Cork dairy farmer retiring her herd to sanctuary in England after saving them from slaughter

Jill Smith, a Co Cork dairy farmer, isn’t retiring, but her herd is — to a sanctuary in England.

A retiring farmer has managed to save her herd of 70 cows from slaughter in Ireland and arrange for them to be rehomed at a sanctuary in Norfolk.

The 70-year-old from near Carrigaline made the momentous decision earlier this year when she was laid up for a time following a farm accident. There was a need to scale back, but the prospect of breaking up the 70-strong herd, after years of milking, was a painful prospect. And so almost all of her cows will switch to the Hillside animal sanctuary in Norfolk.

It’s believed to be the first time an Irish farmer has done so, with 37 animals making the journey last week and another two consignments set to follow, in what local Church of Ireland Rector, Rev Elaine Murray, called an “inspirational” move.

Describing herself as “not a modern person,” Jill said her time out of action made her consider what would happen to her beloved herd if she was laid up again. “I was back on track in February and I said ‘before this year is out the numbers will have to be reduced,” she recalled. “Help is scarce around and I can’t be depending on my good neighbours forever.”

The retiring of Jill’s herd to the huge UK sanctuary is all the more remarkable as, instead of selling them, she had to raise the money to pay for their travel.

Hearing the sanctuary mentioned on BBC’s Countrywide, Jill reached out to Charlies Equine Rescue in Co Wexford, who helped her set up a crowdfunding page.

The gofundme campaign exceeded its €6,500 target — aided by musician Sharon Shannon, to the extent where she played music to the livestock — and so Jill’s cows will see out their days in luxurious Norfolk surroundings.

“Even the first load are gone, I miss a few of the faces looking at me,” Jill said. “But I feel they’re having a better life where they are now.”

She admits that some people thought she should just sell the animals, but 99% were supportive. “Money never worried me, thanks be to God,” she said.

Jill has been milking cows since she was 16. She milked year round, on her own.

“I probably pulled a lot of them into the world,” she said, referring to the mix of shorthorns, Freisans, Jerseys and native Droimeann. Some of those rarebreed animals will stay behind, as will a pet lamb and some old cows not fit to travel.

As a working farmer, some of her animals have had to go in the lorry before — “reluctantly, without any pleasure”.

This time it was different. “It is hotel treatment, absolutely,” she says of the roaming Norfolk sanctuary, adding that the herd will remain together. “They will be pampered.

“I would love to go [and visit] when I get a chance. Cattle never forget you. They know your voice. They will remember you forever, in a nice way.

“I did shed a tear when the lorry pulled away, but they [her neighbours] comforted me. Five minutes later when it went around the corner, I was fine. and I’m still fine. I just miss their presence but I know that they are happy.”

Rev Murray, who was on hand to say a blessing as the first load of cattle took the ramp, said: “It is a lovely story and she is an inspirational woman.”

Retirement for the cattle, but it’s only semi-retirement for Jill. Will she take up any hobbies? “I am definitely going to learn how to work computers,” she said.

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