When William Montgomery of Ballygraffan, Comber was a child of three and a half, he was such a handful that his mother sent him off to school a year early. His obsession with doing experiments on the family farm meant he was safer off in the classroom.
The lively youngster, whose father bought him his first flock of cross bred sheep in 1938 was wheeling and dealing at Allam’s Mart in Belfast before the age of ten, and contributing to the family’s weekly income.
Today at 81 years, William will certainly be one of the oldest exhibitors, if not the oldest, at his favourite show – the Balmoral Show. While William already holds the record for the winning the most Overall Breed Championships at Balmoral with 14 wins under his belt, there is one thing for sure, his four Suffolk entries in this year’s Show will be aiming high this week.
Balmoral harbours special memories for William, who lost his only son Ian through motor neurone disease on April 24 2007, aged 47 years. William and Ian were a team, with Ian a devoted Holstein cattle breeder, both father and son winning championships galore with their pedigree livestock at Balmoral and beyond. When Ian left for Shropshire in 1993 where he bought a large farm, William remained at home and concentrated on breeding Suffolk sheep. He explained: “Ian was the only British judge to judge the National Holstein Show. He was a genius with cattle. He left a great heritage in Holstein breeding and I am very proud of him.”
The special atmosphere at Balmoral never changes and William loves to exhibit each year, catching up with old faces. William’s daughters Anne and Liz will be there to cheer him on with Anne’s partner Jeff Aiken, who works for Ulster Bank, the Show’s principal sponsor. William can’t wait to produce his four Suffolks to the Show judges this week: “I love meeting the women and children who file past in the sheep hall. I meet up with customers who have bought rams from me over the years, and people love to ask questions about the breed. The Show never stops. I will be up each morning at 5am and getting there in good time. My friends in sheep showing had a pact that no matter what show you do in the year, you had to start the season at Balmoral.”
At 81 years William Montgomery knows pretty much everything there is to know about sheep. His father bought him his first flock of cross bred ewes in 1938 from a neighbouring blacksmith, who leased their land when the family moved from Dundonald to a new farm at Ballyblack near Millisle. “In those days we walked 20 cattle from Dundonald through Newtownards main street right to Ballyblack. I remember all the people coming out to watch us move, the streets were lined. That was in 1937 and word spread like wildfire that the cattle were moving. It was a 12 mile walk but we thought nothing of it.” “I checked my sheep each morning and walked three miles to school.”
Showing pedigree sheep really became serious with William when he entered the Balmoral Show in 1958. “I took the plunge then at showing with a shearling ram and became champion. I knew nothing about showing at Balmoral; in those days you wore your good suit in the ring, no white coats like today.”
And what is the secret of William’s success in farming. “Be honest with yourself and to the people you deal with. I know this because old customers are returning again and again to buy themselves new rams.” It’s all in a day’s work for octogenarian William Montgomery, who has every intention of giving the ‘young guns’ a run for it once more in the sheep rings of Balmoral.