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Counting Sheep

Sheep shearing in the distant past

Over the centuries, Wilton has been an important commercial and political centre. Capital of Wessex in the time of King Alfred, it later became famous for its carpet making. This tiny town is also renowned for Wilton House, magnificent home of the Pembroke family, and, of course for its sheep fairs! These were granted by ancient charter, and the holding of these fairs is enshrined in English law while they continue.

Originally, flocks would have been driven to the fair on foot by the owner or his shepherd, (sometimes with extra manpower and no doubt a dog or two) – hence the description, ‘Drovers’. This explains the historic Drovers tracks in this area and the beech-lined avenue leading down into Wilton from the north – making it easier to control the sheep on their way to the fairground. Much of the surrounding countryside was natural downland 100 years ago, so the population of sheep in the district was considerable. Once at the fairground, the flock would be kept in check by the men, and buyers would come and barter; if a sale was agreed, off the sheep would be driven to their new destination.

Hoofing it to market

It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that auctioneers appeared on the scene, and in return for a fee, they arranged the formal auctioning of the sheep. This led eventually to the modern approach of sorting the animals into categories: ewes, ram lambs, for example, and according to their breed and their age. And this in turn gave rise to penning the sheep in ‘lots’, rather than being offered in large miscellaneous flocks. There were two firms of auctioneers at the Wilton fairs – Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury and John Jeffery & Son from Shaftesbury. I worked as auctioneer at the fairs from the 1970s up to the year 2000, but my great grandfather was pre-eminent at the end of the 1800s.

There were other Sheep Fairs in the Salisbury area – and indeed other fairs in other districts – as sheep obviously could only travel limited distances on foot in a certain period of time. In earlier times, the fairs stretched over more than the one day but although they are now one-day events, they still take place, by tradition, in the autumn months. In the old days, Woolley & Wallis would be involved with the Britford Fair, just

My father auctioneering at Wilton in the 1970s

south of Salisbury, held in August, and the Weyhill Fair, near Andover, in October; the old fairground at Weyhill still exists, though adapted for market stalls selling mainly art and crafts. Eventually these fairs all came to be concentrated at Wilton which became famous throughout Britain as a premier sheep auction centre. Its September fair was known as The Great Fair. The next nearest comparable fair was at Bicester in Oxfordshire, but there were also large ones in Scotland; later in the autumn many farmers from the Wiltshire area would travel to buy their youngstock and bring them south to rear on our more productive ground and in a milder climate. I also have memories of a small fair at Corby Glen in Lincolnshire where I spent three years training to be an auctioneer. Corby Glen may have only attracted about five thousand sheep, but it was still a major local event, quite individual in its way as some of the fair was on open ‘common’ land within the parish as well as on a privately-owned field. One of the interesting facts I learned there were the variety of colloquial names given to sheep in different parts of the country:- rams were tupps; ewe lambs were gimmers; 2 tooth age ewes were theaves. I think such names add something to the dignity of the animal. Also, over the years, the popularity of breeds changed, in part influenced by the demand and / or taste of the consumer. In the ‘old days’ sheep were kept to an older age and had more fat to them, whereas in recent decades lean meat and smaller joints (easier or quicker for cooking) became popular. In some areas, lambs would be finished (ie fattened) on roots as this added both flavour to the meat and fertility to the land.

The Border Leicester Ewe was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s with a Suffolk breed the most popular ram to be chosen to sire their lambs. The Down Breeds (Hampshire and Dorset being two in particular) were also greatly sought-after; they produced a weighty lamb, but also a popular crossbred ewe that in some areas, farmers preferred to the purebred breeds.

The Mule - not pretty, but popular

Since then the Mule breed (Blue faced Leicester x Swaledale) has taken over as the most popular ewe producing a good lambing percentage (triplets being more common than in the traditional breeds) and being good mothers, successfully rearing healthy lambs. Combined with the trend for lean meat, and the increased use of continental breeds in the rams (Texel, Charollais, Bleu de Maine and now Beltex), and a change in the cropping of the land, farmers adapted their flocks, and the demand changed at the sales. The Hampshire Downs for instance, once one of the most sought-after, are almost a ‘rare breed’ today, and the demand for them comes from non- commercial farmers (I daren’t call them ‘hobby farmers’ as they do not take kindly to the description!), who choose their breeds for different reasons – eg Jacobs’ wool to weave into colourful clothes, or Friesians (no, not the cattle) to produce chic milk and cheese. For most of the year, the Wilton fairground looks like a level pasture field approximately ten acres (four hectares). A closer look will find it has what is called a ‘ridge and furrow’ pattern across it. This pattern is more common in water meadows as a natural means of irrigation to boost grass production, or indeed enable flood control, with the lower ‘furrow’ aligned to take water fed from the nearby river or stream and the slightly higher ‘ridge’ tending to stay dry – and safe for animals - while the peak water occupies the channels. The purpose of ‘ridge and furrow’ in the Sheep Fair field is a bit more designed, not to say fabricated! In this case the pens of sheep are arranged on the ‘ridge’ because then they stand just that little bit proud of the throng of buyers who walk along the ‘furrows’ – the sheep will therefore stand out more strongly and impressively to attract the maximum bid! But the task of penning the sheep is anything but accidental; it is clever and skilful work – almost a work of art. For most of the year there are no pens and the fairground field is open. In our case, Woolley & Wallis had a small band of employees who from mid-summer onwards had the task of ‘pitching’ the hurdles that made up the pens. Initially they would create the parallel lines following the ridges across the field. The forming of the individual pens came later as the entries of sheep were received by the auctioneers – and of course for each fair, a different set of pens had to be formed.

