ON THE hottest day since 1884, I was honoured to judge the sheep inter-breed pairs at the Royal Welsh Show.

Ninety-four sheep from 47 breeds were on parade – so the initial examination had to be basic. I handled the animals backs and looked in their mouths. They were on halters, so estimating structure and locomotion was difficult.

Selection for good wool was impossible as some were white, some coloured and others were spotted. The Wiltshire Horns were completely bare and the Texels bare in places. I didn’t think of anything but the job in hand at the time but in retrospect reflected that the cursory inspection was really all that was important.

This was despite the sheep before me being there because they had been judged the previous day in their own breed classes, primarily on the finer points of their particular breed. These were characteristics that someone in my position who was familiar with only some of the breeds would be ignorant of.

I also reflected that it had been more than coincidental that the breeds in my short leet were, with one exception, main line. After all, they were popular because flock masters in general think they leave more profit.

That said, it is far from easy, both with cattle and sheep, to compare powerful terminal animals with those from the high hills, because they do different jobs of equal importance – which is reflected in their body size and shape. History shows, particularly with cattle, that in inter-breed competitions rarely does the hill, or upland breed get the nod.

The breeds I drew forward – the Beulah, the North Country Cheviot, the traditional Bluefaced Leicester and the Southdown in the maedi-visna non-accredited section and the Charollais and Suffolk in the accredited section – were all mainline, except the Southdown.

Ironically, it has the oldest pedigree of all and was the foundation of all the down breeds, including the Suffolk, which I placed champion. At one time, it was arguably the most mainline breed of any.

Had the show taken place a few decades ago, by far the most popular lowground breed in Wales was the Clun Forest. Like so many breeds, their day came and went and now they are comparatively rare. Who knows which breeds will predominate in future.

My own guess is that they will feature minimal labour requirement, the ability to thrive and fatten on grass and their proficiency will be optimal for their environment. My thoughts on the last are that a strong single, fat off its dam, would suffice on the hill and a percentage of 180% – based mainly on twins rather than a mixture of singles and multiples – would be optimal for low ground.

Higher percentages could certainly be achieved, but would probably require extra shepherding. The only way from here to there would be by increased recording, breeder integrity and devaluing of finer points so important to pedigree breeders.

Undue importance attached to points of minor economic importance and continually changing fashion has, throughout history, been the curse of pedigree breeding for both sheep and cattle.

In my own cattle breed, the Aberdeen-Angus, the breed has been very small. In my youth, commercial bulls weighed around 750kg and cows around 400kg at maturity. They were known as ‘belt buckle’ because their shoulder levelled with the buckle on one’s trousers.

The minimum grading weight for the subsidy we got then was 330kg liveweight and heifers struggled to get there without being excessively fat. In an extreme reaction, stimulated by the advent of the continental breeds, height became the God and show animals were evaluated with horse measuring sticks.

So tall, long and shallow-bodied did they become – so much so, that, in the words of a forthright Australian ‘they looked loike a bloody snike’. Then, they filled out and became what they should always have been.

Now, in North America – although thankfully not here – show winners have high tail heads and are so deep that they are almost square. All the time, breed experts and leading judges have justified the current fashion, whatever it was, as the ultimate, the most commercially desirable and the kind they always kept when no-one else did.

The show ring has its place. It is fun and demonstrates our wares to the public. Unfortunately, it becomes second best to the weigh scale, ultrasonic scanner and genomic knowledge as a tool for breed improvement.

During the past century, commercial pig and poultry production have become divorced from the show ring. That beef breeders will follow their dairy counterparts and marry production and phenotype is possible, maybe even probable. For sheep, it remains far off.

Jim Brown wrote recently of a group visit to the Sitz Ranch, in Western Montana. I stayed at Sitz in 1982 and, despite the cold winters and dangerous predators, thought it great cattle country. Bob Sitz, father of the present family, had just bought a share in the Angus bull QAS Traveller.

Unknown to us then, he was to become a breed legend – not because he bred show winners, although he did that too, but because of the tremendous performance of his offspring and particularly because they were easily calved. When I was there we moved 900 cows and calves from the home ranch to summer grazing high in the Rockies.

Bob leased this government-owned land for a token $1.50 per head for the whole season because the cattle had such a beneficial effect on the environment. We moved them by lorry and, when the road ended, on foot. The cowboys trailed them on horseback, with me on a two-wheeled motorbike.

The time was early July, the weather was glorious and the cows stretched a mile in front of us as they wandered up through the trees, long grass and wild flowers. When I asked why they had left it so late, the answer was that until recently the mountain passes had been blocked by snow that was ‘ass high to a tall injun’!