Keeping an old farming sport alive

Raising the bar: John Duckitt has been keeping the sport of sheaf tossing alive at the Sykehouse Show.

Raising the bar: John Duckitt has been keeping the sport of sheaf tossing alive at the Sykehouse Show.

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You won’t see it in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow but if you venture to the small village of Sykehouse next Sunday you will find a sport that’s unique in the Yorkshire agricultural show season.

For the past 50 years sheaf tossing has become a crowd pleaser in this sparsely populated area that can be reached by the wonderfully named Between Rivers Lane. Local arable farmer John Duckitt came up with the idea of including the event having heard of it elsewhere. The sport originates from Scotland, is part of the Highland Games and is played in Ireland and Australia but little Sykehouse Show is the only venue for it in Yorkshire and indeed the rest of England.

“It stuck in my mind that it would be a good competition for our show,” says John. “The sheaf, which today is a sheaf of hay or straw in a bag, weighs approximately 14lbs and you use a pitchfork to attempt to throw it over the bar that is set initially at six metres. If you get it over at that height you’re into the final that’s held later in the afternoon.

“Everyone pays a pound for three throws until they’ve cleared the six metres. In the final we start lifting the bar with the pulleys. Everyone gets three throws and usually the winner is around the 7.5-8 metres mark. The record is 8.5 metres.”

Greg Mawson is the current champion and has the Phil Baxter Trophy. Phil won the competition many times and others winners include Andrew Goldthorpe and Graham Waites.

The game stems from the pre-mechanisation days when sheaves of corn had to be pitched high on the tops of wagons to be taken back to the farm for threshing. Farmers would prove their prowess by competing at local shows and fairs but as the role died out so too did the sport.

“We’ve never had a winner from too far further afield but maybe this year once people have read this we might get a few who fancy trying their hand. There’s a £100 prize and the Phil Baxter Trophy for the winner and £50 for the runner-up.”

John, 78, recalls the show when he was a young lad in the 40s and 50s. “In those days it was called Sykehouse Show & Sports and it took place after lunch. The show would be on during the afternoon then you would go home for your tea and come back for the sports that included races of both running and cycling. “I’ve never missed a show day and I first became involved in the committee in 1956. The cry went out that if we didn’t get some young ‘uns on the committee then the show would pack up.”

Sykehouse Show was close to doing just that in the 1960s and John points the finger at a decision made by the then Prime Minister being instrumental in the decline in the show’s fortunes.

“It always took place on August Bank Holiday Monday. That was when the bank holiday weekend was the first Monday in August. Harold Wilson changed the date and inadvertently it heralded the show’s demise. The show committee was in a dilemma because they didn’t want it moving to nearer the end of August as in those days harvest was later and every farmer would be busy harvesting. So the decision was made to put it to the first Saturday of August. It was not a success. One of the reasons was that Doncaster Cattle Market was flourishing and all the local farmers went there almost like a religion.

“The show went into decline. It was crisis point and it was decided to finish with the show, but then a new committee was formed and the radical decision to change the show to a Sunday was made. Sunday shows were unheard of at the time but it worked.”

Sykehouse Show is now one of very few village agricultural shows left in this pocket of the county and calls itself the biggest and best small village show left standing. John believes its strength lies in several areas.

The show takes place on Sunday, August 3, from 8.30am until 6pm.

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