Covid has dealt a severe blow to all our local shows

Balmoral Show represents the tip of an iceberg made up of the numerous agricultural shows that are held throughout the summer months across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.

Friday, 26th February 2021, 10:37 am
Updated Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 8:43 am
PressEye-Northern Ireland- 15th May  2019-Picture by Brian Little/PressEye
General views. of  Balmoral Park during the first day of the Balmoral Show 2019
Picture by Brian Little/PressEye
PressEye-Northern Ireland- 15th May 2019-Picture by Brian Little/PressEye General views. of Balmoral Park during the first day of the Balmoral Show 2019 Picture by Brian Little/PressEye

All of these annual events are organised by groups of volunteers, all totally committed to reflecting the role played by the farming and food industries in their respective localities.

While these events have a heritage that reflects the history of their respective localities, it really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Combined, they attract a foot fall that probably exceeds 200,000 on an annual basis. That’s a lot of people, all keen to find out about our farming sectors and the way our food is actually produced.

The heritage of each event is unique and so is the story that each tells. By common consent they carry out an invaluable role, telling the public at large about our rural heritage and the key role that farming and food continues to play at the very heart of our overall economy.

Michelle Moloney Researcher, Newry Show and Brian Lockhart, Secretary, Newry Show pictured with some photographs of Newry Agricultural Show in years gone by. Old Photographs and memorabilia wanted As part of Newry Agricultural Show's 150th Anniversary celebrations, organisers of the event are searching for old photographs, catalogues, medals and memorabilia connected to the show's past. The items will be used for an exhibition on the day of the show in June. To help with the search they are having a drop off day at Newry Museum on Saturday 12 May from 11am to 2pm. Any photographs taken along will be scanned and returned to you on the day. If you can't make it on the day but have material you would like to contribute you can contact Michelle Moloney at [email protected]

Covid-19 has hit many of these events hard. Last year saw the cancellation of all the local shows. And it may well be a case of history repeating itself in 2021.

There seems to be some prospect of a Balmoral Show ‘of sorts’ taking place later this year. One might also hold the view that the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society has the financial wherewithal to suffer though until 2022, when Balmoral Show can make its ‘triumphant’ return to the spotlight. But can the same be said for the local show societies?

Earlier this week Farming Life’s Richard Halleron caught up with representatives from three of our leading agricultural shows. He asked them to quantify the impact of Covid and their plans for the future.

The events in question are: Ballymena Ballymoney and Newry Shows. Significantly, the three respective show societies have already confirmed that plans that would have been put in place for 2021 have been shelved, again due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic.

Brian and Margaret King with Martin Convery Ulster Bank

This year would have seen Ballymena Shoe celebrating its 150th anniversary.

“That won’t happen now because of Covid,” confirmed 50-year show committee member Brian King.

But the former Royal Ulster Agricultural Society president is far from pessimistic regarding the future prospects for Ballymena Show.

“We will bounce back in 2022. Part of the itinerary for next year’s event will be the marking of what is a landmark occasion in the history of the show.”

Brian then reflected on the changes that have characterised Ballymena Show over the past five decades.

“The show was always regarded as that time of year when the country came to town.

“For farmers and their families it was an opportunity of meeting up with friends and catching up on many of the latest developments taking place within agriculture.

“When I first came on board as a committee member, the event was held over two days in the middle of the week. The event was of such significance that all the shops in the town closed altogether on the Wednesday.

“We moved out of the old Show Grounds’ venue and have now settled at a new location on lands adjacent to Ballymena Mart.

“As it turned out we have only been able to host one show at the new venue. That was in 2019. However, the site has tremendous potential as it provides the cattle, sheep and horse exhibitors with all the space they need.

“The mart buildings are available to us, which allows us to provide indoor exhibitors all the facilities they require. We are keen to build on all of this potential for the future.”

Brian is quick to point out that Ballymena Show lost money last year. He commented:“For the most part, this was down to the fact that we were left with no option but to cancel last year’s event quite late in the day.

“And by that stage, we had already incurred a lot of expense, which could not be clawed back.

“This year is slightly different, given that we made the decision to cancel much earlier in the year.”

Brian confirmed that Ballymena Show Society has been able to avail of some Covid support measures over the past 12 months. He commented: “The Council significantly reduced the rates bill for 2020, linked to the Show Office. This was a very generous gesture, which was gratefully received. In addition, we were able to get furlough support for our show secretary.”

Brian continued: “But all of the show societies lost money last year. And there is a need for them all to come back bigger and better in 2022.

“I firmly believe that every agricultural show in Northern Ireland can look forward to a very bright future. At a very fundamental level they provide a shop window for our farming and food sectors.

“Making this happen will require a degree of strategic support from government.

“And the most obvious way of pump priming this is for Stormont to agree a package of measures with the Northern Ireland Shows’ Association. The Association would then be in a position to make available the support required by each, individual show society.”

Brian confirmed that Ballymena Show attracts crowds of between 10,000 and 12,000 each year.

“A large number of these people come from the town of Ballymena itself. They have no direct involvement with farming but want to know how the food we all eat is produced.

“The influence which events like Ballymena and all the other local shows have in this regard is immense. This is a fact that is often overlooked.”

Newry Show Society Secretary Brian Lockhart agrees that government must step in and provide direct support to all of Northern Ireland’s agricultural show society.

He said: “We lost money in 2020. In fact, it can be a hard job balancing the books most years. Newry Show is heavily dependent on local sponsorship, the footfall of the visitors coming to the event itself and the voluntary contribution made by so many people, who help organise so much.

“Newry Show reflects everything that is positive about farming and the rural way of life throughout South Down and South Armagh.

“We have a catchment area that takes in the towns of Newry and Dundalk. So the potential to build a visitor attraction around all of this is immense.

“So, yes, Newry Show does have a bright future. We moved to a new site in Bessbrook in 2019 with this very objective in mind.”

Brian added: “We will be going ahead with next year’s event. The last Saturday in June is already in the diary.

“But it’s all about money. Looking ahead, it will be very difficult for me to secure sponsorship from business that have had to deal with all the problems thrown up by the Covid pandemic.

“This is why government has to step in and provide financial assistance to all the show societies, as they look towards 2022 and beyond.

“We all play a pivotal role in showcasing the farming and food sectors. Our politicians must get actively involved in confirming their support for all our agricultural shows.

“The Northern Ireland Shows Association also has a key role to play in pushing this case forward.”

Newry show celebrated its 150th anniversary year in 2018. The first show was held in 1869.

Brian Lockhart again: “Shows were set up, encouraged and promoted widely coming off the experience of famine in Ireland. People were willing to share and learn better farming ways in order to feed themselves.

“The Show has had many highlights, one of the most recent being our hosting of the World Angus Forum in 2017. Visitors from all over the world attended the show that year.

Brian concluded: “We in Newry Agricultural Society have bounced back from set backs and periods of “no show” before in our 153 year history. These include two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and the Troubles.

“I believe that our current, hard working committee has enough of that in-bred country stubbornness and resilience to allow us to bounce back stronger and better at our new 20 acre location in the middle of Bessbrook village in 2022.”