Reflections on a local show seasonthat delivered so much

The local agricultural show societies stepped up to the plate in 2022 and delivered in spades for the farming and general public, writes Richard Halleron.
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I think this is a conclusion that will chime with everyone who took the opportunity of getting out and about to one or other of the events held this summer.

All of the shows were professionally organised. What’s more, they generated a tremendous day-out for livestock breeders, those involved in the myriad other competition classes and, of course the general public.

Helping everyone’s cause was the tremendous weather. Apart from a few spots of rain on the afternoon at Clogher Show, it was sunshine all the way.

Farm Minister Edwin Poots MLA (left) attended all of the local shows held in 2022Farm Minister Edwin Poots MLA (left) attended all of the local shows held in 2022
Farm Minister Edwin Poots MLA (left) attended all of the local shows held in 2022

Prior to the pandemic, the local shows attracted approximately 200,000 visitors on an annual basis. However, such was the scale of the crowd turnout over recent weeks, I sense this figure may well have risen by at least 30% in 2022.

So much for the upside: the downside to all of this has been the costs incurred by all of the show societies in putting on events this year. Despite the fact that so many volunteers come on board to lend a helping hand the costs incurred in putting on any form of public event in the here and now are horrendous.

Bills have still to be paid. And, as we all know, the only trajectory these are going in at the present time is upwards.

And there is also the overhang of Covid 19 to be taken into consideration. All the show societies were ‘literally’ on fumes throughout 2020 and 2021. The need for the agriculture minister Edwin Poots to act is obvious.

Enjoying the 'craic' at Clogher Show: Holstein breeder, Harold Nelson from Enniskillen with Crystalyx representatives David and Luke MorganEnjoying the 'craic' at Clogher Show: Holstein breeder, Harold Nelson from Enniskillen with Crystalyx representatives David and Luke Morgan
Enjoying the 'craic' at Clogher Show: Holstein breeder, Harold Nelson from Enniskillen with Crystalyx representatives David and Luke Morgan

To his credit the Co Down man did attend all of this summer’s events. And he did give a commitment to the effect that a £200,000 support package is on the way.

However, many of the show society staff that I spoke to while on my travels felt that the application process is far too bureaucratic.

Moreover, they need the money now – not in six months time.

I also feel strongly that all the show societies should be included within the remit of the support Executive support package.

Chatting at Clogher Show 2022: Liam Doyle, Banbridge; Tiernan McSwiggan, Maghera with Crystalyx representatives David and Luke MorganChatting at Clogher Show 2022: Liam Doyle, Banbridge; Tiernan McSwiggan, Maghera with Crystalyx representatives David and Luke Morgan
Chatting at Clogher Show 2022: Liam Doyle, Banbridge; Tiernan McSwiggan, Maghera with Crystalyx representatives David and Luke Morgan

I know that Newry Show did not take place this year. However, this should not be made a factor in, possibly, ruling that society out from any forthcoming support funding.

The event has a proud tradition of supporting agriculture in the Down/Armagh are for well over century. So it deserves the opportunity of coming back bigger and better in 2023.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has also been lending its weight to the campaign for a cohesive local show support package.

Back in March of this year, the then Union president Victor Chestnutt commented:“We had been lobbying Minister Poots to provide much-needed support for local agriculture shows that had no choice but to cancel events in 2020 due to the pandemic and only a handful were able to take place in 2021. The shows provide a great source of revenue and while they weren’t able to happen or experienced significant smaller crowds last year because of the virus, expenses still had to be paid putting them under financial pressure. This would then have a knock-on effect on planning for the up and coming shows in 2022.

Iain McLean with the 'super cow': Priestland 5446 Shot J RoseIain McLean with the 'super cow': Priestland 5446 Shot J Rose
Iain McLean with the 'super cow': Priestland 5446 Shot J Rose

“We’re very pleased that the Minister took all our concerns into account and has now launched a bounce back support scheme for local shows to help alleviate the losses they incurred over the last couple of years.” 

Chestnutt continued:“Local agriculture shows are so important for promoting the very best of our agriculture industry to the public while also attracting visitors to rural areas and providing an enjoyable day of socialising for farming families.” 

Meanwhile Edwin Poots has instigated a review of the local agricultural show societies. He wants to see two outcomes generated from this activity.

The first of these is the establishment of systems that will help generate greater cohesion and co-operation between the various events.

“A second outcome will be that of identifying opportunities for DAERA to support agricultural shows in a more strategic manner,” the minister further explained.

The minister made these comments while attending this year’s Ballymoney Show, held at the end of May.

The minister has appointed Aled Rhys Jones to push forward with the work involved.

The independent review, which will map out the challenges and opportunities for the shows’ sector and explore future support options is underway and is due to be completed by the end of summer.

Jones was recently appointed as the new chief executive of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society.

The Northern Ireland Shows Association (NISA) has welcomed the announcement of the review.

NISA president Graham Furey commented:“NISA will participate fully in the review process. Obviously, it is important that everything possible is done to secure the future of our agricultural shows.

