A Country Life: Enough cake to sink the Ark Royal

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No matter where you live in the world, whether in Bedford or among the Bedouins, when it comes to local events 90 per cent of the work is always done by 10 per cent of the community.

No matter where you live in the world, whether in Bedford or among the Bedouins, when it comes to local events 90 per cent of the work is always done by 10 per cent of the community. That's how it was in north London, and how it is here in Herefordshire.

I am not one of the 10 per cent. I'm one of those who turns up an hour beforehand or stays for an hour afterwards, folding up a few chairs, and hopes that everyone has felt the weight of my contribution. I always intend to give up some serious man hours, but then find that a column needs writing or a child needs taking to guitar lessons, and when next I look, the bouncy castle is up and the bunting is out. Still, I always buy lots of raffle tickets.

On the Sunday before last, the Docklow Fun Day was held in the field next to our house. There was clay-pigeon shooting, tugs-of-war, an inflatable bungee run, enough cake to sink the Ark Royal and a bar operated by the King's Head. As usual, the many owed a lot to the few whose energy and vision were responsible for a really enjoyable afternoon, and in Docklow the percentages are easy to work out. Ten per cent of the community equals 10 people.

Chief among those 10 was Robert Hanson, chairman of the parish council, who isn't quite Docklow born and bred in that he spent all of the first 24 hours or so of his life elsewhere (in Hereford to be precise). If there is a squirrel who lives in these parts that Rob Hanson doesn't recognise, then the squirrel doesn't live in these parts. The phrase "pillar of the community" doesn't quite do him justice. And he did a superb job organising the Fun Day. "It's just nice to see the village come together," he said, humbly, when I complimented him on his efforts.

There's a lot of humility in Herefordshire, I have noticed. It seems to grow in the hedgerows, sending spores through the air. The clay-pigeon shooting was run by our neighbour David, whom we have known for two years without being aware that he was the clay-pigeon shooting champion of England, 1995.

His speciality was the Double Rise, where two clays go wanging off in different directions simultaneously. Did he hit them all? "No. I just didn't miss as many as everyone else," he said.

At the Fun Day, David gave tuition for about six solid hours to a succession of shooting novices. I had a go myself, and with his calm expertise at my shoulder - "weight on the front foot, feel as though the back foot's almost lifting" - very quickly felt like John Wayne picking off attacking Commanches, if that's not too politically incorrect an assessment of a perfectly PC enterprise, the clays being fully biodegradable. I'm glad that they biodegrade, because a few of them landed in our woodland. Probably intact, if they were the ones I was shooting at. Hey, some of those humility spores must have floated in my direction, too.

Shears at dawn

Last week in this space I wrote about the sublimely named Shaun, a New Zealander who runs a contract sheep-shearing business out of Little Marcle.

Since then I have contacted him on his mobile phone, although judging by the reception he was on a windy hilltop somewhere grappling with a Ryeland ewe.

I did learn, though, that Shaun and a couple of Kiwi mates will between them shear about 22,000 sheep up to the end of July, having started in early May.

That's between 700 and 900 per man per day, with each sheep taking a minute or less. These are men who put the "rug" in rugged. But they don't fleece the farmer as well. Shaun charges between 75p and 90p per sheep, which seems reasonable enough, and means everyone goes home happy except possibly the sheep.

Certainly, for 34-year-old Shaun and his two shearers it adds up to a decent hourly income. He keeps the full payment for those he shears himself, but pays his two shearers 55p per sheep. So even with a five-minute rest that's over £30 an hour, pretty good money given that these guys don't consider it work. "We think of it more as sport," Shaun told me from his hilltop. "There's a lot of teamwork, but also a lot of competition."

And he doesn't just mean casual competition between mates. There are official sheep-shearing championships, and the Michael Schumacher, the unassailable world champ for nigh on 20 years, is another New Zealander, named David Fagan. "I've competed against him, but you just can't get near him," said Shaun, in awestruck tones. "His record is 18 seconds."

Not even Fagan could shear a Merino in 18 seconds, though. They're the hardest, according to Shaun, although Ryelands are tricky as well because they have wool from head to tail and the skin is very soft. For ease of shearing the conditions have to be right, too. "If it's wet then the wool doesn't lift, and you've got to get lift on it, otherwise it's hard to push the handpiece through. This year we've had a lot of rain and where you should get a nice white fleece it's been coming off yellow."

I commiserated, while making a mental note, next time I see someone shearing a sheep, to ask about the lift. To feel at home in the country you've got to know the jargon.

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