Vets as judges may not be best in class

SUMMER is here and so is the animal-showing season.

By the time this column is published, my parents will have spent three (hopefully productive) days showing sheep at the Great Yorkshire Show. The Great Yorkshire is one of the most prestigious livestock shows in Britain, with thousands of exhibitors showing an array of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, ponies, alpacas and poultry. My family started showing Wensleydale longwool sheep over 25 years ago and have had a great deal of success, but this has not always been the case.

The Wensleydale is a striking sheep — the largest of the British breeds with the finest quality of fleece. In the unclipped sheep, that fleece extends in tight curls to the ground and a lot of work and preparation needs to go into transforming them from straw-covered muck magnet in the field into beautiful show animals.

We didn’t in our first few years of showing fully recognise this and consequently spent a couple of years languishing at the wrong end of the awards line-up. One of the initial errors that my father would probably now admit to is that he tended to assess the sheep with a veterinary eye. He would evaluate them in terms of good health; were the feet sound, the teeth correct and the udder free from lumps and bumps? He was willing to overlook whether or not the ears were an even dark blue, or the lower legs free of wool — the judges however were not.

My parents are much less naïve now and do well in the show ring, but the premise remains that vets often make pretty poor judges. Present me with three cavalier King Charles spaniels and I will tell you which has the first signs of a heart murmur, dry eye or ear disease, but ask me which will win best in class — not a clue.

Conversely, I am sure some judges overlook issues which ought to have significance even in the show ring and remain adamant that a Crufts champion of some years back demonstrated a clear shoulder lameness every time it entered the ring. Judges and vets — never the twain shall meet! Yes in an ideal world, but this ignores the traditional children’s pet show.

Exhibitors will tell you that inter-breed competitions, in which the best of 16 different breeds of sheep are judged against one another, are a complete lottery. How can a judge be expected to compare a 150kg Wensleydale ram with an 8kg Soay lamb? Difficult no doubt, but infinitely more straightforward than the poor vet expected to choose between the puppy, goat and goldfish at the village pet show. I’m begging all parents to show the veterinary judge some sympathy, even if little Johnny’s cat does lose out to a hamster!

Sam Prescott, Director and Senior Vet