Woolly jumpers lead the field

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Once, the most exhausting demand placed on a sheep was to leap elegantly and repetitively through the minds of insomniacs. Or, for the cameras, a canter round a field at the behest of a champion sheepdog.

But yesterday 18 finely trained woolly jumpers fought for fame in the May Day Bank Holiday Sheep Grand National.

More than 1,500 sheep fanciers at Hoo Farm, near Telford, Shropshire, watched their favourites tackle Spinners Chair, Darners Ditch, Woolly Leap, Fleecers Brook and manoeuvre the Stable Turn, ridden by jockeys of the knitted woollen variety, with stars Lester Hogget and Edna Ewe.

The Sheep Grand National was started seven years ago by the ex-amateur jockey turned farmer, and former equine National rider Edward Dorrell. Unable to allow his castrated rams to be taken for slaughter, he trained the sheep to race.

"We even have a 'Sheep Stake' Tote," he said. "Some people must think us mad, but once you've backed a winner you'll know what great fun it is."

Yesterday's winner was the inappropriately named The Snail. The prize was a cup, more a trough really, of food. Which they would have had anyway. Well, no one said sheep were intelligent.