“I WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM” – Part 4

Farming is a hard way of life, without question. No matter how skilled and proficient the farmer, things do go wrong and accidents happen. Losing livestock, disease and illness is all part of the job. Animals can become ill and then die. The role of the large animal vet may be crucial in saving a life. Dick’s pedigree young bulls often sold very well at the breed society sales at Carlisle and Perth. In recent years Dick had bred a National Junior Champion and was a very respected producer within the breed. In the yard I fed and looked after three cracking young lads that were due to be sold the following autumn. Sometimes in winter they were let out of the sheds in to the open yard to feed and exercise.

One morning I arrived down to the yard pushing the usual barrow load of silage and I noticed one of the bulls clearly in distress and looking very bloated. Quickly I ran back up to the main yard to find Benson who did most of the show preparation work on the bulls. The bull had an intestinal blockage and a vet was summoned immediately. I continued with my chores.

Sometime later I arrived back at the yard to find that the vet had no option but to perform an operation in order to release the gases that had become trapped in the bull’s stomach. I watched in fascination as the young vet worked away to insert a valve called a cannula through the animals side in order to insert a tube in to the stomach. Eventually the vet managed to puncture the stomach and then dive for cover as the contents of the bulls stomach erupted from the tube like a geyser. It was the foulest stench I had ever smelt. The relief on the bulls face was immediate. Sadly the cannula had to stay as this problem recurred. I even had to open the valve myself some mornings, careful always to get out of the way. The cause of the problem was ingestion of dead oak leaves, the result eventually was that the bull had to be sold in to the meat chain rather than enjoy a long and happy life as a breeding bull. This event was one of many disappointments in the year that all farmers have to put up with.

Generally working with the pedigree Charolais cattle was good fun. One day in summer up at the Pardshaw land we were touring the Charolais cattle in the Land Rover. Dick had a huge Charolais stock bull called Chesholm Newtown. By all accounts he was very friendly, in fact too friendly. As we drove past him, he started to move towards the Land Rover head down. Dick advised me in no uncertain terms that I should drive the Land Rover out of his way.

I knew better than to argue. Benson told me later that Dick had been driving through the field on his own one day and the bull had decided to have some fun with the Land Rover. At over 1400 kgs, he had nearly turned the vehicle over even though he was just playing! I always kept my eye on Newtown, from that day forward.

By August my placement was coming to an end. I had learned very much about good stocksmanship and a fair bit about myself too. I was well over two stones lighter than when I started. Many times I had gone to bed deciding to pack in and not go back. Every morning I went back for more.

My last morning of employment was to be Saturday 4th of August. It was the day of Cockermouth Show, the local agricultural show. The Clark team were proudly showing a bit of everything. They had dairy cattle, Charolais cattle and mule lambs. Each entry was top class and produced to perfection. In order to buy everyone some time and to ensure my last morning went smoothly, I arrived down at the farm half an hour early. No one else was up and about.

In the cool, still morning air I walked down to the far cow pastures, admiring the new post and wire fences I had helped to put up right through Easter Weekend. Then I gathered up the milk cows that were happily chewing their cud or grazing. Slowly but surely I walked them back to the farm, along the mosses, through the wet morning dew alongside the dry stone wall that Dick had taught me how to gap up. I knew many by name and was able to walk alongside them giving them a pat or a stroke as we went. Old Twinkle with her huge udder waddled along at the back with me resting my hand on her as she went.

On the banks above the cow pasture i could see St Michaels Chapel at the northern boundary of Mosser Mains Farm. Adam De Mosser cleared these lands to farm in the 13th century. Now for just a few short months 700 years later another Adam had worked on the land, learning skills and experience to last a lifetime.

Back at the farm Twinkle had pushed her way through the collecting yard up to the parlour door. First in as always. By the time Alan turned out to start milking, the parlour was set up correctly, the bulk tank connected and all filters in the right place.

Milking was soon through but there was no time for breakfast as the beautifully cleaned and prepared show animals were loaded in to well- strawed trailers to head for the show field. With a wave goodbye, I was left standing in the yard alone. The job was over and done. Was I sad? No not at all. Was I satisfied? Yes quietly away and quite relieved. With a deep breath and a last look around the yard, I headed for home with a growing realisation that within the month I would be leaving my family and heading a long way south to Cirencester and on to the next chapter of my life.

I hope I have not created too harsh a picture of Dick Clark. He was hard on me and he pushed me like never before or since, but run or run faster can be a good way of working at the right time.

To bring this tale full circle, we have to jump forward five years. It is 1991. I am 26 years old. Three years out of college I have made it back to Cumbria and I have been steadily learning my new trade as an auctioneer at Penrith, Lazonby and Troutbeck. The time has arrived when I am now selling at bigger and better sales.

It is Lazonby auction in the autumn. The prestigious autumn sale of Registered Blue Faced Leicester Ram Lambs is upon us. I am told that I will be second auctioneer on the rostrum. This sale is the cream of the crop. The hierarchy of the Leicester Breeders will be here buying and selling. I did sell some shearling and older tups last year with mixed results (another story), but now this is the big time.

A line is drawn in the catalogue where I am to start selling. The second consignment I will sell is from Dick Clark, Mosser Mains. I go down to the pens to talk to him and other vendors, to see if they have any instructions for me. Dick is busy talking to potential buyers who are looking at his sheep. So I keep out of the way.

Back at the ring my nerves grow and grow. I question myself constantly. Am I good enough to do this? Why am I even here? It is too late now and before I know it the microphone is being handed to me. I take a deep breath, pick up the gavel, and the room is mine.

I sell the first vendors only ram easily and immediately Dick and Alan Clark are walking through the big oak double doors behind their very nice Leicester Shearling Ram. Despite the fact that Dick shouted at me many times at Mosser Mains, he is actually very quietly spoken. I listen very hard as he whispers in my ear. “This should make 1100 guineas”. It is not a reserve, it is just Dick valuing his own stock. I trust him and I know him. He’s never far wrong!

I get in to gear and move quickly through the bids. Soon I am bring the hammer down at exactly 1100 guineas. Unbelievable! I sell the rest of his consignment and before I know it Dick and Alan are  saying thank you and walking out of the ring. There is no time to think though. The sale goes on. After half an hour I realise I am enjoying it and in the swing. With a little prompting from the senior auctioneers who take it in turns to sit with me, I get through my stint. It is over in a flash and I am handing the microphone back. Quietly I move to the back of the rostrum and then it hits me. The first proper consignment of Blue Faced Leicester’s that I sell at Lazonby is from Dick Clark, Mosser Mains Farm. It seems entirely fitting to me.

The following year, following Peter Sarjeant’s retirement, I am now to be the weekly dairy auctioneer at Penrith. It is my first day on the job, a Tuesday morning. As always I am beyond nervous. Can I really do this? What do I know about dairy cows?

The first cows for sale arrive at the unloading docks. Low and behold it is Dick Clark, bringing a very tidy newly calved heifer for sale. He often does sell at Penrith and has a good following. He is first in to the ring and the thought is not lost on me that yet again the first time I sell in a particular sales ring, it is for Dick Clark.

I lean down low as he whispers to me “She’ll make over £1000”.

I’ve no need to do anything other than take bids. Dick’s dairy cattle are popular and always sell well. Even so I take my time. Learned men in the trade have told me never to rush selling a dairy cow. It is not like selling prime cattle to professional buyers. Farmers are often reluctant or shy bidders if they are not used to it, or don’t really like spending their own money. A good auctioneer can work the room, cajole another bid, work the buyers to go that extra few pounds. Much as my instinct is to get the hammer down, I keep trying, imploring another bid from a man shaking his head then laughing at me as I crack a feeble joke. It works though, as he nods his head at me, having one last shot at buying the heifer.

The hammer comes down. Dick is dead pan. He is never going to show publicly that he is pleased with the price, but at £1050 I have done my job well. He politely thanks me and walks out of the ring. A while later I see Dick in the auction foyer. “I’ll have another for next week” he tells me. That’s all the praise I need.

A few years later I’ve moved on and I am going through a wobbly patch in the old auction at Cockermouth. The pressure is on the company. We aren’t making much money, we’ve had some bad debt, and the stock numbers aren’t great. The directors are putting me under pressure. I’m finding it tough. They get frustrated with me and quite honestly it won’t be the last time in my career. I get it right quite a lot of the time but in the words of Dick Clark, I usually manage to bugger it up somewhere down the line. Nobody’s perfect but as I go through my career, I find it difficult to back away from what I believe is right. Colleagues will tell me in future, just swallow your pride and do it the way the directors want you to. I sometimes find that hard to do if I don’t agree. It is a failing of mine- perhaps.

One night I jump in the car and drive to Mosser Mains. I need some wise council. Dick will give it to me straight. I have a small whisky with him. He tells me what I need to do. “Stick to your guns, believe in yourself but at this point in time…. don’t run so fast! The jobs going alright really. The main thing is to keep your head down and get stock in to the market, nothing else matters”.

