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The chief judge in the wool-classing division at our local agricultural show hails us excitedly as we come through the main gates. “When you get a chance, get down and see the entries in the wool pavilion,” he says. “They’re just top quality ... some of those superfine fleeces score 93%!”
The wool market is on the upswing, thanks to a resurgence of interest in the fibre in European mills and fashion houses. Here at the show, a representative of this optimistic industry is coming towards me on a leash, trotting alongside her teenaged handler, past the showjumping in the main arena and the produce and craft pavilions. Curious, I turn and follow them. They are competing in the Pet Parade, run by the local vet surgery. In a sunny corner of the showgrounds, other owners and animals wait patiently on deckchairs and grass. Baa the sheep steps into a patch of shade, eyeing the other competitors with the level, inscrutable gaze of a confident punter. “She’s hand-reared,” her owner tells me proudly. There is bagpipe music from the Highland dancing taking place on the adjacent stage, a squalling, triumphant cacophony from the roosters in the poultry pavilion, and faint, rhythmic screams from the ChaCha, but Baa is calm. At 1 pm sharp, a row of young owners lines up on the grass for the first event – Best Family Pet, six years and under category.
You’ve got to be savvy in a high-stakes contest like this one and spread your pet’s skills across the eligible categories. In a field of two, even the kid with a pet rock is capable of taking home a ribbon. Excited with second place, he hurries to his mum in the shade, clutching the rock. “She asked me what I fed it,” he reports of the judge’s comments in the ring, “and I told her: I don’t feed it anything!”
With three age sections in five separate award categories, everyone’s bound to win something. If Stitch the bearded dragon doesn’t triumph as Most Unusual Pet, the tiny pink tartan tuxedo he’s wearing makes him odds-on favourite for Best-dressed.
“You didn’t make that suit, did you?” I ask his teenaged owner.
“No,” he confides, “I got it off a Ken doll.” He slips the tuxedo jacket off Stitch, leaving him in just the shirt and tie, because it’s a warm day and even desert lizards can get hot in formal wear.
Baa contemplates the form in the Best Trick category. Lovely Lassie lies down and shakes hands, her steady, adoring gaze never leaving the small treat secreted in her owner’s hand. Maisie begs on command, but another small dog, distracted by a certain spot of scent in the grass, won’t roll over and die despite desperate pistol-finger action by his owner. The bloodhound in the tutu and tiara won’t “drop” either, snuffling determinedly at the same spot. Maisie is awarded first prize and her young beaming owner hugs her tightly.
In the next age category, Fletcher, the elegant black-and-white standard poodle, high fives his grinning handler and prances back to his place. He knows he’s won. Later, he’ll reappear in the Best-dressed category as ‘Fletcher the Friesian’, in a black-and-white cow hat complete with horns.
Rhino the guinea pig appears in a hand-stitched pirate outfit and Poppy the duck looks distracted but elegant in a Queen Elizabeth headscarf. There’s a mastiff named Tilly and a tiny Maltese named Harley, both resplendent in tiaras, and a hula bunny in a grass skirt and collar made of flowers. Another bunny, Charlie, is in a hand-knitted baby bonnet and sits in a small pink pram, which helps him avoid the hungry eye of Zeus, the bull mastiff–pit bull cross. Zeus is taking the occasion in terrific humour, his broad white face split by a grin. He’s dressed in a police cap, spiked collar, blue shirt and gun holster.
Nanna the chook takes out first prize in the Most Unusual Pet junior section, but the 18 years and under class in the same category sees several determined owners stepping into the fray. It’s Baa’s moment of glory. She paces at heel and listens, unflustered, for voice commands, to take out the ribbon.
Charlotte the chihuahua matches her young owner, both in sequin-spangled red dresses. “Thank God for eBay,” the owner’s mother whispers to me as both dog and girl step forward, sparkling in the sunshine, for the last round: Pet Which Looks Most Like Its Owner. Lassie’s teenaged owner, Sophie, gives her long hair a quick shake over her face to more closely resemble a collie’s, but when Fletcher reappears in her Friesian hat led by her owner, who’s hastily changed into a black-and-white cow outfit, there’s no contest. Draped with numerous ribbons, the pets walk a final circuit to a warm round of applause, each owner clutching a show bag full of pet shampoo, feeding mats and a startlingly lifelike inflatable flea.
Later I spot Baa still on her leash in the spectator stand, her ribbons tied around her neck, placidly watching the sheepdog trials. In the arena, six sheep are being harried into a pen by a champion kelpie. Baa follows the action with the unperturbed air of an observer with a different skill set, who’s already proven herself a winner. The market’s up, the sun’s shining, and it’s a great day to be a sheep.