days, butterflies are returning and most of the land managers I know are proud of the wildlife, birdlife and other habitats on their farms.

So what is the story? Well, it is common knowledge that in the austere years following WW2, this country and many other European countries were counting the cost of war. There were food shortages and rationing. Successive governments sought to get the country back on track. The farmer was the housewives best friend. She needed the dairy man, the shepherd, the beef farmer and the pig producer like never before. Over one third (33%) of the weekly wage was spent on food. Our farmers were respected for the fine job they did. Food was a necessity and not that readily available.

Gradually over the next few decades food austerity began to dwindle. All the while food production was in full swing. The new common market gave farmers quotas and targets, positively supporting increasing production through various measures. Add to that new technology, better farming methods and increasing yields and it did not take that many years to reach saturation- point. Crazy as it sounds we were soon over- producing. We well remember the Butter Mountains and wine lakes as excess stocks were bought and stored under what was simply called “EU intervention”!

In Cumbria during my working life our farmers were paid subsidies to keep more breeding stock via a host of support measures. There were headage payments for breeding cattle and sheep, top- up measures to ensure a guaranteed price on some prime stock at the time of slaughter and tradeable quota’s for milk production and sheep. The result in nearly all upland areas of the UK was that farmers kept more and more stock to take advantage of the subsidies. Who could blame them? I would have done it and so would most people. As a result, more sheep were kept on the fells than ever before, more cattle grazed in the valleys and more milk cows put through the dairy parlours all across the country.

The general public did not complain because food was becoming cheaper year upon year. This has continued to the point where the average food spend as percentage of earned income is now estimated to be as low as 11%, a far cry from 1950. What this means is that the consumer has far more disposable income to spend on other goodies. Food is so cheap it has become disrespected. My grandmother would scrape every last scrap of margarine from a tub. Nothing was wasted. Food would be re used or re- heated by her in the following days. Grandfather raved about three day old lamb hotpot which he claimed he would happily eat every day as the flavour matured with each re- heat. Today it is not so. Food is no longer valued by the consumer. In 2015 UK households binned over £13 billion of edible food, nearly £500 per household per year.

Out with the rubbish has gone public and political respect for farmers and also consumer knowledge about food production. It is a travesty that young people learn so little in schools about farming, food production and the environment. Indeed all the talk about farmers for many years has been the misguided myth that they are production subsidy junkies, living in high old- fashion, driving large country cars and abusing the animals they farm in search of maximum production and profit. A visit to and a chat with any lake district farmer would soon put paid to that.

Many farmers in the Lake District are very good at talking to the public. They have to be as most Lakeland farms are criss- crossed with public footpaths leading to and from the fells. My old friend and auction mart director Stan Edmondson positively revelled in meeting the stream of visitors trudging past Seathwaite farm in Borrowdale, heading for Great Gable or the Scafell’s. “Where’ve you been and what have you seen?” was a phrase that many will remember him by. In this and other respects farming is linked arm in arm with tourism, indeed perfect bed- fellows in areas like Cumbria. So much so that Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership is currently drafting a rural growth plan linking farming and tourism tightly together.

By the late 1980’s it was clear that some of the Lakeland fells were becoming over- grazed. Solutions were offered and on some fells farmers were financially encouraged to reduce the numbers of fell ewes grazing on high during the winter months. At this time a plethora of non- governmental organisations began to grow with a very fixated view on how the environment, rivers, lakes, habitats, flora and fauna should be managed in areas like the Lake District. By the mid 1990’s production support had disappeared. European and government policy dictated that support payments to farmers should be based on environmental rules and outcomes.

At this point the relationship between the farming community, government agencies and environmentalists began to sour. Farmers were now being asked to keep even less sheep and cattle in the name of environmental protection. Blamed for the loss of habitat, over grazing, water quality and all the while being ordered by supermarkets to offer uniformity in supply, quality and conformation (remember the wonky vegetables) and at reduced or even penal prices, times suddenly got pretty difficult for farmers.

The BSE crisis of 1996 followed by the collapse in Beef prices, then a collapse in sheep prices, Foot and Mouth disease in 2001, an subsequent years when there was no export market, brought the livestock farming industry to an all- time low. Hard farming areas like the Lake District suffered as badly as any other area of the country. Many farm businesses were able to survive only with the subsidy payments available, using this money to prop up loss- making livestock enterprises. Profit almost became a dirty word in farming.

