Field of dreams: As the Balmoral Show kicks off we meet the farmers whose livestock is competing for top honours
To most of us a cow is just a cow, a sheep is just a sheep and a goat is, well, just a goat. We see them in the fields as we drive past and know they're a vital part of our food chain, though we don't like to think too much more about certain aspects of that.
But to the farmers and breeders showcasing their livestock at the Balmoral Show over the next three days, there is a lot more to these animals.
Judges will scrutinise every aspect of them. For example, from the moment a cow steps into the ring it is being marked – if it is walking freely, the back hooves should step into the front hooves' footprints.
And then there is how it holds its head, its 'topline' – its back – and, for beef cattle, there is the question of muscle tone, while for cows, it's everything from udder size to whether the hair is coarse, which could indicate low fertility.
Whether much of this will trouble the thousands of spectators who make their way to the extravaganza at Balmoral Park near Lisburn is open to conjecture.
Many will simply want to 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the animals as they slurp on a rapidly melting poke before heading off to watch the best dressed lady competition.
Still, it all goes to make up the unique and rather wonderful atmosphere of Balmoral Show, a key event in the agricultural calendar. And, of course, farming is Northern Ireland's biggest industry.
Here, we talk to four people who have dedicated their lives and businesses to raising rare breeds of livestock and find out why they love it.
‘If you win at shows it proves it’s good stock’
Fiona McAllister (42) is married to Sean and they have one daughter, Joanna (23). They live on Crockmuir Farm near Ballycastle. Fiona says:
I'm not from a farming background at all. I saw the sheep and cows in the fields and that was it. Then I met Sean who had been raising and showing Kerryhill sheep. They're a distinctive breed from Wales and have specific markings — black ears, around their eyes, nose and on their knees. The markings can vary though.
I didn't know anything about sheep, but I took to it straight away. I loved it and I loved going out to the agricultural shows. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 we won the champion Kerryhill at the Balmoral Show.
There was a period over about a year that we won 17 championships in a row. We took a break and then won first and second last year at Balmoral Show. We're not entering any in the show this year, though. You can tell by the sheep, as they've recently been clipped. If we were showing them we would have clipped them in December so there would have been a little growth of wool by now. We would also have been bathing them and there's a big bath outside the house for that. Of course, each time I go to the show when I'm not entering I always end up wishing that I’d done so.
For us, entering shows is the shop window for selling. If, down the line, you want to sell, then if you've done well at the shows a potential buyer will know it's a good flock. We breed sheep to sell onto other people. They use them for cross breeding to keep up the numbers in theirflocks.
We have somewhere between 80 and 90 sheep. We also have eight Belted Galloways; four cows, a heifer, a bull and two calves and we also have a goat and her kid.
These sheep are nice to look at and they're a little different. They do mature a little more slowly than others but we breed them just because we like them. They're a little nervous, too. Some of our lambs do go to the abbatoir — that’s because they come out mis-marked so they won't be any good for showing. You know straightaway you’ll be sending them on for fattening. There’s no wrench when they go. Although I don't come from a farming background myself, it doesn't bother me at all — that’s just farming.”
‘There was no eureka moment, we drifted into it’
Adam Kelly (33) owns Leggygowan Farm with his brother, Jason. Adam, who also works in insurance, lives in Antrim with his wife, Victoria, and their son, Euan. He says:
We raise goats and from their milk we manufacture goat's cheese, fudge and soap. Jason tends to look after the milking of the goats — the animal husbandry as it were. I then take the produce and manufacture the cheese and other products.
My granda had farmed for years and when he was coming close to retirement and getting rid of the livestock Jason started to pitch in. After my grandfather retired the farm was let, although there were some sheds and some land that was going to be left vacant. Jason and I decided that we should keep the farm in the family in some way and use the free space.
I don't think there was any eureka moment that goats were the thing for us to do. It just evolved really. Jason works as a plumber and was on a job once for someone who had goats in the garden. Goats seemed like a good idea for us, as we were only working with about 20 acres and every other farmer in the country seems to struggle with cattle and sheep. In 2010, we started by buying 20 white Saanen kids — the traditional white goat. For the next year-and-a-half we bought any animal with a good milking strain to it in Northern Ireland. The herd now numbers more than 90.
There are no licensed treatments for goats, such as antibiotics or worming treatments. It means that if we do treat them with any kind of medication, then we have to take that animal out of circulation for the next 60 days to ensure any of the drugs have fully left their system.
We started off manufacturing the cheese and other products at Loughry College — to kit out the farm to the proper standards was too expensive. But now that we have built up a market we are in the process of bringing the manufacturing back to the farm so that the whole operation is onsite.
