Royal Berkshire County Show

Yesterday I went to the Royal Berkshire Agricultural Show with Mark. The best part about the show is getting to see the animals, and getting to meet the people who keep them.

For example, how about this lovely Welsh Black Mountain Sheep, and all her rosettes!

…and I discovered that this shy Boreray ram lives in a flock of sheep quite local to me, which is exciting news. I am slightly obsessed at the moment with our critically endangered Boreray numbers.

These Southdown sheep were delighting everyone in the stock tent.

…while this Leicester Longwool was struggling to stay awake in the soporific warmth of the sunny tent.

His buddy had one of the finest sheep’s noses I’ve ever seen. Seriously, there are few things in the world more lovely than a sheep’s nose.

This year’s show was selected as the venue for the Aberdeen Angus national finals, so there were some seriously impressive bulls to be seen. I think this was the champion of the Aberdeen Angus Bulls.

We were awed by the bulls! This magnificent beast is, I think, a Limousin.

There were some equally proud Rams on show, but perhaps the finest set of horns I saw yesterday belonged to this well-decorated Jacob.

The sight of farmers standing in a row with animals they have fed and watered and nurtured from birth makes me feel extremely emotional. I am only a tourist to the world of farming, but from visiting shepherds and reading about the difficult work and the heartbreak involved in breeding and maintaining animals, these moments in show rings seem especially victorious to me.

You get to see the animals looking their best.

However there are many aspects of the Royal Berkshire County Show which I do not enjoy. For example, why is there so little breed-specific meat available to buy from the hot food vendors? Although many such vendors have the red tractor symbol on their stalls and signs proudly declaring that the burgers etc. are made of British meat, I feel this is tokenistic in terms of actually supporting small producers and especially people who keep rare breed animals. I know of one farmer in Cumbria who sells Herdwick meat directly off her farm, because supermarkets will not pay a premium for what she is producing, (even though Herdwick meat is prized as a regional Cumbrian delicacy). I suspect that – similarly – the high cost of hiring a pitch at the Berkshire County Show prices many of the smaller and more specific producers completely out of being able to sell their wares there.

The same seems true also of the craft tents. It is to my mind insane that not one single independent, UK yarn company working with British Wool exhibits at the Royal Berkshire County Show. You can find all manner of bamboo and hemp products in the so-called ECO-VILLAGE area, and many examples of finest cashmere and alpaca elsewhere in the show, and yet British Wool as a home-insulate or a hand-knitting wool is nowhere to be seen! There is an amazing library of yarns that have been spun from many different breeds by the incredibly talented Linda Scurr who some of you may know from Yarnmaker magazine, but this is tucked away in a corner of the sheep tent, and of course is not for sale, (it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen) meanwhile the craft tent is rammed with Fabergé eggs, ceramic gnomes, and paintings of meerkats with no perceptible ties to local agricultural practice whatsoever.

Wandering between relentless aisles of HOG ROAST and GREAT BRITISH BURGER stalls, I found myself increasingly questioning the true value of the show to agricultural producers, and wondering about the relationship between the Royal Berkshire County Show and the real economics of farming. At times I felt I was in a kind of grotesque fetishisation of the pastoral idyll; a pop-up Disney wonderland where you can buy a bun stuffed with meat for under a fiver, pet all the pretty animals and sit on the grass with your strawberries and cream feeling “all British” or something.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to admire the lovely animals, (and they are lovely) or wanting to eat burgers in the September sunshine, but I do wish that this experience wasn’t so overwhelmingly the focus for what is supposed to be the County Agricultural Show. The programme (which costs £4) has no detail on the different classes for the livestock competitions, (you cannot find out when the Wool-on-the-hoof prizes are being awarded, for instance) but instead is dominated with advertisements for massive 4x4s, professional landscapers, vintage car dealers, and estate agents featuring the outlandish mansions currently on their books. Of all the publications I have ever read in my life, this one showed the least commitment to publicising in any reality the actual world of agriculture as I understand it.

I disapprove of the fact that the animals are off to one side, while the traders are placed centrally, purveying their agricultural-drag-show amidst a hideous frill of union jack bunting and tweed. I think it is ridiculous that the information about the livestock competitions is not given pride of place in the stupid brochure amidst the glossy photos of monstrous country palaces and gleaming SUVs. I did not approve of the stand-up routine delivered whilst the sheep were being sheared, (even though I admired the undoubted skill of the Australian shearer doing that job) and I think it is a crying shame that breed-specific food products were not given a more prominent presence amongst the hot food vendors at the event. The Royal Berkshire County Show treats the public like morons, and I am sad, because I would like to have learned more about these eggs.

…and these ducks.

Luckily, one wonderful lady in the Poultry tent told us that in a couple of weeks’ time there will be a show South of Leicester featuring many domestic ducks. She said there will be fewer fancy birds there than at the clownshoes* RBCS, because this other show “is for people who are really interested in keeping ducks”.

Says it all, really.

*She did not actually use the phrase “clownshoes”

I would really love to hear from producers who showed at the RBCS; is it awesome? Have I got it all wrong? Or is this really a hideous fayre-gone-rogue that really just benefits professional burger vendors and the makers of Fabergé eggs?

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