Sound business advice would have suggested that those farmers doing worst should actually cut and run, sell up and let those of the biggest size and scale swallow the smaller poorer farms. It didn’t happen. Why? Well here is the rub to all of this. Despite all of the issues and problems that have beset the farming industry over the last thirty years and more, there is one factor that remains unaccounted for and that is the human factor, farmers themselves.

Generations of farming families have worked these hills and valleys. There is pride and stoicism. It is passed from generation to generation and is bred- in, rather like the hefting gene in genuine fell sheep. In the bad times young farmers have perhaps had to take second jobs and work elsewhere but so often there is hope and expectation that one day, the farm will be theirs. The cycle will continue.

At this stage of my own career as a Lakeland auctioneer I have worked with at least three generations of family farming and my how times have changed. What does not change is the passion and the care to farm the Lake District “to the best of our ability”. I talk to many young farmers whose priority is to learn the skills peculiar to farming in their valley or on their fell. Every fell or common is different. Now they are also challenged with learning new skills, how to improve the bio- diversity on the farm, how to manage the water, how to deal with flooding. These are all part of the modern Lakeland farmer’s new challenges and working practice. The good news is that I haven’t met many farmers who are not up for the challenge. I see this a huge positive for the government, general public and all those concerned principally with conserving the environment.

So how is it going to work in the future? No one has crystal ball good enough to see through the hazy maze of Brexit, future government policy, climate change, international politics, and a world population set to increase from 7 billion to over 10 billion in the next thirty years. These are global issues we have to address. It is now clear that we have to put the past behind us and craft a land use policy in this country which achieves some very simple aims: –

  • Sustainable food production
  • Viable farming
  • Conserve and enhance our natural environments
  • Protect our fresh water supplies.
  • Farmers collaborating with farmers to achieve all of the above.

We cannot stick our head in the sand. At some stage in the next couple of decades we will go hungry in this country. We have such a reliance on cheap imported food from all over the world that it is dangerous. The reality is that food importation costs are going to rise, climate change will effect food production, pressure on fresh water supplies will increase significantly and the potential for political and religious disagreement is only going to strengthen.

As a nation we have to plan for the future. We have to get past short- term government thinking with manifestos designed only to win votes at election time. As a country we have to be bigger than that. The four aims I suggested above or not in any way exclusive. Instead they are totally linked and mutually inclusive.

In my opinion, the group of people best placed to deliver those aims are farmers. The cheapest, most cost effective way to deliver those public benefits is by supporting farm businesses. They have the skill sets and the ability with training and guidance to make this happen and achieve those aims. How do we do this?

I would be crunching the numbers to see what level of sustainable food production will be required to feed a population in the UK expected to exceed 80 Million by 2050. I’d be working with the farming community to improve productivity and efficiency under the concept of “more from less”. In other words how to grow more food with reduced inputs and costs. This means embracing new technology, improved working practices, better training and exchange of knowledge.

At the same time I would be engaging the UK leaders and experts in environmental protection. I would be asking and agreeing a set of goals and targets focusing on areas of greatest need. I would be looking to improve bio- diversity in those areas, encouraging improvements to habitat, improving our water quality and how we actually manage the land particularly in water catchments and areas of potential flooding.

All of this has to come at a public cost. Food production and environmental management is not a freebie. If you want cheap food in the shops sold at or under the cost of production, then food producers have to be subsidised. This is where reality has to kick in for supermarkets and other food processors. Environmentalists cannot expect farmers and other land managers to carry the cost of environmental protection and enhancement. Nor can they reasonably demand that their need of financial support is any greater or more important than the farmers. If the population starts to go hungry, they will forage the environment to survive. A balance is clearly required. We’re already past the “them and us” stage. They have to work in partnership.

If government buys in to the goals I suggested above, they then need to gather all parties together. All of them have their own goals and agenda’s. Through discussion and negotiation, a common set of goals and targets can be achieved. Everyone will have to settle for wins and losses, but at the end of an embryonic and totally new land management policy will be tabled and agreed to with which to go forward.

The final job will be to cost and apportion the level of public funding required to achieve the goals and targets. Again it will an inclusive subsidy regime rather than exclusive. Leading the field will be the farmers who will be tasked and supported in producing great food, cheaply and economically whilst at the same guaranteeing to conserve and where possible improve the natural environment.

