Ireland's hill sheep contribute far more than tourist photo opportunities

Ireland's hill sheep contribute far more than tourist photo opportunities
Tourists and others who travel through the country’s foothills, especially in the summer, often marvel at the picture postcard scenery. Picture: iStock

THE contribution of hill sheep farmers to maintaining and enhancing the environment in the uplands of Ireland has acquired a new focus with the climate and biodiversity emergency.

Tourists and others who travel through the country’s foothills, especially in the summer, often marvel at the picture postcard scenery.

Sheep grazing on hillsides and along road verges add to the appeal of the natural heritage and the peaceful surrounds, but there is another side to that contented image.

For it is not all bliss for the farmers who often struggle to earn a viable
living from rearing sheep in the rugged landscape that is often battered by the
increasing vagaries of the Irish weather.

For these and other reasons the Teagasc national hill sheep conference in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, earlier this month, was an important event for the sector.

A range of speakers addressed issues ranging from sustainability and the environment to profitability, marketing and sheep health. There were many take home messages.

Teagasc director Gerry Boyle put the overall sector in context by referring to the latest published sheep census statistics (December 2018) that there were 35,186 flocks in Ireland, a decrease of 536, or 1.5% from 2017.

Some 2.56m breeding ewes produced a high-quality product with about 81% of it exported.

Last year, almost 2.783m sheep were processed in Irish lamb processing plants, a decrease of 7% on 2018 figures.

He said sheep production is a significant contributor to the agricultural and national economy producing 67,415 tonnes of sheep meat valued at some €390m. A total of 54,809 tonnes of sheep meat, valued at €300m was exported.

Over the past decade, there had been greater
market diversification, with more than 40% of sheep meat shipments, by volume, destined for countries other than the traditional French and British markets in 2019.

Diversified, high value markets such as Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Canada and Italy are now becoming significant destinations for Irish sheep meat.

He said China is becoming a major importer. A total of six Irish sheep meat processing plants are now eligible to export to China, and hopefully, it will
become a realistic market this year.

“Cumulatively, there are some grounds for a modest optimism for the Irish sheep industry in 2020, notwithstanding that the final
Brexit deal has yet to be completed and Ireland is very dependent on the UK market,” he said.

Prof Boyle said hill sheep farming plays an important role in the economic health of rural economies and the maintenance of the natural landscape in many of Ireland’s most scenic areas.

But low output and often depressed markets for male store hill lambs has resulted in low margins.

However, the Cheviot and Scottish Blackface hill ewes are very hardy and resilient breeds and are hugely
responsive to improved
nutrition.

The hill ewe, irrespective of breed type, has a significant untapped potential both in the hill environment and as the dam of prolific cross bred ewes for the
lowlands, he said.

Cathal Buckley, Teagasc Rural Economy and Development Programme at Mellows Campus in Athenry, Co Galway, said the sustainability of an individual hill sheep farm needs to be
assessed across economic, environmental and social dimensions.

On the economic dimension, while comparable to cattle and lowland sheep systems, hill sheep farms tended to have lower levels of profitability, income per labour unit and overall economic viability.

On the social side, they generally had higher levels of household vulnerability and isolation risk.

When it came to the
environment, all other things being equal, the risk associated with hill sheep farms was the lowest of any farm system in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, ammonia emissions and
nitrate surpluses on a per hectare.

In terms of priorities for the next Common Agricultural Policy, he said hill sheep farmers ranked
generational renewal and initiatives to improve water quality as the top two priorities, followed by initiatives to improve biodiversity, convergence of payment and greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Eileen McCloskey, a sheep technologist with CAFRE at Greenmount
College, Co Antrim, said management is essential
in maintaining heather moorland to keep it in good agricultural condition, and preserve a habitat which is beneficial to grazing animals, wildlife and birds, flora and fauna.

An understanding of the relationship between plants and animals is needed to achieve it through grazing, she said.

Brendan Dunford, manager, Burren Life Programme in Clare, said the locally-led Agri-Environment Scheme aims to
conserve and improve the biodiversity, water quality and cultural heritage of the limestone area between Clare and Galway.

It currently works with 328 farmers on 23,000 ha of heritage-rich farmland, mainly specialising in suckler beef, although some continue to farm sheep.

A locally-based management team administer the programme and its seven-year budget of some €12m on behalf of the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, with support from the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The BP has evolved over 20 years of research and development and its success owes much to the strong partnership developed
between the organisations involved — in particular DAFM, NPWS, Teagasc, and the Irish Farmers Association’s Burren branch.

“This partnership of farming and conservation interests developed over many years with a great deal of trust and compromise needed on all sides.

“However, as a consequence all sides have
benefitted greatly from the
impact and success of the project, offering lessons for other areas of high nature value in Ireland,” he said.

Mr Dunford said with the Government recently declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency, there will be more opportunities for farmers in the Irish uplands and other high nature value areas to earn income for delivering environmental improvements in
response to this emergency.

“The BP has proven that, with the right type of funding, support and encouragement, Irish farmers are
an invaluable conservation resource,” he said.

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