29 September 1995

SHEEP &

TALE TALENT

Entering a writing competition has opened new horizons for Claire Smith who has discovered a talent for story-telling and illustration. Tessa Gates found out what it takes to win with a lambs tale

THERE is a new addition to the shelves of childrens books Claire Smith has collected over the years and this one is rather special. It is the result of a competition win and perhaps the start of a new career for Claire, who has a passion for sheep and a talent for illustration.

"When I saw the competition, in a regional farming paper, I thought I must go in for this," says Claire who lives in Tadcaster, Yorks, and keeps a small flock of mainly Badger Face sheep on rented land just a mile from her home. "The criterion was to write a story related to farming, for children," she explains.

She wrote a story about Willow*, a three-month-old lamb separated from its mother and taken down from the hillside to fresh pasture in an orchard where Victoria, the plum tree befriends her.

"It was about weaning because it was that time of year when I was writing it. I wean my lambs in an orchard and talk to the trees so it was partly factual," says Claire, who does casual agricultural work. Her interest in sheep started when she was a research assistant at Leeds University.

"I worked with sheep there and when I changed my job I really missed them so I rented land and bought four sheep. Then I found that everything you need for sheep comes in 25s so I increased to that number. I went for the Badger Face as we can only get six-month leases on land round here, so I need a breed that will lamb in the summer."

Claire painted all the illustrations in the book.

"Pictures can tell so much of the story and I think that perhaps I was the only person who attempted to illustrate their entry," says Claire. "I have always liked drawing and making things but have never had any artistic training and this was my first attempt at watercolour."

The result is impressive. The illustrations have plenty of detail to fire the readers imagination and they make the book a delight for adults to read to younger children than the five- to eight-year-olds it is intended for.

The book which sold 350 copies in hardback and 250 in paperback at the Royal Show, in the first week it was on sale, has a second edition in production, with two new paintings by Claire replacing two she felt lost something in the printing.

Claire has already written another story, this time about Herdwicks in the Lake District – "sheep are very environmentally friendly and its about time farming got a good press" – and she has lots more ideas.

"I did try a story about a ram but his life is all sex and death so I didnt feel it was really suitable. You do need to have a happy ending to stories for children.

I wont necessarily write about Willow again. I have no trouble thinking up stories – a lot of the jobs I do are very boring so I find it easy to let my imagination wander."

She hopes writing and illustrating will become her winter work in future.

"I have been thinking lately – what am I going to do when I am 50, those bales arent getting any lighter," says Claire, who has a good 20 years to worry about it. Hopefully by then she will be firmly established as a childrens writer.

*Willow Alone by Claire Smith, Farming Press, £3.99 (paperback), £7.99 (hardback). Available in bookshops and by post (add £2.50 p&p) from Farmers Weekly Offers, PO Box 261, Slough, Berks SL2 3RU. (0175 364 2234).

Claires book is drawn from life both for the text and illustration.