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Richard Spencer says farming isn't just chewing on straw and wearing a floppy hat

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: July 31, 2014

  • Preparing a sheep for a show involves months of planning and hard work, explains Richard Spencer, left.

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TALKING to an acquaintance the other day... "What will I write about in week two?

"Well, say the sun will shine on Thursday and on Friday but then again it could rain ..."

I'm in trouble. Last week, I was asked for a photograph, so I decided to perpetuate the traditional image of farmers – floppy hat, chewing on a straw or the stem of a pipe. After all I am known as the village idiot!

My good lady wife went ballistic. There's nothing more powerful than a married woman, especially when she's yours.

This image of farmers couldn't be further from the truth.

Farming is a combination of traditional husbandry skills – be it land or livestock-and ability to operate very complex and sophisticated machinery.

When our son went to Newcastle University, he kept in touch with two friends, one taking a degree course in marketing, one in chemistry.

When they met up for a drink at Christmas – OK, it was only the first term – he had studied marketing to the same level as the marketing student and chemistry to the same level as the chemist.

They were two parts of a 10-part course!

Equally there are very many young people out there with no academic qualifications who are the future of the industry; no HND, no BSc, but oh so very talented when it comes to the skills and work ethic required to survive in agriculture.

Locally, there are young men and women working full time with a day job who are building up their livestock numbers, renting parcels of land as they come available, working well into the small hours using the truck headlights to keep on top of routine and seasonal management tasks.

Sadly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to climb the farming ladder without being in a situation where you can tick all the boxes.

This box-ticking mentality is invading – no, already has invaded, all walks of life.

At the moment we are preparing some of our Shropshire sheep for the Shrewsbury Rare Breeds Sale.

There are many such sales now – years ago there was but one, at Stoneleigh.

Two local lads are helping, learning the skills of show preparation; washing a sheep – and yes you really do get your hands dirty!

When the fleece is dry – ideally the sheep is sheared about three months before sale date, giving the wool time to grow to sufficient length for us to work on – we attack it with a special type of comb and hand shears, adjusting the contours of the animal to achieve the perfect shape.

However, as a judge once said to me at a show as I stood proudly by my sheep: "Nice sheep, pity about the clipping!"

It is very rewarding to see these skills being learnt by the next generation.

The entertainment comes when we introduce a sheep that has been a free spirit all its life to the fact that it has to follow the halter.

Amazingly, after a couple of sessions of calm perseverance, a few bruises for us and a series of spectacular jumps somersaults and rolls from the sheep, they usually lead quite well.

Off we go to the sale. Arrive Friday afternoon, tidy up sheep, show and sale Saturday.

The Friday evening always involves a social, catching up with people we haven't seen since last year.

We have to tick so many boxes now; pass your trailer test; obtain your certificate to transport livestock; trailer clean; movement forms correct.

We were lucky enough to be involved with the first sales at Stoneleigh where, having made the entries, we just turned up and had a good time.

Sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry, waterfowl of all shapes, sizes and colours imaginable appeared from all corners of the country.

Cattle and pigs were sold each in the allocated ring; three auctioneers sold poultry and waterfowl; five auctioneers, each with his own ring with associated alleyways to guide sheep to and from the auction, and of course appropriate staff; a financial and logistical nightmare for the auctioneers!

The high spot for us was the social life; no cafe, no ornate bars; huge trestle tables under canvas between the sheds, enormous bacon steaks for breakfast, or perhaps an evening meal prepared over a stove at the back of the trailer.

Then the six-packs and the bottles would appear, corners would be found well padded with straw bales, and the "catch up" for the last 12 months would begin.

Trying to show livestock after a very short night and a very, very long drink is quite a challenge!

I'll let you know how we got on next week.

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