Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Showing sheep

As I mentioned earlier, Mary Luper and I went to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival this past weekend, where we showed my two yearling karakul ewes. It was definitely an experience! First I should note that I hadn't planned on showing sheep--conformation shows just aren't my thing. Those of you who know me know how I feel about the way conformation showing seems to relentlessly change conformation, and generally not for the better! But this is where having a very rare breed comes in. There's not as much pressure to change the breed to meet some artificial show standard. So when the woman I got my ram and a couple of ewes from asked if I had anything to bring to the show, I decided to go ahead and enter.

The first hurdle was the sheep themselves. I did the shearing myself last fall, which means that I sheared only those sheep who really needed it. Six-month-old lambs didn't fall into that category, so the youngsters remained unshorn. That wouldn't be a big deal--unless you intend to show them in the spring!

So when I pulled Cinnamon and Peppercorn out of the pasture so we could spruce them up, the first thing I noted was their badly cotted and felted wool. This was absolutely not good for a show sheep, but since karakuls are shown in fleece, I couldn't very well have the shearer clean them up. So we had to do what we could with the mess in front of us. If you've ever dealt with felted wool, you know you can't just comb it out, though Mary tried valiantly with Cinnamon. Armed with a comb and a bottle of Show Sheen she spent hours trying to comb out Cinnamon's fleece. But it really was pretty hopeless. Given that was the case, I made much less effort with Pepper. My contact had said we could try to cut out some of the felted areas, and I started to do this around Pepper's neck until I realized all I was really doing was making her look more and more like a vulture, with a little skinny naked neck rising up out of a poofy, cotted fleece. Oh well, live and learn.

We rushed to get the shearing done Thursday (Tom was shearing my sheep till nearly 7 that evening, after having already stopped at two farms before mine). When it was time to do the "show sheep" Tom asked what needed to be done. I consulted the e-mail I had received from the breeder and said "Shear the bellies and crutch them, and that's it." He kept asking questions (having shown Corriedales back when his daughters were small) and all I could answer was that I'd know better next year after seeing what the sheep looked like at the show this year.

Tom finished up Tony and Mary's sheep late morning on Friday. I didn't go help catch and flip because I had to load the sheepmobile and make sure all the livestock and pets had food, water, etc. We were supposed to be checked in at the festival before 6 p.m., and it's a six-hour drive there, so we were cutting it close.

Jimmy got back from assisting with the sheep shearing and helped me get Cinnamon and Pepper in the van. (In case you're wondering how to carry sheep in your van, I took a hog panel, bent it in a C shape and after laying a heavy duty tarp down, pushed it into the van. Jimmy and Tony had bent the ends of the panel to fold in and form a gate at the back. I then took clips and clipped the tarp up on the sides of the hog panel to prevent any splashing of pee. We then placed a rubber mat on the tarp, covered it with pine shavings, and then covered the shavings with straw. Voila! Sheep transport.) Even with the hog panel pen, we had plenty of room in my midsize van for a bale of hay, feed and grooming supplies (ha!ha!) for the sheep, our overnight bags, and a cooler. The sheepmobile was ready to roll!

We ended up being a few minutes late arriving at the fairgrounds, but we had called ahead to explain and the folks were very nice once we finally found where we needed to check in. We got the girls unloaded and in their pens (where I foolishly lifted some flakes of straw over the backs of my sheep--you can imagine what the result was! I'm sure Mary was considering shooting me at that point.) and then wandered around looking at the vendors setting up while we waited for the show committee to post the show times. Finally we found out that we'd be showing Saturday morning, third in line after the black romneys and the blue-faced leicesters. Rather than stay there that evening trying to do the last-minute prettying of our sheep, Mary and I decided that since we are both "morning larks" we would just get up early and get back to the grounds in the morning to do the needed (and, face it, pretty much hopeless) sprucing.

The next morning I thought I'd have to pry the comb out of Mary's fingers. Again, I just did the minimum with Pepper, knowing I couldn't change much in the short time we had and the judge would likely mark us down for the condition of the fleeces. Being pragmatic, I just reminded myself that this was an unplanned show and I was doing it in support of the other karakul breeders so that the breeder numbers would be high enough to enable them to keep having a separate karakul show at this festival. It would be a learning experience.

As we stood around outside the arena awaiting our turn, a number of spectators stopped and asked about our sheep. Most folks aren't old enough to remember "Persian lamb," but those who did were fascinated that the sheep they saw in front of them are what produced that lovely black fur of yesteryear. People wanted to touch the sheep, which was just setting poor Mary's teeth on edge as they mussed Cinnamon's fleece, requiring Mary to keep smoothing it back down.

Now we were clueless about what we needed to do in the show ring. And our sheep had had halters on for the first time that Wednesday, so even leading them around was a bit dicey. In fact, Cinnamon would really lead only if she could follow Pepper, which was pretty funny considering that out in the field Pepper is the nutcase and Cinnamon is the sane one. Fortunately, the breeder of one of the oldest karakul flocks in this country, Letty Klein, came to our rescue. She even came into the ring during the pairs class to help us set our sheep up properly! She was so kind and informative, answering all of our newbie questions and giving advice on how to keep the fleeces in better show condition in the future (blanketing is a big no!, but apparently if you just pull the sheep out and hose them off occasionally, the hosing removes dirt, and it's dirt that causes cotting). Obviously, everyone pointed out that I should have shorn my ewe lambs in the fall. Now I know. But as I said, I had no plans to show, and shearing was painfully slow, so they just didn't get done.

