They're the supermodels of the agricultural world, and the worthy stars of the East of England Show. Simon Beckett casts an eye over some prize specimens and their handlers
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The Independent Culture
THE TALK is of underlines, eye muscles, hams and jowls, the accents Norfolk, Suffolk and a smattering of Midlands. The topic is pig - "Sound, in 'e?" says one breeder, proudly, as his Large White snuffles about the shed - and the animals on display at the East of England Show are prime specimens of such rare breeds as Tamworths, Welsh, Large Whites, and Landrace: names that can stir a pigman's heart. They are vast animals, some weighing in at 300kg, and in the pig ring the cheerful anarchy of a Marx Brothers film holds sway. Under the ap-praising eye of the judge (a tall, crusty looking man in a brown suit and a pushed-back trilby), the pigs are blundering round the ring like badly trained and over-sized dogs. "Do you want a lead for that?" cackles a beefy steward, bowler hat tilted at a rakish angle, as yet another pig heads off in a direction of its own choosing. "That's Mrs White," he mock-commentates, "wandering around with a Large Black, learning to drive it."

With 3,000 pigs, goats, sheep, cows and horses co-existing almost side by side, there's ample opportunity for a display of broad agricultural humour - and of even broader agricultural bottoms. For three days of the year, the 200-acre showground in Peterborough becomes a self-contained community, a small township of horse folk, farmers, burger bars and exhibitions. Brought into being less than 20 years ago by the amalgamation of several smaller events, this relative newcomer to the circuit of agricultural shows (some, like the Royal Bath and West, have been held for over 200 years) is an odd mix of rural tradition and modern commerce: whiskered stewards wear formal suits and bowler hats, while, near the beer tent, a man dressed as a 7ft-tall mobile phone advertises a cellular communications company.

But the show's main attraction, and its raison d'etre, is the livestock. While the commercial tents and caravans are still shuttered and quiet, the breeders and handlers are already busy preparing their beasts for the day's competitions. A man herds a pig the size of a VW Beetle out of a hangar-like shed; two large women in green wellies hose down three bedraggled ewes; sheep, goats, horses and cattle all have to be fed, watered, washed and groomed.

In the humid warmth of the cattle sheds, rows of Murray Greys, Simmentals and Jerseys stand placidly in the straw-lined stalls, occasionally bellowing for the hell of it. Massive beef cattle tower above their handlers' heads, haunches bulging with muscle, with beside them the Dexters, Disneylike animals with big heads and short legs, the Staffordshire bull terriers of the cattle world. Pinned to the wall above each animal are the rosettes and prize certificates that mark how well they've fared in such esoteric contests as Maiden Heiffer, Cow in Calf, and Best Udder. These are farming's supermodels, and prized accordingly. A top quality dairy cow can sell for pounds 17,000-pounds 18,000 and even month-old calves may fetch pounds 10,000. The breeders and stockmen sit by their beasts on straw bales or folding chairs, mostly burly men with ruddy faces. "Good competition," they agree, nodding sagely. "Good quality cattle."

Not all are men, though, or burly. A trim young woman, dwarfed between two cows, gives the one she's grooming a hefty slap as it tries to lean on her. "Get off, Pamela!" she chides. Aged 29, Catherine Moody has been running her own dairy herd for 10 years, having bought Radley Green Farm in Chelmsford, Essex, after brief and disgruntled stints at agricultural college and as an interior designer. "We're new girls, but we're getting there," she says. "You learn quickly. We made some big mistakes, breeding- wise, and pedigree-wise, but you've got to learn. It's brilliant fun. Hard work, though." She gives Pamela, who is lolling again, another shove. "And I can beat up my own cattle."

A good dairy cow is defined by its milk production as much as its aesthetic lines, but even champions can fall from grace. Moody indicates another of her cows. "Mandy's in calf for the sixth time now, and she's not got many show days left. If her udder goes to pot, we'll hang on to her, we'll get some calves out of her, because she's been one of my best cows. But if she either doesn't get in calf, or becomes lame or whatever, then she'll go." Go? Moody grins and draws her finger across her throat. "Go to meet her maker. We all have to go sometime." Someone bustles over and warns her that the next competition is about to start. "Mandy, come on," she shouts, and Mandy lumbers to her feet, ready to meet the demands of showtime at least once more.

As the first of the cows, bulls and calves are led into the cattle ring, the pigs are being readied for another turn under the judges' eye. "We think more of them than we do of the wife, sometimes," smiles Charlie Ruddock. "My wife always said I should marry a pig." A small, wiry Norfolk man with an air of quiet dignity about him, Ruddock became a pigman just after the war. At 75, he still tends a small herd of Welsh and Large Blacks at Grange Farm in Duxford, Cambridge, and the three first prizes and Supreme Champion Female award that his pigs have picked up at the show testify to his skill. Charlie respects his animals. "If you bring a pig up, and farrow it down nine, 10, 11 litters, you don't like to see it go in the finish. I once had a sow who had eight litters, and she lay down to farrow and never got up. I fed her with a bowl for seven weeks, till the pigs were old enough to leave, and the agent then said: 'Well, she'll have to go for slaughter.' 'No she's not,' I said. 'She was born on this farm and she'll die on this farm.'"

Such sentiment is probably rare. The show animals may be preened as much as cherished dogs and cats (especially the sheep, whose coats are teased and trimmed to an improbable cuddliness), but a champion Pekingese is rarely sent to the abattoir. Even so, livestock are shown for much the same reasons as pets: a mixture of pride in prizewinning and commercial considerations. For, although little buying and selling goes on at the shows, fellow breeders will pay more to introduce a champion's bloodline into their own stock. And there's something else: the chance to have three rattling good days out.

In that time, 160,000 people visit the East of England show, oohing and aahing over the animals before wandering off for their lunch-time quarter- pounders. And after lunch on the middle day comes the livestock's big moment: horses, cattle, and some token sheep congregate en masse in the main ring for the Grand Parade. The pigs, though, are conspicuously absent - and perhaps that's just as well.