Bringing out high quality stock of varied kinds to show standard over three generations is not something many families have done – but the Sleigh family is one, with Harry Sleigh, of St John’s Wells, in Turriff, the latest in a line of ‘winners’.

The well-known Shetland pony and commercial sheep breeder shares his showing career success with us and relates how it all began!

Running 50 Shetland ponies, plus 550 commercial and Cheviot sheep, and 140 commercial cows over 1600 acres, it’s surprising that the Sleigh family can get in any show time at all!

Harry began his farming career straight after leaving school in 1985. For him, he was not interested in anything else but to work the farm, initially alongside his father, also Harry, who sadly passed away in 2009. It has not been an easy journey to follow in such illustrious footsteps – as, indeed, it had been for his father.

It is still very much a family affair, with Harry’s brother, John, working full time as well as William Lunnan, who takes on the majority of the tractor work. Harry’s sons, Stewart (18) is currently studying agriculture and Harry (20) works on a farm next door – but in their free time they are both outside helping at St Johns Wells.

Why are Shetlands, Cheviots and commercial sheep your chosen breeds?

“My grandfather began with Clydesdales, but we changed over to the Shetlands in 1940 due to grass sickness becoming too much of an issue with us. We would love to go into Highlands, or Clydesdales but not unless there is a vaccine found to stop grass sickness, as it was such a problem.

“As for the Cheviots and the commercials, they have been in the family forever, so I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and believe the Cheviot breed is the best all round breed about. I did give up the pedigree Cheviots in 2003 as we didn’t have the time for them and if you don’t do it properly, it isn’t worth doing. However, son Stewart is keen to get back into it, so we are hoping to do so in the foreseeable future.”

What got you involved in showing?

“It has been part of my childhood. My grandfather and father went to all the shows over the years and I would tag on. It has always been a great interest to me and I will always be thankful to my family for giving me the opportunities and encouragement on the showing career.”

When was your first Royal Highland?

“When I was five, in 1973, but it wasn’t until 2009 when my father passed away that I started showing in my own right.

“It wasn’t a promising start for my first year in the Shetlands, having entered four classes and coming last twice and second last twice. But competing at the highest level always drives you forward and I knew if I wanted to continue with showing I had to up my game and get on with it. It is now a hobby of mine which I thrive on.

“The family – going back to my grandad – have taken 56 championships at the Highland within Cheviots, Clydesdales, commercials and the Shetlands. My recent supremes have been in the Shetlands winning in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019.”

Who is the best judge you’ve seen?

“There is a long list but for the Shetlands it would have to be Kenny Adams. He knows his stock well and can easily spot a champion, he is always prepared to stand by his judgements as he knows what he wants.

“John Wight, of Midlock, is another. I guarantee he could have a pond of ducks and still pick the champion, nothing puts that man off. Not everyone has that talent but he can see things other people can’t, which is a real skill.

“Willie Allan, Millfield, and Bruce Halliburton, Inverdarroch, are also both outstanding judges in the heavy horse section, again knowing their stock thoroughly.”

What is the best animal you’ve shown?

“Last year’s Royal Highland champion – Reliance – is by far the best Shetland I have ever had. He is an outstanding animal and was bang on the money, I couldn’t have had him any better turned out for the show. From the day he was born he was a great animal, leading up to the show he was just 12 o’clock, and by far the best animal I have ever presented.

“Reliance took the overall heavy horse – the Sanderson Trophy – and I am only one of three people to have done this with a Shetland, so it really was an unforgettable experience, as well as winning The Scottish Farmer trophy the same year.”

But what is the best animal you’ve seen?

“Keeping it in the family, the best was my parents’ Shetland stallion – Wells Highlight II. Only three animals have ever won the Highland five times and he was one of them, lifting the trophy in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2005 as well as winning the Sanderson twice.

“Collessie Jennifer, the Clydesdale and Islay of Whitefield, a Highland pony, were both outstanding of their breeds among the heavy horse section, and both Sanderson winners.