Anyway, we got in the show ring, and despite our nasty fleeces, we still managed to place in the middle of the pack. Even had the fleeces been pristine, we likely wouldn't have done a whole lot better because this particular judge consistently picked the larger sheep, all other things being equal (hmmm...I wonder if that could be why breeds are getting larger and LARGER?). The good news is we had a blast! We've decided to go back next year and do it right. And we plan to go through the lamb crop this year and pick out some to show at SAFF (Southeastern Animal Fiber Festival) in October. I doubt I'll ever become a "show jockey"--it just doesn't appeal to me that much, but I can see myself going to Maryland in the spring for the karakul show (and because there are oodles of wonderful vendors) and to SAFF in the fall for the chance to take classes in some of the crafts I enjoy (last year I took Letty's and Ann Brown's class in braided rugs from roving; this year I plan to take a class in "painting" with needle felting) and sell some fleeces and maybe pelts if we have any then. And if you're going anyway, you may as well drag a few sheep along too! Although this fall I'll probably have more sheep than will fit in the sheepmobile, which means I'll have to pull a trailer.

So that was our sheep show experience. We met some really nice folks, and some not so nice folks (I guess showing is the same everywhere, no matter what species you're working with). We got to see breeds of sheep we might not easily get to see otherwise, certainly not all in one place. I absolutely fell in love with the "UK style" blue-faced leicesters. We marveled at Columbias the size of large ponies. Played with lovely Lincoln Longwool (nothing makes a more beautiful pelt in my opinion, well, except maybe a Cotswold) and Border Leicester fleeces. Waxed nostalgic over the Scottish blackface (especially since there were three nosey ones in the pen next to ours). Marveled at the wrinkles on the Merinos. Admired the "dreads" on the Cotswolds. Luxuriated in the fleeces of the Romneys. Saw sheep being bathed in bay rum, sheep being blocked by the light of headlamps and freestanding halogen worklights, sheep being primped and preened to within an inch of their lives.

And the vendors! Ah, if you're a handspinner or a knitter, you'd have been in paradise. Even people like me, who neither spin nor knit, but do other crafts instead, could find loads of things to lust over. If I had money, I'd be dangerous at such a festival. As it is, I managed to keep myself to just a small hooked rug project and a beautiful cast stone plaque of a willow tree that is destined to become part of a farm sign for future shows and festivals. I got Laura a lovely mug with a border collie hand-painted in delft blue as a thank you for looking after Pip (with three bitches in heat, it seemed wise to send him away) and Twist (who is on strict leash walking and crate rest, which wasn't likely to happen at my house while I was gone). I stayed away from all the hand-knit sweaters, though I saw many I would have loved to have had. I even got practical and bought a foot bath for the sheep. We also had a chance to chat with a friend of mine from Pennsylvania who raises old-style tunis sheep. She brought us pictures of some of her ram lambs, and we will be getting our next ram from her later this summer.

It was a long weekend, but a fun one, and I'm looking forward to going back next year.


Debbie Pelletier said...

Hey Julie - Andre and I were there and looked for you and your sheep. You must have been off shopping with all the other thousands of people there!!!
Glad you had fun - I just can't talk myself into showing my sheep. I'm too intimidated by all those people who know what they are doing!

Robin French said...

It sounds like a fun weekend!

Julie said...

You should just go for it. We couldn't have been any worse prepared than we were and we still had fun! If you go next year, you can always asked to have your pens next to ours and then you know there will be a friendly face nearby.

The judging of the BFLs was interesting. Some of the folks that were penned near us (and had gorgeous sheep IMO) did not do well in the show because the judge didn't like their fleeces. The breeder commented that he had a long discussion with the judge, but that in the end he wouldn't change what he was doing because they were getting the fleeces *they wanted* and that's what was most important to them. I think if you can keep such a healthy attitude when showiing (instead of allowing yourself to be influenced by one judge or a show trend), it could be quite enjoyable.

It's a good thing I'm not rich or I'd have had to get a trailer to haul home all the stuff I would've bought (including sheep)!

~~Sittin.n.Spinnin said...

Did you see Laurie of Laurie's Lambs? She was there also. I am buying some tunis wool from here that is 24 micron I think she said. I am going to Ohio the end of the month to the National Tunis Sale, I am trying to decide wether to take a set amount of money, or if I should take me debit card... you see, the Great Lakes Wool Show is the same weekend hehehehe...if my DH knew, he wouldnt let me take more than I needed for food LOL

Michelle at Boulderneigh said...

I think that it was gutsy (and GREAT) of you to go in spite of untrained, cotted sheep. I had no idea Letty Klein raises Karakuls! She judged the Shetlands at BSG last year, and I couldn't have been more impressed. I was SO excited to hear she is judging again this year, and then totally bummed to hear she's judging fleeces; a more "typical" judge who believes "bigger is better" is judging Shetlands on the hoof. :-(

Julie said...

I didn't see a lot of people I do know, much less those I don't know! The festival is huge, and there are lots of people, so unless you specifically plan to meet someone somewhere, you may well not run into anyone you know. I think some folks looked for us in the barns, but we didn't have an extra pen, so there was no convenient place to sit and just hang out (or we would have).

I don't know that gutsy is the right word--maybe just crazy! I think if you go in with the right attitude (well, I was embarassed by the fleeces) then you can have fun no matter what.

Letty is wonderful! A couple of my middle-aged karakul ewes are from her flock, via another breeder. She's also judging at SAFF this year, which is even more incentive to go. During the break in the show, she had a hands-on demonstration/discussion on judging sheep. If she does that at BSG, try to attend. It was very informative, even though she did note at the beginning that the basic standard for most sheep doesn't apply to karakuls!