The Findon Sheep Fair
by Robert Veitch
Don’t get the wool pulled over your eyes by initial thoughts of what a sheep fair might be, until you’ve read what the Findon Sheep Fair has to offer.
Nepcote nestles at the top of the Findon Village, in a gap between the summits of Church Hill to the west and Cissbury Ring to the east. This is the home of the Findon Sheep Fair.
The first known fair took place in September 1261. Sheep would have been shepherded across the South Downs where trading would take place in a livestock market. Trading helped diversify bloodlines, create new breeds via selective breeding and to increase stock numbers when flock sizes needed strengthening.
By 1650 the fair had changed from a three-day event to a one-day event held on Maundy Thursday. The Sheep Fair had moved to Nepcote by 1785 and by 1896 the private livestock sales had been superseded by auctions.
By then, Nepcote Green was home to one distinctive building which still remains: The Wattle House, which was built to store the wattles. Wattles were the panels that were fixed together on the green to create the pens in which the sheep were housed before auction. These days the pens are made of metal.
After the introduction of the railway, sheep would be shepherded across the downs from Steyning railway station on foot. This practice was eventually discontinued after the closure of the line. Since then, sheep have arrived by road.
During the 1950s the fair found a permanent slot in the second weekend of September, in which it has remained ever since. Further evolution has occurred over time and the trading side of the show became consumed by the upsurge in interest for the competitive show classes. The final auctions took place in the year 2000, denuded by the fear of foot and mouth disease.
For the next few years it became the ‘Findon Sheep Fair and Village Festival’ with only a nominal number of sheep on show. A resurrection occurred in 2007, when twenty sheep returned to Nepcote Green and the showing of sheep in competition gained some traction. Last year the show was so successful there were over 300 entries in all the various categories.
Now revitalised, the show element of the Sheep Fair has become well respected and representatives from as far afield as Essex and Dorset are entered. Judges come from across the country. It’s a trait of all sheep fairs, which seems to make sense; that no judge can judge the same category in consecutive years. There are several classes in competition, so ewe can be sure of learning how to differentiate a Herdwick from an Oxford Down or a Zwartbles.
It’s hard to comprehend that 750 years have passed since the first show. The early sheep fairs took place long before the Southdown breed was ever developed at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet for many years the Southdown was the mainstay of the fair. In recent times it’s popularity has waned as other breeds have become more popular. In the decade since rebooting the show the organisers have welcomed thirty-two of the sixty-four British breeds of sheep to Findon. Many of the sheep in competition are the ovine descendants of former auctions lots.
The Sheep Fair has a link with St. John the Baptist Church in Findon that encourages up to a dozen school children to learn handling skills and parade sheep in the show ring. It’s one of the organiser’s aims to encourage more young people into farming.
Just four people organise the sheep side of the fair from a committee of twelve who coordinate the event, although eighty volunteers help it run as effortlessly as a spinning jenny. Any profits generated from the Sheep Fair are put towards local good causes.
This year’s event runs from the 8-9th September and there’s plenty of action rammed into the schedule, aside from the competition. Visitors will see sheep shearers and spinners in action, as well as 100 outside stalls and 38 inside craft stalls, vintage cars sheepdog demonstrations, falconry, heavy horses, a traditional fun fair and live music. What’s more entry to the Sheep Fair is free with a nominal fee of £4 for car parking which is organised by the Findon Valley scouts so it’s definitely Baa humbug if you don’t make the effort to attend!