I feel better having talked it through and I am sure that Dick will make his views known to some of the directors. Within the year the market is full of sheep week after week. It keeps the company afloat as we struggle to get planning permission for a new market. I continue to sell stock from Mosser Mains year upon year.

Several years later, in the new market at Cockermouth, the sad news comes through that Dick Clark has passed away. It is a blessing as he has been steadily failing health for a while. Alyson his youngest daughter lives in Eaglesfield with James, our yard foreman. She works in the café at the mart. We are like family. Lyn, their other sister lives in Canada and we don’t see her so often.

I receive word from Alison that Dick’s widow Liz would like to see me at Mosser Mains. I travel up to the farm with a sense of foreboding. Will this be difficult? It isn’t. Some of the family are there and we have a brew and talk about Dick and the time I worked for them and also about other people that have worked for them over the years for I wasn’t the only one to be educated there. Liz tells me that they would like me to offer a eulogy within the funeral service. They tell me some stories they would like me to include together with some of my own.

I am honoured and very proud to be asked. The service is a celebration of Dick’s farming life. I recount the “you always manage to bugger it up” tale and also about selling the Leicester’s and the dairy cows. He was I tell them, a man of extra- ordinary self-belief and confidence. A brilliant stock man and judge of cattle and sheep, but for all of that, not an easy man to work with, or for! I am told later that the eulogy summed up Dick very well. It is my final job done for Dick, a farmer and a friend who has featured so much in my career.

After 16 years good years I am leaving Mitchell’s. There is an exciting opportunity to join North West Auctions and build a new mart near Kendal. They want me for my experience and they have also employed my father as the architect. This will be the second time we have worked together on a new mart premises. It will also be the last.

It is not a difficult decision to leave Cockermouth. The new executive Chairman is introducing major changes to the business and we don’t see eye to eye in some matters. The best option for me is to move on and at this moment in time, I am in a position to do so. I leave without an ounce of regret, job done. Others will take my place no problem. No one is irreplaceable in this world. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. As one door closes another door usually opens.

Soon a letter arrives in the post from Liz Clark. Much of the letter will remain private but in the final paragraph she says: –

“Mitchell’s new auction was your baby. You brought it to where it is today…. You have given your all to Mitchell’s.

When you worked for Dick I used to think every night- Adam won’t be back in the morning. But you never failed to turn up for work and I think that’s when you became a man”!

I keep the letter in a safe place………

“I WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM” – Part 1


It was a bitterly cold January morning in 1984. My 6 months’ work placement at Cockermouth Auction had come to an end. Now I was about to start to my second placement. The work was required by The Royal Agricultural College before I was due to start a Rural Estate Management Course later that year. My father offered to send me to Australia for a gap year which was all but unheard of in those days. Having hardly been out of Cumbria, this was not too appealing especially when there was a regular girlfriend on the scene too. Many times since have I castigated myself for not taking the opportunity to travel, especially having met a couple of lads at college who had done so and enjoyed it, to the full!

Instead father talked to a local farmer from just down the road. Dick Clark was known and respected the country over as an exceptional livestock farmer. Mosser Mains farm carried a dairy herd, a pedigree Charolais beef herd and a fine flock of Swaledale ewes together with a noted Blue Faced Leicester flock.  lying six miles south west of Cockermouth, the land rises up the northerly slopes of Fellbarrow.  The placement couldn’t have been better and right on the doorstep. What I didn’t know on that first morning was just how hard my time at Mosser Mains was going to be.

Dick told my father that I wouldn’t find it easy. “If he can last” said Dick, “I will make a man out of him”. Armed with a brand new boiler suit, a pair of work gloves and a shiny new pocket knife, I set off in the pitch dark, down the hill to the farm.

So began the hardest six months of my life. Working up to 82 hours a week for a total of £25. It didn’t take long to realise that Dick had two expected speeds at which I would operate, “run” and “run faster”. Youngest son Alan, about 10 years older than me was milking the dairy cows and I was despatched with older son Benson to feed all of the housed cattle including the young stock and a pedigree Charolais herd.

By 9am the early morning work was completed and I was invited in to take breakfast with the family. Liz Clark cooked up a fantastic feast including porridge followed by a full English and toast to follow. As we sat down Dick declared that I was too fat and we were going to have to do something about it. So I was given the choice between the bacon and eggs or the toast. Clearly I was always going to choose the bacon! Then he asked me if there was anything I didn’t like to eat. “I’m not keen on liver & onions” I replied, munching in to my bacon.

