I’ve known what the name of this post was going to be ever since I got the word I was going to market, specifically the Worcester sale of 200 store cattle, 1 stud bull, and 800 store sheep, plus calves and weanlings. (No pigs, I know, but I still couldn’t resist.) Husband was invited to tag along with former gamekeeper and current shepherd, Henry, some weeks ago. I was very jealous, having developed quite a thing for country auctions – admittedly of the marmalade and homemade wine variety — in the past few years. Granted I had no real use for livestock given our back garden is courtyard sized and covered in pebbles, but still I wanted to go.
So a few days before the market I persuaded husband to ask Henry if I could come along. Henry responded by text: “Yeh corse she can come as long as she keeps out of the way and says nothing! Tell her not to nod, wink or twitch while they are selling!” It didn’t take long to figure out why my invitation came with such a warning. In the first auction of the day the bidding for a pen of sheep seemed to be done solely by either a widening of the eyes or a pocket encased finger wag. But this most recent event in my continuing education in rural ways started long before the bidding began.
First we had to decide what to wear. Husband and I were both very excited about the prospect of our authentic rural outing and on the morning of we discussed our outfits like no outfit I had discussed since readying myself for a Friday night at Skatetown USA circa 1983. Husband settled on his checked shirt, a red tie, and grey sweater vest with jeans and wellies. I donned my suede elbowed turtleneck sweater, jeans, Chelsea boots, and a flat cap. I decided bringing a purse just wasn’t the thing to do at a livestock auction so I carried my things in the pocket of my very appropriate, moth-eaten Burberry wax coat. Luckily said pocket was designed to hold a game bird so it had no problem with my mobile phone and wallet, which is the closest thing to a pheasant it’s ever likely to see.
At 8:30am we arrived, as instructed, at a farm just outside Stow-on-the-Wold. It’s only nine or ten miles north of our Cotswold town, but it’s higher up and as such, has its own micro climate that still included the snow that had melted off in the valley villages weeks ago. Henry texted that he was still busy loading up the lambs he was taking to market, so we had a poke around while we waited. There were some kennels and a roaming herd of chickens, including a handsome hen of marbled black and white who seemed distressed by my attempts to take a picture of her with my phone. The Gloucester Old Spot, annoyed by how difficult it was for her hooves to gain a foothold on the frozen mud of her plot, was very amenable to the distraction of some wannabe country folks eager to pat her snout. She was so cute I thought about swearing off pork. That lasted as long as it took to drive to the market and discover there was a café and enough time for a bacon buttie and cup of tea before the auction began.
Before breakfast we had watched as the lambs from Henry’s farm and others were unloaded into sheltered pens. Once the unloading was done, an elaborate sorting process began to get sheep of similar shapes and sizes grouped together for sale. It looked like chaos, with pens opening and closing at seemingly random intervals and a man in a blue jumpsuit making a noise somewhere between a whistle and a hiss while waving his arms like he was directing a 747 onto the taxiway. I tried to stay out of the way while Henry got into the pens and helped herd errant sheep. I figured husband and I had already embarrassed him enough by having our picture taken dipping our boots in the buckets of antiseptic by every door.
When the auction bell rang at 10:30am we headed outside and joined the sea of flat caps. The auctioneer, a youngish better looking version of Prince Harry dressed in a checked shirt, tie, and white lab coat, stepped up on the concrete wall that ran the length of the pens and started the bidding. When the first lot went for £42, I was shocked at how cheap sheep were and felt an irrational itch to bid. Then Henry explained that was the price per sheep, not the entire pen. As we walked from pen to pen following the auctioneer, Henry also explained the difference between a Texel and a Suffolk Cross and why his farm opts for an unhandsome French breed called Charolais: small heads and big bodies means easy lambing and good meat. He also answered a thousand and one other questions we had that were no doubt the farming equivalent of a six year old asking his father why the sky is blue. In addition to husband asking Henry if his outfit was alright (“Your flat cap is too new” was the reply), these questions included what store lambs and store cattle means, which is that these animals were being sold off to continue to be raised on other farms rather than destined straight for the abattoir. In the end this would be their fate, but somehow knowing this wasn’t imminent made the proceedings jollier.
After the sheep were sold, we all headed into a sort of miniature amphitheater for the cattle auction. There were plywood step bleachers, but most people stood on the cold dirt floor facing a half moon shaped pen and the auctioneer, a different, older man this time, in a booth behind. The star of the show was the stud bull, a Pingauzer named Elgany John Jack. From the program notes I know his mother’s name was Our Wilma and his father, Edenbrook Cassius. Sadly, our stud bull never knew his father as Our Wilma was serviced by Edenbrook Cassius via the medium of Imported Austrian Semen. Perhaps it was rage over his absentee father that made it sound like King Kong rattling the bars of his cage when Elgany John Jack stepped onto the weighing pen scales. But when this ginger colored beast entered the viewing arena I couldn’t help thinking he had a touch of Liberace about him. It was the combination of his mop of curls poised on his head like a too small toupee, the golden ring through his nose, and the way his hooves made him walk like he was wearing a pair of Manolos. In the end he went for substantially more than a pair of Manolos.
We ended the morning with an instant coffee in the café. There, seated with a few other shepherds, talked turned to lambing which starts in March at Henry’s farm. I learned that snow is not of much concern during lambing but rain is, that you rarely need to assist a ewe in giving birth (despite what I had seen on all those episodes of All Creatures Great and Small), and that the whole thing lasts the better part of two weeks. That’s good because it means I’ll be back from my vacation in Florida in time to take part in this next installment of my rural education.