This has to happen on a regional or even local basis. One size fits all national policies have not worked. Local knowledge on the ground has been ignored far too often by government people in far- away offices who have neither the knowledge nor the experience to administer agriculture and environment policies. Someone at a high level needs to grasp this fact and put their head above the parapet. DEFRA and other agencies are simply not fit for purpose in their current state.

Once the policies and goals are fixed, a public purse needs to be tapped in to in order to fund food production and environmental support. All the while the government must actively promote the new land use policies to the public. Consumers need to be educated in a number of ways. This will include the importance of all the land- use goals, British Values whereby it is no disgrace to promote “buying British” or even better “Buying local”. Incidentally British values are already supposed to be taught in Britain’s schools and colleges.

The public would then hopefully realise that once again, the farmer is a friend, perhaps in an even stronger way than 70 years ago when food production was the only goal. In the words of Bob Dylan “the times they are a- changin”. The problem as time goes on is that the changes are happening faster and faster. While politicians dither leading up to Brexit we are losing valuable time to get our agriculture industry in order and set up for the next round of challenges.

We need to be preparing the next generation of young farmers right now. They will be tasked with managing our lands and producing our food in future. The challenges facing them will be harder than ever before. Their position and status in society will be a key driver. The public support package needed has to be identified and put in place as soon as possible. Farm business support organisations like our own Farmer Network have been promoting these policies for years and have been in some ways, ahead of the game.

Farmer’s work best when they work together, but over the years the collaboration between farmers has reduced or even disappeared. In that respect we lag way behind our European counterparts. We need to get it back. Why? Because everyone is good at something, but no one good at everything. There is the opportunity to network, share and learn together. All of this will help achieve the land use policies we need. The same goes for government agencies and other land- use organisations. Too many are skilled in their own speciality but know nothing about the practicalities of farming. Just as our farmers need to become more environmentally savvy, so the environmentalists must become more farmer savvy. It has to happen in order to create joined up policies. There has to be a balance.

In thirty years’ time, I would love to think that our “wonderland” Lake District still attracts visitors from all over the world, but it may not be the case. If it is not, then I pray that at least we can feed our population and protect our precious little corner of the planet. I cannot get away from my strongly held belief that is the young farmers of today who will provide this for the generations of tomorrow.

The good news, and I know this because I work with them regularly, is that our young farmers are keen, enthusiastic and totally committed to farming the Lake District in the future. Far from the wrecked wasteland that some have sought to portray I believe our marvellous landscapes will be enhanced in future, our food production systems and our water quality improved. All of this will be achieved by our farmers many of whom are just starting their careers now, but only if they are properly and sensibly supported.

What a responsibility, what a challenge!

SELLING CALVES AT PENRITH AUCTION. “£20 AND I MEAN IT!”

Back in the late 1980’s at the start of my career, it was custom and practice to put trainee auctioneers on to sell feeding and rearing calves. In Penrith market these weekly sales consisted of large numbers of dairy bred black and white bull calves together with a smaller number of beef breed calves which would be bought either to feed on and eventually fatten or keep as herd replacements.

 The black and white calves were much in demand for the European export market for veal, with several companies throughout the UK operating this type of business. So a plethora of professional calf buyers would climb in to the ring each Monday morning at Penrith.

My friend and colleague David Jackson was the young auctioneer above me and he had been selling for a few years, starting as a teenager. He had by this time worked his way in to the groove and had a good relationship with the calf buyers, you could say a mutual respect.

Some of the buyers were good to deal with, friendly and approachable. Others were almost tyrannical and would happily use fear and intimidation against any auctioneer in order to gain an advantage. My job week after week was to learn from David by pushing the calves in to the ring for sale or being on the rostrum clerking the sale.

I got to know the buyers quite well. There were some real characters in this field. The Forbes family and the Ross family from just over the border in Scotland were all related. The craic with them was generally good but it didn’t take much for a very short fuse to be lit. If that happened, then all hell could break loose in the ring. Dennis Thwaites and Stanley Mudd were two men who lived locally and knew many of the vendors in the market. They got on with their job quietly.

