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Dousland Sheep Sale

Over the centuries up and down the country numerous livestock sales and fairs are no longer for various reasons including viability, access and latterly falling livestock numbers. In their place are a breed of more modern livestock centres such as those in the South West at Exeter and Sedgemoor. However a few of the tradition markets still exist albeit in a much smaller capacity in Devonshire. These being; Blackmoor Gate, Holsworthy, South Molton with occasional markets at Newton Abbot and Tavistock. Amongst those that has drifted into oblivion was what at the time was described as the largest sale in South West Devon that being held at Dousland.

“Shepherds, aided by their intelligent dogs, rounded up the sheep on the moor and drove them through the rain and mist to the largest sale in South West Devon, held at Dousland. A large field had been laid out in pens ready for the arrival of about 3,000 animals and by noon Mr. John Young was busily negotiating sales. These were characterised by good bidding and there was general satisfaction at the substantial prices realised fro the better class stock. Although many thousands of pounds of business were were transacted there was a primitive character in the sale which for hundreds of years has resisted the intrusion of modern methods in agriculture.
Farmers turned out their flocks in the hope of profiting by the rising state of the cattle market and early in the morning the narrow lanes for miles around Yelverton and Dousland were packed with sheep. On Dartmoor where the heather was showing in vivid purple masses, patches of white moved steadily from hill to hill, and the barking of dogs urging along the flocks resounded in the air. One of the richest sheep rearing districts in Devon is being drained of its flocks. Farmers, farm labourers, farmers’ sons, and shepherds assisted in the drive. The largest contingent of the animals was dispatched from Princetown. They traversed five miles of hilly moorland, some by train and others in droves before the market ground was reached. Others were sent from Buckland Monachoram, in the extreme west of Devon, and several miles of narrow, twisting lanes had to be negotiated. At Dousland the flocks converged, and after some hours of involved manoeuvres the farmers confined them in the pens provided.
Bidding was brisk, and there was widespread interest in the high class sheep offered. A prominent South Devon farmer expressed the opinion that the animals were making better prices at the sale than they had done for many years. “Some of the sheep are selling at £2 or more, and that I think, shows that the industry is making definite improvement.” He said “The quality of the animals also is good in most cases.” A large number of buyers from Devon and Cornwall attended. The trade in fresh wethers (a castrated male sheep) was marked by keen competition. Dartmoor breeding ewes were in demand, especially the best grades, and averaged thirty eight shillings, a price far above the average of thirty one shillings and six pence for preceding years. The sale of Exmoor sheep was not so brisk, but there was a good demand for lambs. Forty Dartmoor and other rams were offered and realised prices far above the average for former years. The Dartmoor rams realised from four guineas to twelve pounds, two shillings and sixpence; Exmoor ram lambs two pounds, five shillings to five pounds; Rylands lambs up to four pounds ten shillings.
At about 1 p.m. the exodus from the sale-yard began. Farmers who had made their purchases collected their sheep and took them away. There appeared to be no sensible reduction in the number of animals in the field, however, until late afternoon, and it was not until early in the evening that the last of 3,000 ewes wethers, and lambs left Dousland.” – The Western Morning News, September the 5th, 1934

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Dousland Fair 1937

Today if you want to sell sheep you can do so via one of the online livestock sale sites. One of them is advertising Dartmoor Grey Faced rams at prices between £50 and £70 with a pedigree ram for £160. If you consult the 2018 Bank of England’s inflation calculator for 1934 then take the top price paid at the 1934 sale of £12 2s. 6d. that would equate out to around £843 in today’s money – somewhat of a slight difference. It is also interesting to see that among the breeds of sheep for sale were Rylands, one not often come across in Devon at that time. This breed was developed by monks from Leominster in the twelfth century and was/is suited to lowland pastures. The other thing of note is that whilst Dartmoor breeding ewes were fetching 46 shillings the Scotch Blackface ewes were only commanding 23 shillings. Considering that Scotch Blackface sheep were introduced to Dartmoor around the 1880s it appears that some 50 years later their popularity was nothing compared to the Dartmoor breed if this sale is anything to go by. This trend has completely reversed today and the Scotch Blackface sheep are by far the most prolific found on Dartmoor. As with any market it takes time to establish itself, in the case of Dousland Sheep Sale this was a gradual process, in 1918 there were 200 sheep entries, in 1924 the numbers had risen to 1,200 entries and as can be seen above during the 1930s the numbers had dramatically risen to the 3,000s. The 1940s saw a decline to around 1,000 entries but some of these years would have been affected by the Second World War. By 1950 the numbers had risen to 2,600 and it was around this time that markets reports stopped appearing in the local media which may suggest the end of the sales which would have then moved to the Tavistock livestock market much to their pleasure. I say that because in 1911 Tavistock Urban District Council purchased the market rights within a radius of seven miles of their jurisdiction. In 1918 they decreed that as Dousland fell within this radius all sales, including the sheep sale must be not be held there. Instead all sales and fairs from Dousland must be transferred to what they considered to be the principal market at Tavistock. Naturally many farmers protested at this proposal and pointed out that it would involve greater distances to take their livestock to Tavistock and additionally that at a recent sheep sale over 1,000 sheep had to be turned away from Tavistock market for lack of space. Clearly their protests were successful as indeed the sheep sales continued. Ironically today Tavistock market has declined in favour of the larger Livestock Centre at Exeter so much so that only monthly sales are held at Tavistock.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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