Baa-rilliant news for race fans: Hoo Farm's sheep racing saved after vets' review - with video
Sheep racing at Telford’s Hoo Farm has been saved after a review by vets following complaints from animal rights activists.
It’s a tradition that stretches back nearly 30 years and has thrilled hundreds of racegoers who fancied a flutter.
But back in March, the Sheep Gold Cup and the Sheep Grand National, which was due to take place at Hoo Farm on Bank Holiday Monday had to be cancelled following complaints from animal rights groups and local vegans.
It followed a 35,000-strong petition organised by a group called Lambentations, which targets sheep races across the country claiming they go against the timid nature of the animals.
After the investigation, experts from the Animal and Plant Health Agency said they were “satisfied that the welfare of the sheep is not compromised by being involved in the racing”, says the attraction.
They did make recommendations for improvement, however, following a meeting on April 19, which Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom says it has “now acted on to improve the public perception of the racing”. The zoo has released the following video on social media to explain more, in which a worker says the agency was 'very happy with the sheep racing'.
Hoo Farm said the vets involved had asked the attraction to “keep quiet” about their findings until the report was released.
The three recommendations were to make a change in the sheep’s food, recording which sheep are used in which race, and changing the material the fences used in the racing are made from.
“They watched the sheep race take place. They watched every aspect of it,” said the member of staff.
“They acknowledged there is no travelling involved - the sheep start in their paddock and this can move to the starting pen, which is just outside their paddock before they complete the course.
“They also acknowledged that we don’t in any way coerce the sheep, there’s no force involved - there are no sheepdogs.”
"They also acknowledged that the tannoy and the crowds gather at the far end of the course - where the start of the course is, there is no sound, there are no loudspeakers down there.
"The start is actually done over a walkie talkie, so they can appreciate the sheep weren't being scared by the noise and that they were actually actively running towards it.
"They also watched how we train the sheep as well and saw that it's done purely by postive reinforcement: the food being put in one place and them following a bucket initially, before then advancing on past that to the point where they don't need to follow it, but they're happy just to run up to where they know there's going to be food.
"They made three recommendations overall.
"One was just about changing the food for the sheep.
"One was that we record exactly which sheep are used for which race, because at the moment although we have a pool of sheep that we choose from and we rotate it around, we don't actually record it, so it's very difficult for us to actively prove which sheep are being used for which race.
"The other recommendation they asked was that, even though the sheep were clearing the fence quite well... with a good few inches to spare, they did say because of the structure of the fence there was the potential in extreme circumstances for a sheep to hurt themselves going over them because they are made out of timber.
"The fence was originally designed 26 years ago and they did acknowledge that over the 26 years we've never had an injury, but we also do appreciate that there is the potential for that.
"So we've looked at different ways of designing the fences, we've looked at different types of brush top fencing, perhaps using rails, or plastic tubing - but anything like that, while it had its benefits, also had its drawbacks as well - same as the timber fences do.
"What we've settled on is this foam material... developed by the RSPCA and the BHA...
"They're happy it's going to be a lot safer for the sheep."
After being called 'scum', 'evil', 'inhumane' and threatened on social media, Will Dorrell, a partner in the family-run business, originally took the tough decision to pull the whole event.
The sheep racing has become a part of life at Hoo Farm, at Preston on the Weald Moors, near Telford. Sheep are let loose at the top of the course and run towards food that is left at the bottom.
Visitors are able to 'bet' on the races, with badges and rosettes given to those who support the winners.