By Kathryn Dick

Turning out champion winning sheep for various farming families and from his own flock, renowned stockman, Johnny Aiken, has certainly made his mark in the show ring over the years.

He spoke to The Scottish Farmer about his successful career as a freelance stockman.

What’s your background?

I was born and brought up on a small family farm at Carnew, in Co Down, Northern Ireland. My father worked with Border Leicesters and has one of the oldest flocks in the flock book, also Bluefaced Leicesters and latterly Beltex and Texel.

We founded our Charollais flock, in 1990, as well as a herd of pedigree Limousin cattle, in 1999.

In 1992, I was asked by David Gardiner, Derby, to help him show livestock that summer. This was a great learning curve for me and it also allowed me to meet other great breeders that have remained good friends of mine. I continued this for two more summer and winter show seasons.

I then moved to the Isle of Whithorn with the McIlwraith family, at Stannock, where we brought out Charollais sheep and Holstein cattle. Following this I headed back to Northern Ireland, where I worked from home as a freelance stockman preparing sheep and cattle for shows and sales.

In 2017, I moved to Penrith, Cumbria, to work for the Hall family at Inglewood Edge. I had previously worked part time with the Halls since 1998 with winter shows and during lambing.

I married my wife, Audrey Lamb, from Lanarkshire in 2019.

What got you into showing livestock in the first place?

My family were always involved in showing livestock. My two brothers and I were taken to all the shows as children ... so it’s in our blood.

What qualities do you like about the breeds that you work with over others?

The Border Leicester will always have a special place in my heart. To me they are the king of the show ring. Their presence, big white head, bold eyes and big ears means that you can’t help but notice them.

My Charollais sheep are very easy to manage. The Charollais lambs are vigorous at birth and go on and thrive, as well as being easy fleshed and I like them as show sheep as they have similar ring presence as the Borders.

What was your first Royal Highland?

My first Highland was in 1992, when I showed Charollais sheep for David Gardiner. I produced the male champion that year and I haven’t missed a Highland Show since that day!

The first year that my own stock took to the Highland ring was in 2004 and I have been a regular exhibitor since then. I’ve managed to secure the reserve supreme five times – however, I am still waiting for the big one!

Which was the best animal that you’ve ever shown?

I have been very lucky over the years to have shown some great stock. In the cattle it would be the Limousin bull, Lynderg Hero, for Jim Quail. He stood male champion twice and reserve supreme at Balmoral Show, male champion and reserve supreme at the Royal Highland and All Ireland Limousin champion as a young bull.

I have also shown some tremendous pairs of Beltex cross lambs for the Hall Family, but my own favourites from home would be Carnew Jo and Carnew Nicky. Both have won many shows for myself and both proved to also be good breeders.

But what was the best animal that you’d ever seen?

Over the years Johnnie Bell, from Knowsie, had some tremendous Border Leicester ram lambs at the breed sales at Lanark. We have had a few good ones of our own at home too!

However, I would have to say – at the risk of giving my brother a big head – the Texel ewe lamb, Proctors Cinderella, bred and shown by Jeff is an outstanding animal. She never stood wrong in the show ring and she just oozed class.

Changes over the years in the showing world – good and bad?

Showing is getting more professional with some people spending vast amounts of money just to win a rosette and too many show animals are over fed nowadays.

I was always told to aim your animal for the main event and have them for 12 o’clock on that day.

Younger people are now being recognised as good stocks men and women and are given more roles in shows. Young handler’s competitions are a great way of improving skills.

You’re most abiding memory?

A lot of the kist parties were always memorable, but I can’t say a lot about some of them! However, one great memory I do have is the year we showed 32 sheep in four breed categories at our local show, Castlewellan.

In total, 28 of them gained first, second or third prizes and we had three championships, two reserve championships, as well as going on to win the sheep inter-breed that day. The party that night was quite good too!

Biggest disappointment in your career?

I don’t do disappointments – if you keep and show livestock you will always have disappointments. You just have to get up and get on with it and aim for the next high point.

Most influential person in your career?

There have been many people who have been an influence to me. My parents, Jim and Cynthia, were always there to support me and I have learnt most of my livestock skills from my father.

Other people who have been a big part of my life included the late William Mulligan, the late David Gardiner and Jim Quail.

What’s been your favourite show over the years and why?

Smithfield at Earls Court was always brilliant. The stock and the kist parties were always something else.

Also the Royal Show in its hay day was a great week, but now it is the Highland. The quality of the stock, the great friends you meet along with the great kist parties makes for a superb show.

Your choice of best stockman ever?

There are some very good people out there who concentrate on one breed, but there are few that can do several breeds. I think the Wights, of Midlock, are good at their job, but one man I had the privilege of helping and showing against was the late Willie Currie.

Not only was he a great stockman at bringing out various breeds of sheep, he also moved with the times and was always there to help anyone – especially the younger ones. There were occasions that he was there to give me advice to take them to the next level of the championship. He was a gentleman and I’ve had many a good night drinking with him.

Best and worse advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve received – apart from don’t drink the water at Earls Court – would be to pick your spot in the show ring and never stand beside a big one!

The worst would be: “Have another drink, it won’t do you any harm!!”

Biggest showing achievement?

Every time you win a championship it is an achievement, but the ones that stand out to me would be winning the Scottish Winter Fair three times in a row for the Halls, at Inglewood Edge.

At home, it would be winning the NISA breeding ewe championship on many occasions, but also winning it with Carnew Jo for the second time. This was a great day as she only qualified on her only show outing the week before. I also have the accolade of being the only person to win this competition three years in a row with the same sheep.

You’re favourite drink?

Any drink with friends is a good drink, but I am known to have the odd Bacardi and Coke.

Any hobbies or interests out with farming?

Livestock and showing is a big part of my life, but I also enjoy helping young breeders and helping at Young Farmers events.

What’s the future of the show circuit?

I know showing is getting to be an expensive hobby but it is something we have always done and will keep doing as we enjoy meeting old friends and making new ones.

I think shows will continue as there are a lot of young people involved in showing and agricultural shows are always looking at other ideas to make the event bigger and better.