Girl Power at Northumberland County Show

On Bank Holiday Monday 25th May, over twenty five thousand visitors will descend on the grounds of Bywell Hall for a great day out at the Northumberland County Show. But have you ever wondered how an event as large and diverse as this is organised?

Imagine what it takes to get thousands of large and small animals, plus hundreds of other inanimate exhibits and their owners to the right place on the show field for judging, organise their tickets and vehicle passes, maintain high standards of security and welfare, and, following judging, ensure the trophies and prizes are correctly handed over, and finally make sure everyone goes home safely.

Each section has its own team consisting of a chief steward who oversees everything, a secretary who handles the administration, and additional stewards to assist. All of the personnel are unpaid volunteers who find time in their busy lives to devote to the roles. As a result, sometimes two or three individuals share a position.

In this traditional world of agriculture, you would be forgiven for assuming these roles are largely occupied by men involved in farming. This stereotype would have applied perhaps only ten years ago, but in 2015 we see the gender divide well and truly broken down with a marked rise in the number of young women entering the arena and succeeding in some of the most long-standing male bastions of the show.

Current chief stewards Robert and Jackie Raine took over from Robert's father, and now daughter Rachel is stepping into the role. Rachel grew up with the show; one of her earliest memories is of running up and down the sheep lines looking at all the different breeds of sheep. Even then there were jobs to do – collecting results or helping to make tea and coffee. She explains, “Now the run up to show day involves organising prize money and rosettes, planning and building the pens, erecting signs and when you have finished in your own section there is always someone else who needs a hand!”

The Raine family, from East Woodburn in Northumberland, have won the blackface championship at the county show six times; the last success in 2007 with a blackface ewe. However the demands of the ever expanding sheep section has meant it has not been possible to show since then.

Rachel told us “I would encourage anybody who wants to show off their sheep, or just see great livestock, to come to the Northumberland County Show. Not only is it a brilliant advertisement for superb animal husbandry, but it is an incredible social occasion. After the stresses of lambing time it is a day for farmers to show, and be proud of, what they have worked so hard to achieve.”

There is a similar story in the cattle section, which boasts over three hundred entries this year. A team of three young women; Theresa Sparke from Gilsland, Claire Nixon of Hexhamshire and Clare Dent from Haydon Bridge, with chief steward David Carr, have taken on the responsibilities of Diane Harrison, longstanding secretary of the cattle section, who stepped down this year.

Even in the male domain of sheep shearing, the secretary is shepherdess Rachel Lumley of Blanchland. Alongside chief steward Bob Hindmarsh, Rachel uses her experience working on sheep stations in Australia and New Zealand, to bring vibrancy and expertise to this exciting event. She said, “We’re delighted to launch a new hand shearing competition in recognition of the incredible precision, speed and endurance required by this skill.” Rachel is no stranger to competitions herself having successfully competed in wool wrapping championships across the world. She added “Women shearers are increasingly common. Sheep shearing demands technique and accuracy, not just strength, so there’s no reason women can’t compete equally in this sport.”

In the equine sections women dominate the team. Mandy Charlton, chief steward said, “I was apprehensive about taking on such a big role when I started, but I’m proud to see how its grown in popularity. So far we have over five hundred entries in the light and heavy horse classes, which may be a record! I am grateful to my team of stewards who help make this such a successful day.”

Melanie Teasdale, secretary of the heavy horse section agreed, “It’s a wonderful show that’s gone from strength to strength thanks to the efforts of all our volunteers promoting the show within our communities.”

Helen Chisholm, who runs the BSJA show jumping section has been overwhelmed by the response to her section. “We only launched BSJA at the 2013 show but we’ve had to provide more parking for the horse boxes as it’s so popular. The entries haven’t closed yet, but we’re also expecting record numbers. We’re grateful for the support of Smiths Gore, who are sponsoring the section for the first time this year.”

Women are also in charge of the dog show (Joy Cunningham), rabbits (Denise Laidlow), competitive home crafts (Lesley Rowell), alpacas (Melanie Douglas), goats (Val Wood) and numerous other important roles crucial to the smooth running of the show. New event organiser, Judy Willis, is no stranger to a male dominated world. Her former career within the police force led her to become the first female civilian on the national public order tactical training course, providing her with the skills to train police officers including the dog and mounted sections in riot control.

Judy explained, “The women involved in the show have a huge range of talents and personal qualities. Without exception they are fantastic organisers, and are confident and friendly to deal with. Many have backgrounds in farming but all bring valuable life experience to the show’s committee. It’s a cliché, but women do have a knack of juggling lots of balls at one time, and balance demanding careers, family life with all the complexities of running their sections. The show, although traditional, is certainly not old fashioned. These women are innovative, resourceful and move with the times, keeping the show fresh and relevant for both exhibitors and visitors alike.”