By Chris McCullough

FOR the first time in the history of Northern Ireland’s premier agricultural event, the Balmoral Show, there will be no Blackface sheep.

Breeders of both the Blackface Perth-type and Lanark-type sheep have opted to boycott the show this week and instead go on a private bus trip of their own.

The dramatic stance has taken place originate from when the show moved to its four day format in 2017. This, said the Blackie sheep breeders, had been very hard on animals making them stand in a pen in the heat for five days, as they usually arrive at the show a day ahead of it starting.

“The Blackface sheep breed is a hardy breed more suited to hill land and vast areas to roam rather than being cooped up in a small pen,” said one breeder from Co Londonderry. “I, along with other breeders, have lost both ewes and lambs after bringing them home from Balmoral Show due to heat stress and the unfamiliar surroundings.

“It is simply too much to ask for our sheep to stand at Balmoral Show all that time. We are very concerned about animal welfare and were not happy that animals in the past were dying after the event was over when we brought them home."

Ahead of the 2018 Balmoral Show, Blackface breeders met with the show organisers and asked if they could bring their sheep into the show on the Friday morning for judging, and then take them home on the Saturday evening. This, said the breeders, would be less stressful on their sheep, and the RUAS agreed to the suggestion.

However, it seems the RUAS sheep committee has reneged on that decision ahead of this year’s show and insisted all sheep must be resident at the event for its duration.

Another Blackface breeder from Co Antrim said: “This decision by the RUAS is sad and has forced us to pull all Blackface entries from this year’s show. Last year, there were around 120 Blackface entries at Balmoral Show which attracted a large crowd of spectators from Scotland, home and elsewhere.

“We breeders paid thousands of pounds in entry fees and added a real attraction to the show. However, we are very disappointed with the attitude of the RUAS and decided to withhold entries this year."

The breeder from Co Londonderry added: “A group of breeders got together and decided we would not be entering any sheep for Balmoral Show as the welfare of our animals comes first. It is very disappointing that the RUAS sheep committee refused to work with us this time. None of us are attending the show and instead are going on a bus trip of our own on show day,” he said.

A RUAS spokeswoman said: “The Perth-type Blackface and the Lanark-type Blackface classes have been cancelled. The classes were cancelled this year due to a lack of entries. I don't believe the Blackface breed classes have not run before at Balmoral Show."

RUAS operations director, Rhonda Geary, added: “The arrival arrangements for all sheep breeds are such that they can arrive the day before the show up until 10pm, or the first morning of the show up until 7.30am, enabling them to stay either three or four nights depending on when they arrive.

“This is in line with other major four day shows, for example the Royal Highland Show. These arrangements are in place as part of the logistical build up for Balmoral Show,” she said.