“Reserve overall sheep last year was Hownam Grange Victoria which was a two-crop Cheviot ewe from the Thomson family. She was an outstanding example of the breed and a very good stamp of what the breed should be like. There were no faults to pick and she had that bit more sparkle, and caught everyone’s eye.

“Going back further, it was Highland Queen, a South Country Cheviot ewe from Charlie Symons, that marked my memory. She won the inter-breed at the Royal Highland twice in 1993 and 1996 and was an outstanding animal of any kinds, you couldn’t go past her, she was the animal of a lifetime.”

Abiding memory?

“There are many memories to come from the Highland … I could be here all day, but a real cherished memory was the camel racing that used to happen in the main ring. My father would take part as a bit of fun and it was some great entertainment in the early 1980s!

“Back when I was a kid, it was the highlight of getting a week off school to play outside the old Herdsmen’s Bar as all our parents left us for the showing malarkey. It has been a great environment to be part of, everyone is there for one another.”

Biggest disappointment?

“Every time I lose! Each year you go out to win – it is nice to see others win but I have a real competitive bone in me too!

“The two years the Highland has been cancelled – this year and 2001, due to foot-and-mouth – are misfortunes, we have spent a lot of time on our horses over the winter to formulate a plan and tailor our show team to sit the judges at the Highland. We will just need to look forward to next year!”

Most influential person?

“Everything I have been taught is either through my father or my auntie, Marjorie Martin, they have influenced my career greatly, and I would not be where I am today without them.”

Your favourite show?

“Keeping it local, Turriff. It is a well-run prestigious show and it is great to see so many local exhibitors out, plus it’s an all-round family affair.

“My favourite year at the Highland had to be last year, picking up the Sanderson Trophy was a lifetime ambition.”

Stockman hero?

“To keep the success of showing and bringing out high quality stock year on year and through generations is not easy to do, and has been proven with the Wight family, at Midlock, and the Thomson family, at Howman Grange. They are both hard to go past. Both families have being doing it for more than one generation which very few families can say as well as through numerous different breeds – they really are an inspiration to us all. The Black family, of Collessie, are another that are masters of bringing out stock year in year out.

“John Elliot senior, is an icon we need in the industry. He challenges the norm and the accepted view and will never accept the way you do things he is always achieving more. He has a strong eye for stock, knows exactly what he is talking about and always sticks by his decision.”

Who has the best kist parties?

“Back in the day, it was the heavy horse ceilidh held in the Clydesdales lines, but they put a stop to that a few years ago. The place to be is now at the Shetland ponies kist or down the Cheviot lines!”

Interests out with farming?

“Despite showing taking a lot of my time, I also referee football – it is something I love doing and it is nice to get away from the farm!”

Biggest changes?

“There have been drastic changes over my time and that will continue. Everything always evolves. Within the Shetland breed, we are now breeding to suit a market – we need to hit the ridden market too, to make it the all-purpose general versatile pony that it can be.

“Commercial sheep have changed dramatically too. Everyone is looking at hitting weight gain, but at a cheaper rate and everyone is watching their inputs – but we believe the Cheviot already does this for us.

“Technology is also influencing the industry. It is an opportunity for us to become smarter and more efficient, so it is important we embrace it. As I get older, it becomes more of a struggle and a lot of the tractors nowadays are not for me, but they are making daily jobs a lot easier!”

The future of the show circuit?

“There seems to be a lot of younger people coming into the farming industry, which is great to see as they are the future generation! It is important that we continue to encourage and help them as much as we can for shows and farming to continue. They are the future.

“Young handler competitions and Young Farmers’ sheep dressing are just two of the events that really gets the younger generation involved.

“Everything is evolving and so will shows, but I do believe they will continue, although the way they run may change – here’s to 2021 show season! Human nature is always to be competitive – you always need a winner!”