There were also some buyers who came up from Lancashire, one of whom, as I soon found out could be very volatile. From the very start did not seem to take to me at all. His name was Arty. He could fall out with himself on any day of the week. If he wasn’t shouting at the auctioneer, he might shout at the other buyers.

Within the buying circle in any auction mart, there are certain clicks or relationships whereby the buyers will not bid against one another. In other words they agree that one will stand back for the other if they are bidding. This is common practice in any auction mart. The buyers might just be long standing friends or the companies they buy for have working relationships. You can walk in to any auction ring and if you look carefully you can see little nod or winks between buyers meaning “this one’s for you” or “I’ll have this one”.

In a ring full of buyers you would hope that there is enough competition to ensure that despite any “standing” relationships, there will be at least a couple of bidders that will bid the animals to their full market value. There will always be times in auctioneer’s career when he may not have a full ring of buyers or they have decided collectively to all “stand” for each other. At these times there is great pressure on the auctioneer as he has to then drive the sale and do whatever he can to get the animals to market price. For young auctioneers with little experience this can be particularly daunting. Especially when the buyers are intimidating the auctioneer by trying to drive the prices down, or not letting the auctioneer get the bidding started.

Arty didn’t like me. It was clear to see. He would barely engage with me in the ring and was pretty rude. I always knew the day would come when I would be given the opportunity to sell calves. A few weeks later the chance finally arrived. David had taken a week’s holiday and Monday morning would see my first attempt at selling calves. As soon as I arrived at the market I was nervous. In those days there were three hundred calves or so to sell individually. One thing in my favour was that the demand for these calves was very high. All the buyers needed them which was putting pressure on the different clicks who had to “stand” for their mates but perhaps didn’t want to.

Working against me was Arty, who had already canvassed the rest of the buyers to get them to work with him. His intention, I was told later by another buyer was to have me “off by the stocking tops”, meaning that I they would not bid properly for the calves, break me and purchase the entire sale for a knock down price.

I climbed in to the rostrum clipping the little microphone on to my tie. In my hand was my personal gavel made especially for me by my late Uncle Parker, fashioned from a gnarled piece of hardwood. The first calf entered the ring, a black and white bull calf that I thought might make towards £160.

Immediately Arty was on the attack, grabbing the attention of the buyers, pointing at himself, meaning “leave this to me”.

“Twenty” he shouted “twenty pounds here”.

“One hundred and twenty bid” i shouted and set off to sell the calf.

“whaaat?” shouted Arty “I said twenty pounds and I mean it”. I refused to set off at that ridiculously low figure so I came down a little and then started to work back up again. Gradually other bidders joined in and eventually the calf was knocked down at a sensible price. The sale continued. All the while Arty was chuntering away in my ear, trying to unsettle me. I kept my head down and stuck to the task, all the while feeling pretty miserable thinking “is this how it is going to be for the rest of my career?”

About 100 calves in to the sale Arty decided on a different tack. The custom and practice in the calf ring was to take £2 and £3 increments. In other words a series of bids would go “£90, £92, £95, £98” and so on.

Selling another black and white calf Arty had given the final bid, the calf was knocked down to him at £150, the previous bid being £148. Immediately he started waving his hand in my face. “I only bid you £1 and £1 you will take”. This was show down time and I knew it. There was no way I could take a £1 bid. David Jackson had not done it and neither would any other of the auctioneers. I had to stick to my guns.

“It is £150 Arty and it is staying at £150”. He tried all ways to get me to back down. In the end he completely lost his temper as I refused to budge. Sadly he had backed himself in to a corner.

“Bring the next calf in” I instructed. “Leave the last calf. If Arty doesn’t want it, someone else can have it”. Delivering a final torrent of abuse, Arty left the ring at speed. Keeping deadpan I just continued with the sale. Outwardly I was trying to show some calm, inside I was breaking up, trying not to replay the recent events or question myself whether I had done anything wrong.

The sale was drawing to a close, I had just about got through it. Then the door to the ring burst open and back in came Arty. “Oh no” I thought. “Here we go again”. Instead he just came back in to the ring and stood there quietly.

A few lots later the sale was over. The buyers scurried off to the office to get their bills. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and slowly my heart rate began to fall. At the same time a quiet sense of satisfaction came over me. I had got through it and survived the worst that Arty could throw at me. I had done it once and I could do it again when the chance arose.

