We haven’t been out and about in a while (which is why I haven’t been blogging!), but we had decided a few weeks ago to check out the Australian Sheep & Wool Show on in Bendigo this weekend.
The weather could have been better. Melbourne this morning was cold and wet – not surprising for July you might say, but we did just have our warmest July day on record on Thursday – it reached 23.3oC in the city! But after two days of unseasonably warm weather we were back to cold. We knew Bendigo would not be warmer than Melbourne, and when I checked the weather app on my phone the forecast was rain, possible storms, and even chance of hail, with a maximum temperature of 10oC. Time to rug up!
I’m so glad the MINI is a warm and comfortable car. As we headed north west past Mt Macedon, Kyneton, Castlemaine, we watched the outside temperature drop steadily down to 3.5oC which had us wondering if we’d brought enough layers! Fortunately it picked up again from there and as we arrived in Bendigo, it was a cold, not freezing, 8oC. The car looked almost freshly washed due to the pelting rain on the way, too!
After we found our way to the Price of Wales showgrounds – we need to spend more time visiting and exploring Bendigo I think – and paid a modest sum to park in a muddy field (yes, the MINI was called on to pretend it’s a 4wd again), we paid our entrance fee and were free to explore the world of sheep and wool!
After exploring few sheds of woolcraft, we found an even larger shed of woolcraft, woolwear, wool-everything, basically. You could buy everything from fleeces straight from the sheep/goat/alpaca’s back to top done fleece in any colour you could possibly imagine; spun yarn; knitted & felted clothes (fashion, practical & technical), hats, booties/slippers, gloves, rugs/throws/blankets – to associated products such as spinning wheels, weaving machines, knitting & sewing patterns, buttons, accessories.
Yep. It was all there. And then we went on to the next shed – and found there was even more!
All things considered, I escaped pretty lightly from those two sheds with just one purchase, after being persuaded (although ‘instructed’ may be slightly more accurate) by Stephen to buy a hat.
The next shed had an unexpected surprise within – a shearing competition!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sheep being shorn – live, in front of me – before. Yes, we’ve all seen it done on TV, and yes, I’ve even sat a sheep down on it’s rump in front of me during a sheep prac at uni as the lecturer explained sheep handling techniques, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen shearing being performed in real life. What a city slicker!
To help warm up we thought we’d grab something hot to eat, so stopped at the Festival of Lamb tent. Guess what was on offer – lamb burgers! Mmmm, lamb. They were pretty good, and I don’t think it was just because we were hungry. No cooking demos while we were there unfortunately. I was impressed with the set up of the tent – someone had made an effort to make it nice; there were bunches of wattle flowers in colourful containers on the tables that were covered in a beige cloth, and there were eucalyptus branches in the hay bales around the edges of the tent. It felt pleasant instead of cheap and disposable, despite the plastic plates we were eating from. And as for the service! – I had barely handed over payment for our two lamb burgers and there they were on the counter. In fact, they were so fast I thought they must have been meant for a previous order!
Wandering out the back we found some more sheep. These ones weren’t being shorn though. I think they’re just stud animals on show. We ducked in as it started raining again and it’s hard to say whose breath was steaming more – theirs or ours.
The rain was still coming down in hard, intermittent showers as we headed back to the main arena. It’s a pity there weren’t stands around the oval. Given the weather I’m not sure too many people would have been out sitting on them today, but to properly appreciate the sheep dog trials I kind of felt I should have brought our binoculars. It’s the event we were most looking forward to, but we weren’t keen on standing in the rain. Unlike the participants and judge/adjudicator, we had a choice.
By now we’d finally made our way around to the other side of the main arena to the Livestock Exhibition Centre. We went in and thought, “Aaah, so this is where they’re hiding!” – the maps dotted around the showgrounds being for the benefit of other people. People with plans or limited time. We had neither, which hopefully justifies our belated enlightenment.
Walking into this hall, you are struck by three things – firstly, the size of the place; secondly, that it’s full (of people and sheep); and thirdly, the smell of ruminants.
Some of these sheep are huge! Even accounting for the depth of wool on them, these are super-sized sheep. Seeing the very long line of merino rams being judged was another jaw-dropper. I didn’t count how many rams were lined up, but at a guess I’d say 70-80.