Latterly, our team consisted of two Jims, a John, a Pete and a Tony! Hard working men, from modest origins and probably barely an ‘O’ level between them. But they certainly knew how to pitch hurdles – all done by hand with an iron bar and a sledgehammer for the stakes, and twine to bind them together in perfect straight or parallel lines. Originally the hurdles were made of ‘wattle’ (hazel); eventually they were metal. The pitchers also created an alley for the auctioneer to stand in as he sold the sheep in their pens, and gates to open and shut as the sheep arrived and later left via a wide alley to where the lorries would line up to unload and load.

Penning with hurdles - the skillful work of the 'pitchers'

Their work was not finished then. For each sale the pens for the sheep had to be formed – another skill not only for the pitchers but the auctioneers’ office staff who would decide on the order of sale. Traditionally the older ewes were sold first, then the younger ones, and then the lambs. In another part of the field the rams were penned and sold – they used a system with a small sale ring – a technique later adopted for the rest of the sale, employing ‘runners’ to literally run the sheep from their pen to the sale ring and back again. This could be a warm task on a hot autumn day, where the knack was to keep your sheep moving by being close enough to the sheep in front. As we know, sheep are perfect if they can see the ones they are following, but not so good if they lose sight of them and decide to go in a different direction!

The individual pens of sheep were ‘made to measure’ – essential if the maximum number of animals were to be sold in the day. And the old-fashioned design was based on ‘a coop’. One coop I believe measured 4ft by 6ft. Different breeds of sheep and different ages of sheep and different numbers of sheep in a pen, all required the pen to be measured to suit. So a pen of 25 big Scotch half-bred ewes needed a lot more space (or more coops) than 25 Dorset Down lambs. Some pens might have 40 sheep in them, and others only ten. If the pens didn’t match the sheep, then the sheep would not be shown to their best effect in their pen, and nor would the rows of pens fit the capacity of the field. This was no mean effort for the clerk preparing the sale catalogue and order of sale, and for our intrepid band of ‘pitchers’. But you only had to tell them the appropriate number of coops, and you could rely on a perfect result.

All penned up and ready to roll....

There were few finer sights than viewing a field full of sheep safely and happily settled in their ‘made to measure’ pens. In any year upward of eighty thousand sheep would pass through the Wilton fairs. Woolley & Wallis’s peak was thirty thousand animals auctioned on just one September Great Fair day with ten thousand or more sold by other auctioneers. It was a remarkable team and logistical effort. A field that was empty at midnight on the day before the auction would be empty once more the following midnight – literally thousands of sheep having been delivered, penned, sold and re-loaded in the intervening day. Lorries, some of them with three decks, brought the flocks from all the southern counties of England and buyers came from the length and breadth of Britain, and also from Europe. In the morning light of the day after, the field admittedly resembled a ‘battlefield’ of abandoned hurdles. Undaunted, our great team of Jim, Jim, John, Pete and Tony, regrouped, tidied it all up and prepared to set the hurdles up once again for the next sale. No one begrudged them the considerable quantity of cider they consumed, the occasional tip from a grateful farmer or haulier (who needed their extra help to load) or an afternoon nap in one of their own pens. The pace of the sale is important so all of these earlier preparations make the process of the sale that much easier to complete. Buyers may set the day aside for their business but they also have to get home to tend to their stock there. And once the trade is established, it is vital to keep the momentum flying in order to keep the prices consistent and, hopefully, the best. The auctioneer therefore needs to know the animals, know their expected value, and know both the sellers (so he can describe where the sheep have come from) and the buyers (almost knowing in advance who is likely to buy which pen and how they complete their bidding). All that gives confidence to everyone involved, and enhances the result of the sale. They were special days in a long-gone era with all sorts of skilled people involved in achieving a successful outcome. It all might be a chapter in history now, but it would be a shame to lose the memories as they are unlikely to be seen again in the foreseeable future. Like everything else, practices and trends in farming constantly change and we must adapt with them in order to survive.

Hampshire Downs - a rare breed indeed!

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