• 13 Now that's what I call a good tup

    The May Fair and Herdwick Ram Show in Keswick falls on the first Thursday after the third Wednesday in May, every year. Herdwick farmers from across the Lake District come here to meet after a long winter, as lambing time is coming to a close, to show their rams. It’s traditionally the time for farmers to return tups they borrowed for the season, and there is a lot of talk about the lambs that have resulted from a good match. Doris, who farms over to the west in Lamplugh, is delighted with the blackness of the lambs that have come from the tup she and her husband Joe loaned from Jean Wilson, whose flock grazes on the fells above Dockray, close to Ullswater.

    While many are pleased with their lambs, it has undeniably been a tough year with last year’s cold wet summer, and the freezing winter. Willy Tyson tells me that for him, lambing has been ‘less than memorable’. But today, with the sun warming our backs and bringing out the green in the new leaves of the trees, we’re all able to trust that Spring has finally arrived. Showing the tups marks a change of season.

    There are over twenty classes, starting with the best mouth, and then going on to categories including the best over-wintered, the best group of four tups, best pair of hoggs (the younger male sheep, with thick brown fleeces), best coat, overall champion, and recipient of the Edmondson Cup. Each farmer has his tups in pens around the central space, and the sheep are ushered out when it’s time for judging. It can be quite a tussle getting a tup out of the pen and into the ring; they’re tough to handle and some of them have wild streaks, head butting and kicking, or rearing up. It needs a firm grip, a hand on a horn, and hand gripping the deep wool at the neck, knees pressed in against a woolly flank, or astride the body, but when a farmer has a hold, with a hand cupped under the chin, the tup can seem quite docile. Some of the younger farmers haul out and hold the tups for the older ones whose physical strength is fading.

    At one point, while Rob is crouching down in the midst of the sheep, an abrupt shout as warning saves him from being rammed by one of the larger sheep. ‘That tup,’ says Gavin, ‘that’s the wildest Herdwick in the world.’ Lucky Rob can move fast.

    The judges walk around the tups on show and inspect them: closely checking mouth, legs, eyes, testicles, fleece. They look at the way they stand. Then the tups walk or run around the ring while the judges observe them. When it’s time to gather them in again the farmers herd the sheep into a corner; there’s a wall of legs in jeans and plastic over-trousers, with backs bent over the tups and arms reaching out to grab horns and tug the heavy sheep into place for a final judging.

    This year, Andrew Nicholson was awarded the Edmondson Cup; Joe Weir, the overall Champion, and several other rosettes; Gavin Bland, best coated ram. There were many other rosettes, with a first, second and third in each class. Some of the farmers entered almost every class, but even for them the event was an opportunity to meet with friends and catch up on news.

    Last year, when Rob and I came to the Tup Fair it was our first such event. I knew only one farmer to begin with and although after a few hours I had met many more, I was completely fresh, ignorant of so many shepherding practices. This year I was among familiar faces; there was a lot of time for talking; I could make connections between tups from one farm and lambs on another; and I understood what the judges were looking for, even if I didn’t always agree with their choices (it’s very subjective). Rob was at ease in the ring in the thick of the action, and I think his intimate photos show this.

    At the end of the fair, when all the sheep had been herded into the waiting trailers, we made our way to the Twa Dogs Inn a few hundred yards down the road and settled in with a pint and a gentle afternoon of chatting. We had remembered to bring with us an article we’d published on Land Keepers. We wanted to give it to Gavin as his photo featured in it, a picture Rob had taken when gathering beneath Helvellyn last September. In the picture, Gavin is standing looking over the fells and the spine of Striding Edge, with two dogs at his heels. Willy Tyson recognised one of the dogs as one of the two daughters from his own bitch. She has turned into one of the best dogs Gavin has ever had; her mother, Willy tells us, was a wonderful dog too. They talk about the lineage, and about the fact that neither of the pups produced a litter. The blood line has stopped.

    It brings into focus the importance of heritage – in the dogs, in the sheep, in the shepherds. The Tup Fair, with the judging of good qualities, the tradition of returning a borrowed tup in an improved condition and discussions about the lambs that have been bred from each tup, is a yearly marker on a shepherding timeline that stretches for centuries. It shows the work that goes into keeping the blood line strong, keeping the Herdwick breed hardy and healthy; because they are, of all sheep, the most able to withstand the harsh conditions that the Lakeland fells throw at them.

    It’s good to see these fine animals being celebrated and cared for, by a community of shepherds who, despite the vagaries of weather, the strain of losses during lambing time, and the pressures of balancing the books, are deeply committed to what they do and so easily muster a laugh and a smile.

    Today, with the sun on the fells behind the show ground, and blue pushing out the clouds in the sky, their smiles reflect the beauty of the land and the pleasure of being with the livestock: two things that inject pride and pleasure into the life that is a shepherd’s life.

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