Opinion: The charm and mystery of sheep sales

A day has been set aside to attend a local sheep sale.

We are in the market for a new tup as you don’t want to put all your eggs – or spermatozoa as it were- in one basket at tupping time.

It always amuses me at these sales to see the intimate groping that can go on with the livestock, checking that none of the tups are, as it were, one ball short of a juggling set. Examining the stock at a sheep sale reminds me of shopping in an Arab souk. Take more than a casual interest in a pen of sheep or a tup’s length and tackle (or even the length of his tackle) and you are fair game for the sales patter from the owner who is casually lurking close by. These animals need inspecting; there’s a lot of work ahead for the chosen ones.

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Finding the time to indulge in such pleasurable pursuits as attending an auction can be difficult. Even keeping to the normal pattern of mealtimes is abandoned when there is so much to do outside.

Occasionally, I rebel against sitting with John on a damp rug to admire the carefully ploughed, power-harrowed, drilled, rolled, disced or subsoiled field, and take myself and my tea back to the Land Rover where three eager dogs are keen to share a sandwich. John gets into a state of near-paranoia if he talks to neighbouring farmers who have apparently already drilled-up and are twiddling their thumbs wondering what to do next. There should be a special warning posted on farm gates warning that early autumn may not be a good time for agricultural reps to call. “Can you tell me when he’ll be available,” they persist. “Not really,” I reply. Not trying to be unhelpful, just stating the obvious.

But needs must with acquiring new breeding stock. Our oldest tup has passed on to that great flock in the sky. Over the past few weeks, he had become noticeably listless and we had already debated whether his heart – and elsewhere – could stand up, literally, to the demands of tupping time. The vet pronounced him in no pain and advised us to send him for slaughter while we could. But a draw of fit lambs ready for market and put in his field overnight proved fatal. Nostrils flaring, he prepared to greet them and share a few hours of delight before they went off in the trailer. Oh dear. The spirit was willing, but the flesh proved too weak.

The nature of farming is that everyone decides to do a certain something at the same time, ensuring the mart car park is full of lots of other folk suddenly overcome with the desire to spend their hard-earned cash on sheep. Catalogues for the sale can be a thing of mystery. Usually, pens are all numbered until store lambs are listed, then it is anyone’s guess which lambs belong to which farm. Several auctioneers will be going at the same time in different sections of the market, so you have to know what you want in order to keep tabs on when you are buying. Auctioneers, too, all have their own style, patter and quirks, which ensure they build up a following of farming fans over the years who seek them out in the mart.

Round the ring at these celebrity auctioneers’ sales, regular punters shuffle happily on their straw bales, eagerly anticipating the start of another session of no-stop, swift spiel. Whether or not they intend to buy, they are intent on being entertained. It’s showtime. Nudging me confidentially, a farmer next to me whispers in my ear: “He should be on the stage, that auctioneer. Eee, he’s a comical booger.”

Any sign of the bidding wavering elicits the comment: “Now come on folks. You can’t breed rats from mice.” To John who, as usual, is wearing an open-necked shirt with sleeves rolled up past his elbows: “I didn’t see any requirement to come casual on the invitation, sir.” And to the successful purchaser of a tup whose owner’s disgruntled features display his disappointment at the amount his animal had sold for: “He says he’s absolutely delighted with the price, sir. Do you have any more to sell?” Pure stagecraft.

In the ring, sellers will strike a variety of poses and artistic moves to display the charms of their wares. Walking sticks tickle the upturned chins of the tups as they trot aggressively into the ring to display their manly profiles. The ewes require a lesser degree of showmanship, apparently a swift nudge to get them to stand up and prove they are alive is all that is required. It is quickly apparent that the most show-conscious farmers certainly get the top prices. Tups fetch a lot of money, too.

So the sheep have happy times to look forward to if our auction bidding is successful. We may traditionally consider spring as the time of year for love’s young fancy to stir. Not so in the sheep. Like it or not, the rules on this farm are that in October if you are a ewe you are getting fit. If you are a lamb you should be getting fat. And, if you are a tup, well, not so long now till fireworks night. That’s when things really go off with a bang.

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