Slowly I made my way back to the auction office. As I got there I walked bang in to Arty. I was ready for an almighty bust up yet again. Instead he walked up to me, shook my hand and said, “You really should have taken a £1 bid”. With that he was off out of the auction.

I found out later that he had gone to my boss Richard Morris and asked for me to be removed from the rostrum. Richard backed me to the hilt saying as far as he was concerned, I was in charge of the sale – end of! I always appreciated that.

Perhaps the other buyers had also spoken to Arthur as well, I do not know. However from that day forward we never had a crossed word whenever I sold calves. Some years later when I was the manager at Cockermouth Market he rang me and asked if he could come and buy calves each week. I welcomed him like an old friend and he supported the market regularly until the export calf trade drew to a swift close during the BSE fiasco. Not once was there a wrong word and we often shared a joke in the ring!

Now 29 years have gone by. It is June 2017. Today I am back helping out at Penrith market selling calves, for one day only. There is nothing like the same number of calves to sell but there are still a few professional buyers in the market. The only faces left in the ring from the old days were “young” Andrew Ross and Stephen Pye fron Lancaster. All those years ago they were fresh- faced youths, just out of school. Young Andrew used to come to Penrith to buy calves with his dad, standing in the ring with all the other buyers including Arty.

I haven’t sold calves for years and I thoroughly enjoyed it today. I struck lucky. The calves were in great demand especially the black and whites. There was no “standing” or clicks in the ring. There was also a lot of banter, all good natured. Last Christmas I took part in a charity concert playing my piano and singing. Local farmer Les Armstrong from Kirkoswald delivered a brilliant soliloquy on stage about being a farmer. Les has done much for the farming community fighting our corner in the media and even at government level. Dressed in a tattered old bib and braces and wellies he brought the house down. Part of his act was to decry my piano playing ability which he likened to Les Dawson. “I’ll get you back” I promised. Today Les Armstrong was in the auction selling good quality calves as he regularly does. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas.

“It’s a Belgian Blue” he said entering the ring with his calf.

“No it’s not” I said over the microphone.

“yes it is” he responded more forcefully”.

“It is not”!

“Why? Is the passport wrong or something”? Les began to look vexed.

“No” I replied “We’ve called them British Blues…. for the last ten years”. Revenge is a drink best taken cold. Of course this was all in good fun but I was still pleased to see his calves make a good price. It won’t be long until it Christmas comes around again!

Some of the calf buyers still tried to pull me back but I have learnt a little over the years and just pushed on. I did remember my old pal Arty. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to take a £1 bid!

Who wants to be an Auctioneer?

Who wants to be an auctioneer? it’s not a question many careers teachers will ever ask, but my mind was pretty well made up by the time I left school. As a child I spent every school holiday at my grandfather’s smallholding near Ulverston among sheep, cattle and ponies. This fired my enthusiasm for the countryside and its guardians, especially the farmers.

Those school holidays were magical times. It seemed like the sun always shone and every Thursday was spent at Ulverston auction mart selling Grandad’s lambs. I also loved watching the calves and pigs being sold. The gruff tones of the auctioneer George Lawrence used to enthrall me and scare me. When sitting at the auction ringside I would hardly dare move in case he might think I was bidding. Then back at my Grandad’s I would sit on the gate and pretend to auction the sheep.

My paternal grandfather was Robert Jackson. He was a coal man by trade and carried the black gold 6 days a week from the age of 16 until nearly 50 years of age. Then, every Saturday night, he and my grandmother whom we called Nannie, drove around Ulverston collecting coal money. He had to collect money on a Saturday because most working people got paid on a Saturday lunchtime as they finished for the weekend. Go later in the week and there would be no money left for the coalman. His Saturday night treat after collecting his debts, was a late fish and chip supper. Smothered in salt and vinegar, poured from a white plastic bottle that lived on the kitchen table, this was supplemented by several rounds of bread and butter. Then he would sit in his vestibule, banished from the kitchen, to smoke his pipe, a harsh blend of tobacco called Condor.

When he finally gave up smoking in his 80’s, he proudly presented me with his pipe. By then I was living in a third floor flat in the centre of Penrith. I visited the local tobacconist and bought some Condor not knowing that it was an extremely potent tobacco. Back in the flat, I opened the living room window to smoke my pipe and watch the people walking up and down Devonshire Street. Within thirty seconds a green cloud of nausea descended upon me and I was nearly sick on to the pavement some 40 feet below. The pipe was never smoked again and I still have it in a drawer somewhere.

