At the foot of Hungry Hill, near Castletownbere, John O’Sullivan-Greene has farmed for more than 30 years. A sheep farmer and a hill man, his flock grazes on the Ballard Commonage above his land.
Commonage has been part of Irish farming tradition for generations. O’Sullivan-Greene can trace his access rights back to an original document drawn up in 1910. You can’t buy or sell commonage, it is owned mainly by the State and shares in it come with the land deeds of the farms below.
Most commonage in Ireland is on the hills, concentrated on the western seaboard from Donegal down to West Cork. There is about 420,000 hectares of land remaining in the 4,500 commonages farmed by about 11,000 farms.
Some are dormant (belonging to a farm, but not used), some are inactive (attached to land no longer farmed), but most are still worked.
O’Sullivan-Greene takes his sheep off the hills in November and puts them back up on January 1. In April, they come down for lambing, before being let roam again in early May.
It seems simple. The sheep graze the mountains and John raises the lambs for six months, before selling them on to the lowland farmer for fattening.
That is how it used to work. But a steady drop in mart prices has eroded any profit margin, making the hill men reliant on money from EU and Department of Agriculture schemes.
Next year brings the new Green Low carbon Agri-environment Swcheme (GLAS), largely welcomed by the commonage farmers. Proper management of their land is part of their trade, a skill handed down with the farm. Hill men know instinctively when to graze, how many sheep to have on the commonage and how the land works.
However, 50% of farmers with shares in a commonage had to agree, in writing, how the land will be managed, before they can join GLAS as individuals.
Trying to get 50% or more of farmers to agree on how a commonage could be managed is next to impossible.
Outside of the logistics of getting the farmers together and trying to work out a plan, there is also the problem of dormant and inactive shares.
Angry hill farmers reacted with protest meetings, and pickets at the Castlebar office of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has made it clear the 50% requirement is based on active farmers only, those grazing the commonage; if the 50% level cannot be reached, a Commonage Implementation Committee can help.
Nevertheless, many hill farmers of the west of Ireland think it is all part of a bigger plan to make their way of farming unworkable.
For generations, they’ve farmed the commonages, maintaining the land and keeping the mountains grazed. For O’Sullivan-Greene, they were years when he made a living out of it, but the drop in prices at the mart has hit profitability.
The REPS scheme helped bridge the gap between selling prices and production costs, but REPS has been discontinued. Different schemes have come and gone, but without much appreciation for an age-old tradition of hill farming that has helped preserve the Irish uplands.
Now, for the want of a decent hill sheep price, that tradition is in real danger of dying. “There’s no common sense,” says O’Sullivan-Greene.
Once, the hills were over grazed in some areas due to incentives such as the ewe premium causing overstocking with sheep. These payments led to a free-for-all on some commonages and a breakdown in traditional management methods. From 1998 onwards, REPS led to a return to better farming of commonages.
When John O’Sullivan-Greene started farming, you grew your flock, worked hard to produce lambs, and sold them for a decent price at six months. Now the price isn’t there. So young people aren’t coming into the business. Instead, they are emigrating in large numbers from the West, where planning regulations make it very difficult for people to stay close to the family farm.
“If you don’t have the youth, what do you have?” asks John. “On a mountain farm, you should be retiring at 60, but there’s nothing for those coming up. Nothing.”
Hill farming traditions, skill inherited over generations are in danger of disappearing. “If the producer can’t make a living he’ll have to shut down,” says John, “they’ll wipe out the small fellow but even the bigger man will be affected. There’ll be no one here bringing on the lambs, they don’t think of that.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved