It’s so hot everyone’s in shirt sleeves and squinting in the sun – and it’s only ten o’clock in the morning. The first sheep have just arrived, trailers pulled by land rovers and Hilux pickups: forty-seven farmers will be turning up today. Some are bringing one sheep, others a small parcel of three, four or five. When we arrived the wooden pens were empty and quiet – now the bleats of sheep and the sound of voices fills the air along with the calls of sky larks and the occasional peewit of a lapwing.
It’s good to be here and meet up with some of the farmers we have met over the past few months, find out which sheep they’re showing and how things are going on their farms. John Bentley (who wrote the previous blog about his day with Raymond Calvert) is here too and we’ll be sharing some of his images from the day.
Tan Hill Show – acclaimed as the highest sheep showing event in England – is in its 64th year. If you want to see some of the best Swaledale sheep, this is the place to come. The show draws the top breeders and a lot of farmers who are just here for a look, as well as a growing number of non-farmer spectators. Set high on the edge of the Pennines, just outside the border of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, it commands a view that stretches for miles on days like these. Often, the Tan Hill Show is held in mist, rain, wind, or even snow, but this year it feels like high summer.
1230 and the judging has started. The classes are announced with a loud voice and then the sheep brought together in a line, and judged. The judges check the mouth, looking for good teeth; they feel the tight, course hair on the face; note the markings on the face – ideally a neat white patch around the eyes and mouth, and clean pure black elsewhere; they’ll reach down and look closely at the legs – most people want to see black on the back side of the legs, white on the front; and they’ll feel the form of the back. The condition of the fleeces is not important at all. Some sheep have already begun to lose some of their wool and to the unprofessional eye look a little bedraggled, but this is irrelevant. The horns too, although impressive, aren’t a major concern when it comes to the awarding of prizes. After initial inspection the sheep are let go and the judges watch them move. There’s a lot of consideration and quiet discussion between the two judges for each class, and they ask the competitors to line up in order until finally deciding on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, and awarding the rosettes.
The Swaledale Sheep Breeder’s Association has been running since 1920, and this year has 1134 members. And although Swaledale sheep are associated most strongly with Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales, they’re not all from within the National Park. As we walked around the pens to talk to the men, women and young people showing their sheep, a few families pointed north to the bare backs of the Pennines, where their farms are. The family that had travelled the furthest came from Buxton in Derbyshire: their sheep were greyed up with Swaledale Black, a form of colouring that is used instead of traditional peat to darken the fleeces ready for showing. Not all farmers alter the colour of the fleeces – when the sheep are lined up you can look across their backs and see a range of colours that, perhaps without any coincidence, reflects the shades of beige, brown and grey in the landscape around them.
I spend some time talking to the secretary of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association, who tells me that there are 2,200 shearling rams registered this year (a shearling has had one shear, or is in its second year of life); 5,500 ram lambs; and 68,500 ewe lambs. The main markets for selling Swaledale sheep are Middleton in Teesdale, Hawes, Kirkby Stephen, St John’s Chapel in Weardale, and Ruswarp near Whitby. Swaledales can fetch a lot of money, particularly tups, and farmers often club together to buy a tup and then share it in the breeding season – and then bring it to shows.
The day does not get any cooler, and there are many red faces in the crowd and in the pens. There’s little shade here, but inside the pub, beneath the parasols by the food stall, and against trailers there are patches where it’s cooler. There’s a lot of catching up to do here – Tan Hill show is the first big gathering after the lambing season, a chance for farmers to come out and relax away from the farm for a day.
Whether this has been the hottest Tan Hill show ever is up for debate. One farmer, Alan Alderson, who is chairman of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders’ Association, remembers 1996 being about as hot; another man I spoke to, assured me the last day like this was 1984; yet another, who had been coming here for 50 years, said there had never been a year this hot. The weather does make for a celebratory summer feel and the general consensus is that the warm spring has been excellent for lambing, particularly as it has been mostly dry.
But it is not all glorious – on some farms there has been concern that the grass needs more rain to grow well, and when it is dry for so long, short bursts of intense rainfall result in run-off rather than a gentle soaking of the ground. We’ll see what summer brings this year. It may have been relatively dry and mild this year but it’s early days yet.
Tan Hill Show, Campion 2017 : Brian Thornborough, for his ewe.
Reserve Champion 2017 : The Ewebanks Family, with a tup hogg.