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Showtime is no time to be sheepish

Waterloo 4-H Sheep Club members get a few pointers in looking after and presenting their animals

Beyoncé will be putting on a show in Woolwich this September, and everyone is invited to come. No, not that Beyoncé, but a wooly, four-legged creature that goes by the same name. Woolwich’s Beyoncé the sheep will be just one of the critters the Waterloo 4-H Sheep Club will be showing next month in Floradale.

Beyond the shared name, there is likely to be a certain amount of braying and bouncing about.

The sheep club is all about responsibility as participants of the club learn to care for, train and control their animals. The kids are paired with a sheep at the start of the club (which are loaned to the club by the local farms), and they learn the ins and outs of sheep showmanship. They also get to name their sheep.

“A lot of our kids, for them it’s the first time they’ve had to be responsible for an animal,” says Sharon Grose, who leads the sheep club. “This builds confidence in them because you build a bond with the animal, but you have to train it as well. It teaches you responsibility.”

At a time when people’s connections to their food and the rigors of a farm have never been thinner, the sheep club is one of the many activities run by 4-H that bring people back to their roots.

“The majority of our club members are not from a farm,” says Grose, estimating that about three-quarters of their participants are from urban areas. “So we’re providing them with an opportunity to find out what is involved in raising a sheep and then showing it. This year we’re also cooking lamb – so we’re going from farm to table.”

And caring for a farm animal is quite different from a domesticated pet. The kids are taught how to catch their sheep, which even when locked in a pen together can be quite a challenge if they’re spooked. They practice applying a halter on their sheep, handling them, picking them up and walking besides them without pulling.

Members of the Waterloo 4-H Sheep Club learn the tricks of the trade of sheep showmanship by expert judges Kayla Bishop and Kabrina Bishop. The Bishop sisters have participated as judges at the Royal Winter Fair. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

The kids are also taught how to feed and care for their animals, how to perform ultrasounds, because husbandry is of course part and parcel of farm animals, how to appraise a sheep for its genetic qualities. And, this year, they will also be learning to cook lamb (though not their own lamb).

The club begins practicing with their sheep in late June, early July, working up to their final show in September, where the kids get the chance to show-off their skills controlling and directing their charges. That’s the showmanship class of the competition, which is what the club focuses on, where the kids are judged on the presentation of the animal. Then there is the confirmation class, which is all about the animal’s marketability as livestock.

While most of the club members are newbies in the sport of animal showmanship, and the show is a lighthearted affair, there is plenty of more advanced competition out there for those who are serious about it.

To teach the kids about the rough-and-tumble world of animal showmanship, expert judges Kayla Bishop and Kabrina Bishop joined the sheep club members for a lesson. The Bishop sisters have lent their expertise as judges before to the likes of the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto (a big event in the world of showmanship), and were able to impart some of the tricks of the trade.

The correct technique for holding your sheep so it doesn’t run, how to position yourself around the sheep to avoid obstructing the judges, and always keep the knees off the ground, because you never know if you might suddenly need to move. But most importantly though, always “show with your heart,” and be proud of your project.

“Traditionally, 4-H has been looked at as something for farm kids,” says Grose, “but it’s been expanding because the whole idea is to teach leadership and communication and provide opportunities.”

The club is almost through their season, but Grose says the sign-ups start in March and anyone interested can reach out to the club to join. The show, meanwhile, is open to all, and will be held in Floradale on September 24.

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