Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sheep-Jumping At The Olympics?

My wife Jo is not someone you’d normally describe as a country girl. She claims to have seen neither sheep nor cow during her childhood in Beverly Hills. I can well believe this, judging by the screams of wonderment when she first spotted a herd of cattle shortly after her arrival in the UK. “They’re absolutely huge”, she told her mother.

The fact that Jo has survived four years of living on an isolated farm in Northumberland is testimony to the strength of our relationship. She’s still pretty wary of approaching the animals directly, particularly cows, whom she (rightly) suspects of being moody, unpredictable and downright dangerous. “The only good cow is medium-rare”, she says, and, having had the neighbour’s herd force themselves through a gate into our ripe hayfield last week, I agree.

Jo has endured bats, mice, bulls and all manner of rural indignities during her time in the UK, but I don’t think she’s ever quite forgiven me for the sheep-jumping incident. It was five years ago, during our first summer in London. We were driving through rural Cambridgeshire to lunch with my half-brother when we passed a paddock laid out with pony jumps; in the corner of the field a few sheep were lazily grazing. “Look!” I said excitedly, “Sheep jumpers.”

Jo made me slow down as her brain took in this information. “You’re not telling me they have to jump over those hurdles?” “Yes, it’s a big sport in this part of the world – the land’s flat and dull and so are the people. It’s how they liven up their weekends, training their sheep to jump. They even have championships: animals come from miles around to compete.”

She was suspicious at first. But once I’d outlined the rules of the sport, explaining how they use sheepdogs to nip the lambs’ heels in training till they get the idea, she was hooked. I warmed to the subject: “You know how you wear woollen sweaters in winter? Over here we call them jumpers: they’re named after the sport.” It was a long journey.

One sly wink and my half-brother joined in the fun. “Oh, it’s such a shame you’re not here next week: we’ve got the European Sheep Jumping Championships in Kimbolton just down the road. Thousands of them are coming from all over the continent, including the Greek champions.” “I hear the Jerseys are pretty strong this year”, added my nephew… and so on, for an entire lunch. By the end of the meal, we couldn’t contain ourselves and confessed through fits of giggles.

My wife’s gullibility is one of her most endearing features, but I had to swear never to tell that story in public. However this week I couldn’t resist. Because yesterday morning we were just pulling out of our driveway when we spotted our neighbour carrying a piece of foam and some string.

“What’s that for, Dick?” I asked. “Sheep racing”, he said gloomily. “I’m measuring up for the saddles.”

Apparently a friend of his had come up with a bright idea for the Whalton Village Show on the 18th September and Dick, being one of Britain’s most distinguished sheep vets, has been designated race organiser.

“I’ve no idea how to make them run”, he moaned. “How about sheep dogs running behind to nip their heels?” I suggested, just managing to dodge the side of Jo’s fist as it whistled towards my cheek. “Presumably they’ll have names like Sheargar and Red Ram? Will it be a Sheeplechase?” Dick nodded: “Sheep are pretty good at jumping.”

In Waitrose’s car park in Ponteland there’s a poster advertising the event. I reckon it’s going to be the sporting highlight of the year. I wonder if I should invite my half-brother? No, he’d never believe me.

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