Wednesday 28 September 2016

Offshore farming - the challenges of island farming

Making a living from the land on Clare Island presents its own unique challenges

Declan O'Brien

Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30

Clare Island is located in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, four miles from the mainland
Clare Island is located in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, four miles from the mainland
Local IFA representative Joe O'Malley

There are pros and cons to living and working in most places, but farming on an offshore island must rank among the more challenging of endeavours.

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And yet hundreds of Irish farmers continue to survive away on island holdings from Dursey in west Cork to Tory off Donegal.

A parish in the ocean that splits this geographical expanse is Clare Island in Mayo's Clew Bay.

A bastion of the 16th century seafaring chieftain, Grace O'Malley (Granuaile), the island retains a strong maritime heritage.

And yet, it is not defined exclusively by the sea.

Good stretches of lowland, and ample hill and mountain grazing, mean that farming remains an important income source for many Clare Island families.

Indeed, local IFA representative Joe O'Malley estimates that close to 40 islanders are involved in farming at some level - and that represents a sizeable proportion of the island's full-time population of 158.

Joe attributes the high percentage of farmers to the island's landscape and its land quality.

"Clare Island is a real farming island. We have a lot of good lowland on the island, and then we have the hill and mountain areas as well," he explains.

It's an impressive mix of ground for an island that is just five miles long and less than three miles wide.

Most of the farmland is given over to sheep, with close to 1,000 store lambs sold to mainland buyers each autumn. Joe carries 130 mountain ewes, along with five suckler cows, on his 40ac holding which is located near the centre of the island at Kille.

He finds the mix of cattle and sheep works well, with the sucklers helping to clear a lot of the rougher grazing.

The ewes are crossed with a mix of Blackface, Cheviot and Texel rams, and the store lambs are generally sold in late August and September. But simply going to the mart with them is not an option.

"If you go to the mart with the lambs, you have to sell because it costs you money to transport the stock on and off the island," Joe explains.

That's why the islanders prefer to sell off the land, and invariably there's no shortage of customers. Each year buyers from as far afield as Offaly and Wexford make the trip to Clare Island to purchase stock.

"Anyone who'll pay good money for the lambs will get them," Joe claims.

The restrictions involved in island farming not only impact on the sale of animals but also add to input costs and the organisation of, and charge for, essential contracting work.

Cliara Development Company co-ordinator, Caroline Healy, points to research which shows that living costs for the islanders are 37pc higher than those for mainland residents.

Joe O'Malley says these additional charges can be seen in the cost of feed and fertiliser. These inputs are usually delivered to Roonagh Pier outside Louisburgh and then ferried the four miles across to the island.

Making silage is also more expensive, since the contractor's tractor, mower and baler must be ferried to the island for the work.

As a consequence, farmers co-ordinate their harvesting plans so that all the mowing and baling is done in the one trip by the contractor. Even so, the cost can be as high as €18/bale.

"It takes a lot of organising; you have to watch the weather, and the tides. And sometimes the silage has to be baled even if the weather breaks because you can't hold the contractor on the island waiting for conditions to improve."

Getting the vet to the island can also be a challenge; and might, on occasion, involve a trip in an open boat to Roonagh to collect the medicine man.

The last time Joe made such a journey it was because of a pony that was having trouble foaling. The dash to Roonagh to collect the vet was made at midnight with his son Eamon. It ended well, with both the pony and foal surviving.

Fortunately, veterinary assistance is not needed as readily for the island's sheep and suckler cows - which is a blessing as winter and spring storms can leave the island cut off for days.

"There were always men on the island who were great to lamb ewes, and fellas who could calve cows. Some of them have passed on, but we're lucky to still have others," Joe explains.

Such help from neighbours is always a feature of the farming sector; but is essential in the island environment given the relative isolation and the fact that nearly all of those involved are part-time farmers.

Raising four children, two sons and two daughters, meant that working off-farm was a necessity for Joe and his wife Mary.

Joe works on the ferry service, other island flock owners are employed on the Marine Harvest fish farm, with some fishing part-time. A few more run B&Bs through the summer months or work in construction.

However, local pride in Clare Island's farming traditions remains strong; as was highlighted last year by the turnout for its inaugural sheep show.

The event included sheep dog trials and a number of ram, lamb and ewe classes. In fact, the show was such a success that it will be held again in September.

As we talk, Joe is waiting for his daughter, who is heading back to the island after playing a football match in Louisburgh.

The conversation is of shearing, of the recent lift in store lamb prices, of the twin calves his Simmental cow had this spring, and of last winter's atrocious storms.

It is the usual farming talk - you'd almost forget that it is farming in an exceptional environment.

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