“It would also be appropriate for Aled Rhys Jones to actually visit Northern Ireland over the coming weeks to get a real sense of what is happening here on the ground.”

So what were my actual highlights of the show season that was 2022? The tremendous crowds and the smiles in everyone’s faces will live long in the memory.

There’s little doubt that farming families and those that love the rural way-of-life were just so glad to have the opportunity of getting out and about after the two years of pandemic restrictions.

Helping all of this, of course was the consistently good weather.

Meanwhile in the show rings, the quality of the stock just seems to get stronger as every year passes. I was particularly impressed with the very strong turnout of dairy cattle at those events I attended.

The Holstein cow, Priestland 5446 Shot J Rose won the Supreme Championship Class at this year’s Ballymoney Show. Earlier in the day, she had also been selected as the Dairy Interbreed Champion at the event.

Such was her presence that judge Robert Hunter, from Shotts in Lanarkshire, described the 6th calver as one of the best dairy cows in the UK at the present time.

He added:“She has everything: tremendous scope and an amazing mammary system.

“But her age has also to be factored in. At 10 years’ old and to be looking so fresh is an absolute testament to the quality of the cow.”

Home bred, Shot J Rose, is owned by the McLean family from Bushmills in North Co Antrim.

Rose had her 6th calf back in January.

“At peak, she was giving 75L from two daily milkings,” confirmed Iain McLean.

“Rose has already produced 115t of milk during her life time. And, hopefully, there is more to come.”

He continued:“The plan is to produce embryos from the cow over the coming months. She is a genuine star. Her pedigree takes her back to one of the most famous and renowned cow families in North America.”

Another stand out dairy moment of 2022 was the landmark secured Holstein breeder Jason Booth at Clogher Show.

The Stewartstown won the Inter-Breed dairy championship with his elite second calver: Wye Valley Sidekick Barb.

For good measure, she went on to secure the Champion of Champions’ accolade when put into the ring against the pedigree inter-beef beef and commercial cattle champions.

Jason commented:“We are truly delighted with today’s result. This has been her first show outing of the year, having calved for the second time only five weeks ago.

“Our plan is to take the cow to the Royal Ulster Winter Fair in December.”

The winning cow is currently giving 48L of milk per day. She produces milk with exceptionally high butterfat and protein percentages. Barb was purchased at a Wye Valley dispersal sale last year.

James Little, from Carlisle, judged the Champion of Champions class. He described the victorious cow as a truly elite example of the Holstein breed.

Meanwhile, Ballymoney Beef Interbreed judge, William McIlroy, was confident that he had unearthed a true star of the future at Ballymoney. And he was right.

His animal of choice was a very eye-catching Limousin heifer, exhibited by James Alexander, from Randalstown in Co Antrim.

Jalex Resta is a weanling heifer with tremendous length, great legs and exceptional hindquarters. Shown this summer with her big sister, Jalex Riri, she was Limousin and Interbreed Champion in Ballymoney Show in her own right.

But, together, they were unbeaten in the pairs during 2022 at Balmoral, Ballymoney, Armagh, Omagh and Castlewellan.

And let’s not forget that James Alexander topped the sale at the recent British Limousin 50th anniversary sale in Carlisle with his 2021-born weanling bull: Jalex Superb.

Both of the aforementioned Jalex heifers have been entered for today’s (August 20) Northern Ireland Limousin 50th anniversary sale in Ballymena. So it will be interesting to see how they far in the sale ring.

But irrespective of the outcome, 2022 has been a year to remember for all the Jalex connections.

But my absolute highlight of the showing years was the culmination of the Beef Inter-Breed Championship class at Clogher.

The event saw Herbie Crawford from Co Fermanagh celebrate 71 years of showing cattle with a famous victory.

He won the championship with a seven-month-old Limousin bull calf – Rathkeeland Tommy. Sired by the noted bull West Pit Omaha, the young animal was still on its mother at the time of the show.

Beef Inter-breed judge James Little described his champion as a unique example of the Limousin breed: an animal with amazing potential.

And so another showing season has come to an end. Everyone involved can look back on 2022 with tremendous satisfaction.

NISA has confirmed that its society members do have a role to play at the very heart of the farming and food sectors. But they need support.

Let’s hope the review of the local shows, now ongoing, concludes with firm recommendations on how these events can be adapted to further highlight the role of farming and food at the very heart of Northern Ireland’s economy.

In my opinion, this will require a strong commitment from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), one which officially recognises the need to core fund the shows in ways that complement their undoubted strengths.

Yes Edwin Poots has already committed to a £200,000 pandemic-related support fund. But this is only a sticking plaster, in the grand scheme of things, where the local shows are concerned.

The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) has also a strong responsibility to further promote and support all the local shows.

No one doubts that the annual Balmoral Show will survive and prosper into the future. But I would argue that such an outcome can only be achieved on the back of a vibrant local show network.

Symbiosis is the word that most immediately comes to mind in this context.