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Early in the morning we arrive, Olly and I, at the vast sheep shed in Exeter market – it’s the day of the Whiteface Dartmoor Annual Show and Sale. Hustle, bustle, noise and racket reverberate and echo around the enormous open-sided building. Pick-ups, land rovers, trailers, boxes and lorries rev-rev and reverse peep-peep up to unloading bays where they relinquish their restless consignments; the racket of hooves clanging on metal, the clamour of continual calling, wool shimmer-glistens and steams in the early morning light. With twitching ear and heaving bodies sheep pour down the metal ramps like waterfalls of milk and gather in agitated frothing pools; the animals’ backs are stippled with stripes of vibrant colour, a bizarre rainbow indicating different flocks. With whistles and calls ‘sheppp…shep-shep-shep-shep’ flocks are ushered dexterously through a maze of gates and walkways into designated pens where owners deftly sort them into groups.
People and sheep, sheep and people; mingle and mix, dawdle and dally, hurry and scurry. There’s a face you recognise – then there’s another – and another and another; a wave from the lines, a tap on the back, a shout across a pen…greetings, introductions, questions:
‘How you been then?’
‘Long time, no see. Given up? Still got some hav’ee?’
‘Seen anything you like? A’ter ewes? No? Ahh, ram!’
‘Not a lot about this year’
‘Prices? Well…now…got me there. I don’t know. What you think, eh? You tell me!’
‘Who’s this Paula? No! Never! He were just a nipper backalong weren’t he?’
‘Ram is it? Well then….’
‘Interested? Look at his mouth…I mean…look maid. Just look! Best bloody mouth I’ve ever seen, I tell you!’
‘Na, you don’t want to take no notice of that! Rubbish, they were pink. Granfer’s flock were. Yes. Every god-damn one…pink.’
We move from pen to pen. We look. We study the form. We feel the shoulder, the back, the tail, the ear; look at the mouth, lift the feet. We look.
There are some splendid rams and many we can’t buy. The gene-pool is small so we have to choose carefully.
‘The trick is to find something you like, really like and are drawn to.’ I say to Olly ‘Something with the ‘x’ factor. Something special. Something inexplicable. Then you do the checks…and try NOT to kid yourself when it isn’t right!’
At last we find our rams. And it’s show time. The classes are large, the judging serious. One of our rams wins; this we know will raise the price.
We need a strategy. The rams we’ve picked out after hours of deliberation are numbers 8 and 9, and these will be sold near the beginning of the auction; this could be in our favour as auctions are notoriously slow to get going. But nine was a winning ram so he could sell for a lot of money. We like him, but we like eight too. A plan is settled upon. I shall bid for eight; I have my ceiling…and I have a chance to bid for nine if I lose him. If I lose both, heaven forbid, there’s another that would suit us, lot 35…but he has just won the champion…he could be pricey, though he’s older and the punters may not go for him. It’s a chance. But then an auction is always a chance.
We take our place around the ring. Lot 1 – not sold, lot 2, lot 3 – prices rising. Lot 4 just £55. Lot 5, 6, 7 hit higher figures and then we’re on, it’s our lad…The bidding starts, already much higher than previous lots. I wait, just as the hammer goes down I raise my finger, I’m in! Back-forth, back-forth, back-forth I bid up in twos, back-forth, back-forth…yes, yes! I’ve got him! The hammer is going, going down….no, no! Someone puts in a bid…we steel ourselves against each other, a game of vicious ping-pong, faster and faster, the tension around the ring crackles, back-forth, back-forth…I’m almost at my limit, I’m going to lose him, I can see my opponent, he’s a serious sheep man. Suddenly the bid’s with me, my opponent looks down, shakes his – he’s out – the auctioneer works the floor.
‘C’mon, c’mon you’ll lose him. Fine ram. Won’t get finer. The bid’s in the front…I’ll take two….anybody? One? One? Yes? Ladies? Gentleman? A ram in a million. Look at him. Generations of breeding. What’s that Sir? Over three hundred and fifty years of breeding I’m informed. Never see finer. I’ll take your bid…you there sir?…madam? Yes…one from the side there?’ the seconds tick, tick, tick, interminably. My heart jumps and beats in my neck, my mouth cotton wool dry, I look down, holding my breath, waiting, waiting for the hammer. BANG! I jump ‘The bid’s in the front…Paula Wolton, he’s yours!’
I got him!