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What About Showing Sheep?
Pros & Cons

By Linda Hansen

Current debate about whether or not to show sheep leaves some shepherds feeling as if no matter what side of the issue they’re on, it’s the wrong side. In the interest of balancing the discussion let’s consider both sides.

A triangular graph might illustrate the general principal of sheep showing, putting best quality sheep at the top, and the larger population of sheep toward the bottom.

Those few at the top are arguably the best quality of a given breed, competing to be placed by qualified judges at the top of their classes. Ideally, this affirms their characteristics (and themselves) as the best genetic representatives of their breed, and they and their offspring can improve and enhance the larger population.

The positive influence flows down the triangle graph and spreads out at the bottom to improve not only purebred flocks, but commercial crossbred flocks, too. Of course it doesn’t mean that all other sheep are necessarily inferior. One may safely assume, however, that the consistent winners are high quality.

With that larger picture in mind, following are some of the advantages and disadvantages of showing sheep.

Advantages Of Showing

  • The shepherd becomes better educated about the dynamics of showing, judging and their own sheep.
  • Some of us have the need to feed our competitive impulses. The resultant satisfaction of doing well is undeniable. As we are challenged to a higher standard, personally and as regards our livestock, we grow.
  • Show sheep become tamer with the handling they receive in and out of the ring.
  • Assuming a good showing, your breed, registry, farm, sheep and even your name are showcased. This is a powerful marketing tool. Notice in almost any sheep! Magazine how many of the ads list the accumulated wins-a sheep resume.
  • Showing sheep saves work in other ways, such as finding markets and helping educate because of the built-in publicity it affords.
  • Not only is the judge enlightened by your showing, the public and your fellow shepherds are, too.
  • For prospective buyers, a show is a prime place to find information about breeds, producers and breed associations.
  • Showing can be fun!

Disadvantages Of Showing

  • If you suffer from performance anxiety, showing may be an unpleasant experience at best.
  • The preparation and the showing require time, hard work, skill, patience and practice.
  • Not only can it be tense for the shepherd, it can be even more stressful for the sheep.
  • Assuming you don’t show well, your sheep’s breed, registry, farm, sheep and even your name are showcased-negatively. Although the negative publicity is rarely as potent as positive publicity, it’s important to acknowledge that there is some risk to showing.
  • Probably the most common reason for not showing sheep is the stress and health risk to animals. Stress can translate to an animal’s increased susceptibility to disease. It is not uncommon for otherwise healthy sheep to return home with a cough, runny nose, Soremouth, parasites, etc.

Good Sportsmanship

There is a phenomenon about showing that keeps others from wanting anything to do with the ring: The disgruntled loser. Have you known one of these? The judge places Sasha Whiner’s sheep lower than she would like and offers comments that Ms. Whiner can and does vocally and frequently take exception to.

Yes, judges are “judgmental”! Every show ring placing can, however, be an educational event for the wise shepherd. Especially the shepherd that isn’t afraid to ask the top competitors how they prepare for and show. Most are flattered to be asked and generous about sharing their knowledge.

Overall Flock Fitness

As for health issues, there are common sense ways to minimize the risk.

Lessen stress for the sheep:

  • Be patient with your animals.
  • Be very careful about them overheating (or chilling) when traveling.
  • Take the feeders and buckets that they are used to.
  • Handle them a lot before the show date and halter train them.
  • Get them used to being groomed. Don’t put them on a blocking stand at the show for hours trying to get the pasture off of them-start your grooming at home.

Minimize disease risk:

  • Keep your sheep current on vaccinations, de-worming and record keeping.
  • Do not take even mildly or suspiciously sick animals to a show!
  • When possible, reserve two extra pens on either side of yours so that you have open space between your sheep and those next to you.
  • Cover the back (and sides) of your pens so that there is no contact with their sheep neighbors.
  • Request that your pen be away from the main walkway to the show ring where other sheep will come into contact with yours.
  • When you return home, put your sheep in a quarantine area for ten days before returning them to the flock.

For breed organizations, the “pros” of showing are obvious-the public’s increased interest and knowledge of the qualities of their breed-but the “cons” are more complex.

For example, in 1995 the American Kennel Club installed the Border Collie dog as an AKC recognized breed. Many trainers and breeders were adamantly against it because it put “physical trait” requirements on a dog that has been known for centuries as a working dog. Up to that point, no one was particularly concerned about the dog’s size, color, or shape. They simply had to be naturally excellent working dogs. The fear was that a working breed would be ruined when it’s herding ability was no longer the determining factor.

It was not a baseless concern as this has happened to similar animal breeds over the decades, sheep breeds being no exception.

Original breeds have been “tweaked” to a different size or conformation. Characteristics of a breed that were once highly prized have been bred nearly completely out of some breeds, while characteristics that were once undesirable became quite acceptable. Growers of wool producing sheep may worry that show standards which focus primarily on size and conformation of the animal will encourage development of a good looking sheep with an inferior fleece. Breeds that were once renowned for their lambing or milking ability may have that characteristic minimized because it doesn’t show in the ring. (Keep in mind, however, that not all of the changes are detrimental-sometimes they really are improvements!) This, in order to create an animal that shows well?

Surprisingly, many of the general trends in show ring judging are largely dictated by the consumer, albeit indirectly.

While most breed registries encourage the competition of the show ring, still others are ambivalent about it, and yet others such as the North American Clun Forest Association have adopted a “No Show” policy in hopes of maintaining the pure goals of their group and the original qualities of their sheep.

Effects Of Competition

Competition does interesting things to folks who show, too. Awards-especially money prizes, the hope of increased future income, or fame (even local)-bring out the worst as well as the best.

The worst side is the occasional unethical breeder who will crossbreed the stock out to another breed in order to “improve” his show flock, registering them as purebred. This results in the quick loss of valid qualities of the original breed in order to conform to a show-ring standard. Don’t blame the judge or the show, it’s on the breeder who uses this underhanded tactic.

The antithesis is that the show ring standards challenge breeders to grow and show their best. Without shows, some breeds may have simply disappeared, as they would not have had any notoriety.

Seeing that there are points to be made on either side of the debate, it would be narrow-minded to decide that a breed association or a producer is wrong in their decision about showing. There are valid reasons on both sides of the rail, and it should remain an open and informed choice.

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