Grandad Jackson loved farming and livestock. He would devour the Farmers Guardian every friday morning like a kid with a comic. As a child he used to help in Burch’s slaughterhouse at Swarthmoor. He always wanted to farm and he always kept horses and ponies. As a boy looked after the magnificent Shire horses that pulled the coal wagon in his early years of coal merchanting. Later my mother had ponies to ride. Later still there were ponies for me and my sisters. Indeed Nannie loved to produce top quality show ponies. She was in her element grooming ponies, washing them, plaiting manes and showing them at agricultural shows and events all over the North West. She was to tell me not long before her death that these were the happiest days of her life.

Grandad Jackson worked tirelessly and conscientiously. Money had to be saved and life was lived in a plain and thrifty manner. There were no indulgences. There was always good food on the table and plenty of it, but he rarely drank anything more than tea or plain water. Morning porridge was taken with salt and not sugar. As I young boy I couldn’t stomach it, for which I was berrated.
A treat for the grandchildren was a slice of ice cream from the huge chest freezer which was full of home produced lamb, or half a pig, or a heap of blackberry pies made in the autumn. One of those pies with fresh cream at Christmas was an even greater treat. As a child I would wait for their car coming up the road to our family home near Cockermouth. It was usually on Christmas Eve and I knew it was full of presents and all manner of fantastic home- made produce, pies, jams, pickles, piccalilli, it was endless.

With his savings Grandad also bought land and achieved his goal in life to become a farmer. His land was in unconnected blocks around the village of Great Urswick. He bought a few breeding sheep and some young stirks to fatten up. By the time I was spending my summer holidays farming with him, he was in full swing. He was helped by many local farmers including his great friends Harry Woods and further down the road, Alan Woods. He also bought Burch’s old slaughterhouse in Swarthmoor and turned it in to a house for himself and Nannie.

My first memory of selling his lambs at Ulverston Auction would be when I was about seven years of age. We started early at 6am one Thursday morning. Despite it being the month of August, there was a real chill to the morning, with whisps of fog hovering above the grass. We went across to the sheep and selected or “drew” the prime lambs for market, loading them in to the trailer. They were Suffolk cross lambs with distinctive brown heads and a blue mark on their backs. Only after this process did we have some breakfast, cold toast and marmalade. Then off to market.

The sale began and I peered across the ring for ages waiting for those brown headed lambs to appear. Suddenly, the next lot came crashing in to the ring and they were Suffolk lambs. In a flash I leaped into the ring for the job given to me by Grandad was to “show” the lambs. In other words move them around the ring in front of the buyers, so that they could feel their backs and assess their condition. Good meat and not too fat was always the choice. So I pushed those lambs around for all I was worth. The hammer fell and they were off out of the ring. “Laal” Johnny Matterson walked them away to the buyers pens. Many years later, The Matterson family were to become great friends of mine. Johnny was a special little man, no longer with us, but his memory lives on strongly.

Proudly then, I climbed back out of the ring only to meet my Grandad, who in a loud voice said, “you did well Adam but these are my lambs coming in now, you’d better get back in” Everyone laughed. Embarrassed, I climbed back in again. I had got the wrong pen of lambs. The farmer whose lambs i had sold shouted across the ring to Grandad “Don’t worry Bob, he did a grand job…. for me” and he chucked me 50p, which was a fortune back then. I didn’t know it but it was my first earnings in an auction mart.

42 years later In 2014, I was invited to sell at Ulverston Auction mart as a guest auctioneer. I was thrilled. As I stood on the rostrum prior to the sale, I took a few deep breaths and remembered for an instant sitting on those old wooden benches, watching sales some forty years and more previously. I mentioned this to all the farmers before I started to sell. I said that it would have been beyond Bob Jackson’s wildest dream that his Grandson would one day be selling at Ulverston Auction. Of course Grandad and his generation are long gone now but it was an emotional moment for me. I had to take a deep breath and quickly get my head together. The sale went well and if I should never get a chance to sell again at Ulverston, I will treasure the time I stood in that rostrum taking bids.