Unlike every other show we’ve been to or seen, there were no crowd barriers separating the competitors and judges from the spectators. It was very much an industry show. Being able to walk around the pens and see and touch the animals without the akward feeling you get at the bigger suburban shows, seemed to typify the difference between a country and a city show.
On the other side of the shed were boxes upon boxes of fleeces for judging. To my completely untrained eye, at that level a fleece is a fleece is a fleece. They’re all highly crimped and ‘fleecy’. (Can you tell I’m not getting a job as a fleece judge any time soon?)
We had one last big shed left to wander through – the New Livestock Exhibition Centre. ‘New’ livestock… did mean it was full of lambs? Or new breeds? It was a big shed… surely we’re not breeding that many new varieties each year?
As it turned out, it wasn’t a shed full of lambykins, nor crossbreds trying to gain recognition for new breed status. I’d have named this the “Alternate Breeds Exhibition Centre” or, if you want it more plainly still, the “Not-Merino Sheep Pavillion”.
There were some very interesting sheep here, and as you can see, a couple of cute Angora goats. The Angoras were from a school. I was informed that while they might be cute and like to be petted – keeping in mind that these ones are used to being handled reasonably frequently by school kids – they are renowned for their cheekiness and getting into trouble.
The Beersheba and the English Leicester were penned in the same area (maybe they were owned by the same people?) and have very distinctive, long coats. The Beersheba’s wool feels quite course though, whereas the English Leicester is so very soft!
And then I saw a sheep that could have been the one that played Ma in Babe! Cool! But across from it was a group called a different breed that looked like they could have been ‘Ma’ as well. I wandered on and saw more ‘Ma’-like sheep. Damn. So many varieties that look the same! Tricky British breeds.
With that we were pretty much done, and I have to say we were very pleased that we went.
I’ve been to one or two very small country shows, but nothing like this. I’ve been to the Royal Melbourne Show, and Brisbane’s Ekka – shows that were originally agricultural based – ‘where the city meets the country’ – but agriculture has been increasingly losing out to over-priced show bags, the lights and noise of sideshow alley, the dare-devils of motorcross, fireworks and fairy floss for many years.
Here there was a distinct lack of families with unruly kids in and/or hanging off prams complaining about everything and clogging up the isles between stands in the sheds. The children that we did notice at the show were almost invisible as they were mostly occupied with jobs – feeding & watering animals or helping show the animals – and were clearly associated with either their family’s or their school’s animals pens.
Another highlight was the vast majority of the stands in the woolcraft sheds really ‘belonged’ there. There were a couple of stalls that stood out because they didn’t seem to fit – the two different massage/posture seat sellers for instance – but on the whole, it was really uplifting to see so many people involved in so many ways with the Australian sheep and wool industry.
We’re definitely planning to go to the Bendigo and Ballarat Shows later this year.
There was one surprise left for the day. As we approached our car to leave, a bloke was letting dogs out of his dog trailer. 1, 2, 3… soon there were a lot of dogs running around! Nine to be precise. We were somewhat taken aback by all these dogs – all large apart from one Jack Russell. A motley crew of bitsers too, by the look of them.
By the time we’d put our stuff in the boot and sat in our seats ready to go, the dogs were running around a tree just below where we were parked. At first I thought it was just random play; 8 dogs playing chase me! But then we heard the man blow a whistle and saw the dogs change direction – he was either training them to be sheep dogs, or they were sheep dogs and he was just giving them structured exercise – or both!!
This went on for about 5min or so. Only the Jack Russell wasn’t tearing around the tree. He was standing next to the man while the others ran themselves out. Gosh they looked like they were having fun! There were two dogs who weren’t totally on message – maybe they were the newest trainees? Not sure. Practice ended with a different whistle. You could see it immediately. Like flicking a switch, the dogs’ body language changed from ‘Must run as fast as I can around this tree!’ to ‘Hey, I smell something over here,’ and ‘I’m going to check out the creek, come on!’. It was brilliant! And totally made up for not getting to see much of the sheep dog trials.
Maybe there should be a new competition next year… Sheep dog trials with lots of dogs – and no sheep. Just dogs having fun.