The moment I had finished my breakfast I was told not to sit all day and to get back out there. When Dick finally finished reading the paper and came back out to the yard, I was wandering around not really knowing what to do. “What have you done since you came out”? He enquired. “Err nothing, I didn’t really know wh…….” I was rudely interrupted by Dick who gave me my first bollocking of very many over the next few months. “Didn’t know what to do? Open your bloody eyes man. There’s plenty of jobs to be getting on with. Don’t wander round my yard doing nothing”. Lesson number one was swiftly learned. Never again would he catch me doing nothing!

A little while later we were off up to the high ground where the pregnant Swaledale ewes needed some feed. The high ground was actually the most northern slopes of the Lake District running up to the rounded dome of Fellbarrow. From here you could see far across the Solway Firth in to Scotland. Not that I was looking across on this particular morning.

Dick had a fine flock of Swaledale sheep and was a renowned breeder of Blue Faced Leicester sheep too. The ewes were in lamb to the Leicester to produce the famous North of England Mule lamb. Neither Dick nor I had any inkling that one day in a few years’ time I would be selling these lambs for him at Lazonby auction, probably  the foremost mule auction centre in the land at the time. At least that’s what it said in the catalogues!

Dick drove the Land Rover and I sat with my legs out of the back door. Then I was instructed to dribble out the feed which were little hard ewe rolls or cobs as they are sometimes called. The sheep loved this extra feed and swiftly gathered to follow the land rover as a long line of cobs was tipped out slowly.

“Start pouring instructed Dick! Here was the first problem. I couldn’t get the feedbags open” Desperately I searched for my pen knife which was deep in the pocket of my boiler suit. I couldn’t find it. “Are you pouring yet”? Shouted Dick. “No just hang on a minute”. I replied. Big mistake!

“No I won’t bloody hang on. Get that bloody feed out. We’re half way up the field. What the bloody hell are you doing? Are you useless!? What the hell have I taken on here?”

Eventually the bags were opened and the feed scattered. Another lesson was learned. The next morning as I loaded the land rover with feed, the bags were opened in preparation. The feed was delivered to the sheep without fuss. Not a word was spoken by Dick.

Lunchtime arrived on my first day and I was already exhausted. It was a lovely feeling to wash my hands in warm water, smell the fragrant hand soap and feel the heat invade my freezing fingers. My boiler suit was left hanging outside in the passage. It was already covered in cow muck. No matter how I tried, my boiler suits always seemed to get mucked up, whereas the Clark lads hardly seemed to get a splash. I never worked that one out.

So I sat down starving hungry. A plate was presented to me and I could smell it before it hit the table. Liver and Onions. Nothing was said but I could just see the beginnings of a wry smile curling around Dick’s lips. Holding my breath with each mouthful, I ate the lot.

Having cleaned my plate, Dick asked me if I wanted some more. “Yes please” I replied and another huge hunk of liver was delivered to my plate. I ate that too, this time feeling quite sick. Never again if I was asked, would I say that I didn’t like something. Never again did we have liver and onions during my time at the farm!

By evening, milking was completed and we knocked off at 6pm, I made my way back up the hill to High Mosser. I was completely tired out. “Only another seven months” I thought. This must surely get better!

All through the spring I grafted away learning new skills from a talented livestock man. The stock always came first. Lambing arrived and for 6 weeks I did not have a day off. Being a young man who liked a night out, I still went out on a Saturday night, dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to get down to the farm. If I was lucky I might be sent home on at coffee time on Sunday. Too tired to even bother showering I usually went straight to bed only to get up for Sunday evening milking.

The Blue Faced Leicester’s were the first to lamb. Brilliant sheep though they are in fathering the mule lamb, they are quite soft sheep, and not too hardy. They rather need mollycoddling, especially at lambing time. A breeder once told me that the only problem with a Leicester is that all it really wants to do is die. I think he had a bad lambing that year. Dick’s Leicester’s were now lambing in the sheds and one morning I was shouted for. This particular ewe was one of Dick’s prize animals. He had tried all ways to get the lamb out of the sheep but it was just too big. The ewe was twisted and turned and all manner of lubricant used to try and extricate said lamb. At one stage I had the ewe pulled up off the floor by the back legs as we sought purchase to pull the lamb. Even in the cool spring air I was sweating buckets. Eventually, the lamb was born by natural means but four of us were completely exhausted. I realised then that Blue Faced Leicester’s were great sheep but definitely high- maintenance! 

As spring progressed and the grass grew, so the fields were full of ewes and lambs, thriving and growing in preparation for the autumn sales, “the harvest of the fells”. What a brilliant time of year, celebrating yet again the circle of farming life.  meanwhile a young lad raw  but ready, served his apprenticeship, learning just how hard that farming life can be.

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!