We haven’t taken over the running of the farm — Jason and I both still have full-time jobs — but the family has always been involved with the farm and we didn't want to lose that connection.
There aren't many goat breeders around Northern Ireland. There's a farm that produces goat meat and they take our male goats, as they're really just waste product for us.”
‘The cows charged and I dived over the hedge'
Mike Frazer (54) owns the Bruce's Hill Cattle Company and lives in Templepatrick with wife Charlotte. They have two sons; Daniel (24), an accountant, and David (22), who is in his final year at veterinary college. Mike says:
We have four farms in Co Antrim — one in Templepatrick, two near Kells and one at Moray Hill.
Until five years ago I was an accountant specialising in working with Third World countries and development agencies. I decided to sell the business and when you do that you continue to work with the buyer for two or three years. Also, when you leave you can't work in accountancy for another three years. It means you can't go into immediate competition with the company you've just sold.
I don't have any farming background other than a link through my grandfather. But my wife's father was a farmer and the family would have stayed with him when I was away working — I was away three weeks out of every five.
Our son David decided he wanted to be a farmer and when I sold my business we bought the house in Templepatrick and brought up four or five British Blues that David had accumulated under his granda. He had bought them as calves and raised them himself.
The first time I went out to see the cows I went into the field with a bucket. They came charging at me and I threw the bucket at them and dived over the hedge. Consequently, the conversation that night was if we were going to have any cows about, then they would need to be smaller ones.
The smallest cow you can get is a Dexter, which is a native Irish beast. We got three of them and that was the start of it. We've grown to 450 head of cattle, and they include 200 Dexters, 50 Aberdeen Angus and 50 Belted Galloways. We hope soon to have some Irish Moiled cattle — they were bred back to the days of the Vikings and are one of the oldest breeds in Ireland.
We were the Aberdeen Angus champions at Balmoral in 2011 and last year we were the Dexter champions.
It's all about the talent of the cattle and I’ve a very good farm manager Stephen Buick, who can spot a good animal. I certainly couldn't become an expert in five years but we invest in the best that we can.
I set up the specialist butcher Bruce's Hill because I wasn't getting what I wanted out of the business. We're now trying to educate the public on Dexter beef. This is a denser, more powerful beef from cattle that have been grass-fed. This isn't raised for supermarkets as they like their meat a certain way.
The TV chef James Martin gave us a big break last summer when he focused on our Dexters in his food map of Britain. Since then the Dexter beef has taken off for us big time. We also have a pop-up shop in the centre of Belfast that's about to become permanent. We're not trying to sell mass produced food, but a specialist meat.
When I left accountancy I thought I would take up farming as something of a hobby. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it.
People say you can't enjoy getting up at the craic of dawn and mucking out cattle but I really do.
The only downside is the paperwork. If I hadn't been an accountant in the public sector I don't think I would be able to manage the level there is.
There is a certain sense of achievement, though, particularly last year when we won the Dexter championship at Balmoral with a calf that was born and raised here.”
‘Calving is hard work, but that’s the part I like’
Mary Forsythe (52) lives with her husband, Wilbert, on Tully Farm near Portglenone. She says:
We raise Dexters and Irish Moileds. I'm from a farming background and always had horses, while Wilbert was in the building trade. In 2007 we decided to buy a little farm. I wanted an Irish Moiled cow and it all started from there. The Irish Moiled is a lovely breed, they're very quiet and docile and easy to work with.
I breed them and Wilbert is the butcher. We have a mobile farm shop that we take to all of the different shows and festivals as well as farmers’ markets
It's not an easy thing to do, there are early starts and you have to be out all year round no matter what the weather is doing. But I love working with the cows. Admittedly, I'm not so fussed on the butchering, but that's part and parcel of what we do. I found it difficult sending them off to slaughter but it's a part of life.
However, I know that when they're with me they are well looked after and that helps me cope with it. Both our breeds are very hardy — they could both winter out as long as they have a bit of shelter.
The calving is hard work but that's the part I like. You get used to the hard work. We now have about 180 at the moment, including the calves.
I also have a couple of Kerry cows, which are more traditional for Ireland. I have them to raise calves.
We'll be at the show again this year — we go every year. Wilbert will be there with the farm shop and I'll be showing the Dexters.”
What to see at Balmoral Show
- There will be seven international show jumping competitions hosted at the Balmoral Show, with a prize fund totalling £38,000
- Other competitive events include the Royal Ulster Sheep Shearing Championship and horse events for those of all ages
- Another attraction is the Boldog Lings Freestyle Motorbike Display Team who will perform death-defying tricks twice a day
- There will be a schools zone with an interactive tour for |primary and special needs schools.