October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Dressin the yowens

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

Perfection! A beautifully 'dressed' mule ewe lamb ready for the sale
Expertise and Photo (copyright) by Helen Brown.

As students we were taught that good presentation was the core of good marketing to maximise returns, and the occasional cheating of buyers was an accepted part of this.

These principles became clear when we Daft Laddies up the Tyne and Rede had to help get the top yowe lambs (the yowens) ready for sale. These lambs were the pride of the farm and when offered at the first lamb sale at Bellingham where there was enormous prestige to be gained and great competition to “top the mart” and, above all, to beat your local rivals.

Learning the art
The glory associated with the wether lambs sold for fattening was nowt like that of the yowens that were in great demand as breeding stock. Buyers from as far away as doon sooth who taalked funny came each year to buy the lambs from the same farms at Bellingham.

I (CD) had the enormous privilege of learning the art at the Demesne Farm in Bellingham with the master sheepmen, Bob and Jack Beattie . The Demesne regularly topped the mart with both their Mule yowe and wether lambs. Bob and Jack's challenge each year was to beat the price obtained by Scott of Low Leam near Woodburn, and we used to spy on his lambs as Scott drove them past the gate on the way to the mart.

The laddie’s role in dressin’ the yowens was to haad the sheep and haad his gob at the same time! It would be years of dedicated watchin’ and listenin’ afore he was ever allowed to lay a pocketknife or shears on a lamb.

Order of events
Now there was a clear order of authority in the dressin’. The “owld boss” with a lifetime of experience did the real kittle bits, then the young boss or a trusted old retainer did the second kittle bits; then the hind or heaord did the least kittle bits. There was no room for error, as one muck-up would be so obvious. You wouldn’t dare send a spoilt lamb to the sale as it would stand oot like a sair thumb to all those discerning, critical, glowering eyes around the mart ring.

The ritual started at least two days afore the sale when the lambs were “draan” or picked for sale. They were run in to a largish pen and those humans with the inherent gifts for such things looked them over. It was a microscopic analysis trying to get an identical group, which really defied the laws of genetics. Above all they had to look even as it would be the forst thing noticed!

Then once draan the sale lambs had to be dipped. So a smart laddie would offer (before he was sent) to gan and clean the dippor oot – a real stinking job once you got into the yeddle in the bottom.

Dippin and bloomin
Next, the dippor was filled with clean wattor, often by the bucketful from the burn. Then you had to open up the tin of special “bloom” dip to give the lambs’ wool a pigment. These pigments produced eye-catching colours that varied from bright yellow to a mild reddish orange, but they mellowed over the years with urging and threats from wool merchants and Wool Boards.

There was never any sense in the practice as the pigment all had to be scoured out of the wool again at great expense before processing. But as everyone did it, you could not be the odd one oot, despite the pleading and the imposed penalties by the Wool Board. Even today, buyers still apparently like to see lambs with a “bloom” on them, even knowing it comes from a tin. A bit of special secret shampoo went in too, sold by dip companies to fluff up the fleece.

Then after dipping, the lambs were carefully put on to a nice grassy “fog” so they did weel and brightened up without gittin skittad afore the sale.

Then came the dressin’ proper. It was like high church! The old boss brought the lambs into the pens again, with old Moss under tight command in case any of them got cowped in the clarty gateways. Any mishap at this stage could have been life threatening for Moss.

The lamb’s head and neck were the prime areas for attention and this was the job for the top man. Unwanted ‘muffy’wool was shaved or ploated off the neck and around the lugs with a sharp pocketknife held against your thumb to disguise any cut marks. Then the lamb’s chest was lightly trimmed with the shears to enhance its upright pose, cuttin’ doonwards so as not to show any shear marks. The belly line was checked and mebbe trimmed a bit if needed in Mules, and the skirt of the Blackies was lightly trimmed to a nice consistent length.

During this process the Daft Laddie was allowed to hold the end of the lamb not being worked on. With Blackies you weren’t allowed to hold them by their horns as these immature structures could easily come away in your hand – and that bloody disaster you dare not contemplate.The lambs’ faces had to be weshed with a soapy cloot and dried with an owld towel.

The keel mark
And then came the final glory – applying the keel (paint) spot. Blackface yowe lambs were keeled red down the back of their heads, with a single spot of red keel put in different places, the middle of the back being the popular spot for yowens. It was hight tension time and was a job solely for the old boss or his approved deputy. The keel mark had to be just the right size, put on just the right spot with nee slaistor. It took years of experience to know how to twirl the stick in the keel pot, bring out the right amount, and move to the lamb without drips and place it in the correct spot.

It was tension time for the Daft Laddie anaal having to hang on to the lamb without pulling its wool, and keep it motionless during this final act of dedication. One lowp and all that hard work was wasted. Your lugs would sartainly cop it an’ aall as the lamb would have to be withdrawn from the sale group.

Sale day
On sale morning you could only pray that nowt had gaen wrang ower night such as a lamb gittin’ dorty. So while the boss was gittin’ intiv his mart suit and waiting for the missus to polish his mart boots and leggings, and selecting his mart stick, we lesser beings would rub some oil on the lambs’ faces to give a bit extra glow. With one final inspection by the boss, and all the team complimenting him on the product by saying he had to top the mart, the drive to the mart would begin.

Nuw it was better for the boss if the Daft Laddies kept oot the way and certainly didn’t’ hing aboot the mart. Thor was plenty woork te be done at heame. But there was always hope that for once you might be allowed to stay and help the lambs into the ring and be seen. Imagine the glory of hearing that you were the Daft Laddie at the Demesne and that they had topped the mart for yowens.

The moment of glory
Oh man! Whaat a moment of glory when the gate into the ring with the sacking on it went up, and the lambs surged into the ring and to be hailed by auctioneer Jack Walton o’ Thockrington – “Nuw leuk heor lads, leuk heor. Nuw here’s some cannyens from the Demesne”.

Some bonny nicely dressed Blackface yowe lambs leaving the second
ring at Bellingham mart 2004

(Photo copyright Helen Brown)

Daft Laddie may be – it didn’t matter. You still felt the reflected glory as you took station around the ootside of the ring, showing your experience by making farting and spitting noises with your lips to keep the lambs rotating nicely in front of discerning buyers from doon sooth. It generated grand crack for the following weeks, - whee we’d seen at the mart and what so-and-so’s lambs were like. And of course pride in the fact that the boss had topped the mart to be confirmed by the next Hexham Courant.

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