28 June 2002

Special significance for sheep post-F&M

More than 900 animals entered in the shows sheep

section promises to help make the 2002 event a bumper

occasion for visitors and exhibitors alike

THIS years Great Yorkshire Show will have special significance after last years cancellation, says chief sheep steward, Henry Watson who can trace his involvement with the event back more than 35 years.

"We have more than 900 animals in the sheep section which is encouraging," explains Mr Watson. Sheep numbers in the county were hit hard during foot-and-mouth and the extra biosecurity regulations may have dissuaded some farmers from entering their animals, he believes.

"I have seen interest grow steadily during my time as steward. In the 1950s, the sheep classes were only attracting about 400 entries/year. The best year in the shows history was 2000 when about 1500 animals entered."

Part of the events success is the show layout, he adds. "One of the attractions is the excellent set-up we have at Harrogate. I have judged at all the major shows but I am convinced we have the best facilities in the country."

One disappointment is that four breeds will be absent from the 2002 event. "The breed societies for the Hampshire Down, Dorset Down, British Berrichon and Leicester sheep have decided not to show their animals this year. But we do have 15 entries of Zwartble sheep, some of which are coming from the south of England," points out Mr Watson.

At home in the Yorkshire Wolds, Mr Watson is preparing some of his own sheep for the show ring. He will be exhibiting some of his top Oxford Downs from his small flock at Gritts Farm, Driffield. The Friday-thorpe flock has won many awards and he believes the breed cannot be beaten for producing an early-maturing lamb.

"Oxford Down lambs on intensive systems can become fully mature by 12 weeks old, producing a carcass of 21-22kgs deadweight. They are very hardy and I would argue with the suggestion that the ewes are difficult to lamb. That has never been my experience."

On his 404ha, (1000 acre) mainly arable holding, lambing takes place in April. Lambs from the main flock of 400 Mules are fed on stubble turnips in the autumn and are sold as stores throughout January.

Mr Watson has been alarmed at the decline in sheep numbers in the Wolds recently. He believes the reason lies in their declining profitability. But they are an essential part of his farming system, using a large area of unploughable land.

With lack of time a major problem on many farms in the area, sheep-keeping may have become less popular because of its high labour requirement, he says. But judging by the number of entries, there is no doubting their popularity at this years show.