Farm Ireland

Monday 22 January 2018

Inmates help Bóthar make inroads in africa

Sending dairy cows to poor villages is transforming lives. By Caitriona Murphy

Some of the Irish heifers settle in to a new home in Rwanda
Some of the Irish heifers settle in to a new home in Rwanda
Shelton Abbey in Co Wicklow is now an open prison for male inmates aged 19 years and over - and prisoners are given the task of looking after the Bothar heifers
Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

'I would like to be able to eat food every day," the Rwandan villager told Bóthar chief executive Peter Ireton. The man had been asked what was his greatest wish, what was his biggest ambition, in the world?

"I was lost for words, that just got to me," recalls Peter. "But this is the level for the families we are working with."

Now in its 26th year, Bóthar has its origins in the city of Limerick, where it began as a way to mark the 300th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in 1991. It's first mission was to send as many dairy cows as possible to Africa.

During the intervening years, the charity has grown, expanded, learned and taught more about livestock micro-farming . Today it is working to alleviate poverty in 35 countries worldwide using 16 different species of animals. It works with project partners including US-based Heifer International, a Dutch-based group, Heifer Nederland, Send a Cow in Britain and Elevages Sans Frontieres in France.

Two years ago saw a new phase begin in Bóthar's development when it launched a campaign looking for a dairy heifer calf from each county of Ireland to be donated. The idea was that the prison inmates at Shelton Abbey, Co Wicklow, Ireland's only open prison facility, would rear the heifer calves. The calves would be artificially inseminated and flown to their new home in Rwanda as in-calf two-year-old heifers.

As it happened, Irish farmers reacted so generously that the campaign was over subscribed. In the end, 70 heifer calves were donated to the cause.

"The generosity of all those who donated calves and others who subscribed to buy calves for other projects was overwhelming," recalls Peter.


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For the inmates of Shelton Abbey, rearing dairy calves was a whole new challenge. Prison officer Thomas Gregan is the industrial supervisor at Shelton Abbey and supervises all the farm work. A native of Tinahely, he previously worked as a prison officer at Mountjoy and Clover Hill.

"There are 55ac of farmland here at Shelton Abbey and another 25ac of grounds surrounding the house," says Thomas. "This is a working farm and we have polytunnels where we grow all the bedding plants for the Irish Prison Service, and 150 free-range hens that supply our own kitchen."

Shelton Abbey first became involved with Bóthar when a batch of goats were housed there for a three-week quarantine. However, the arrival of the first bunch of dairy heifers was a momentous occasion.

"They arrived at six weeks old and housed in straw-bedded sheds here on the farm," he says.

"From the moment they arrived, the prisoners were responsible for everything from feeding to bedding, weaning, dosing, herd tests, you name it.

"Obviously as prison officers, we do not work seven days a week so there are times when we are not here. It is the prisoners' responsibility to keep the farm going and make sure the animals are fed and checked."

The farm work is done on a voluntary basis by the Shelton Abbey inmates and a core group of five prisoners work solely with the heifers, while a further 15 inmates work on the grounds. However, other inmates help out from time to time, and at busy times, such as for herd testing, all hands are called upon.

"Some of the lads are from inner city Dublin and Limerick and would never have seen a cow in the flesh," adds Thomas.

"But others might be from the country or even a farming background."

The prisoners' commitment to the farm has been notable and the industrial supervisor credits them with saving the Bóthar heifers from a pneumonia outbreak last year.

"We lost one heifer but only that the prisoners contacted the officers and insisted on calling the vet one weekend, the whole herd would have gone down," he says.

"I can't emphasise enough how much they do on the farm. They are literally our eyes and ears on the farm."

During their second year at the Wicklow prison, the heifers were put in-calf to Holstein Friesian bulls, sourced from Progressive Genetics. Again, heat detection was the responsibility of the inmates.

The Bóthar/Shelton Abbey collaboration managed to achieve the open prison aims of promoting trust and self-development, and providing practical learning, insisted prison director general Brian Purcell.

The two-year project culminated in the airlift of 70 heifers from Shannon Airport to their new home in Rwanda last month. But before they left, their former owners were given a chance to visit Shelton Abbey to see the calves they had donated two years previously.


Today, the heifers are beginning to acclimatise to their new home in central Africa.

The heifers have been gifted to individual families in different villages in Rwanda as part of a campaign to develop self-sufficiency in local communities.

The Rwandan climate is a temperate tropical highland one, with typical daily temperatures of 14-25 C and two rainy seasons, from February to June and September to December.

The heifers are all in-calf and are housed in units not unlike slatted sheds to protect them from the sun and rain. Each unit contains a resting area, milking area, exercise area, feeding area and calving area.

Their diet has changed dramatically from the lush Irish swards of perennial ryegrass and clover to a combination of elephant grass, calliandra and leucaena, which is cut and fed to them on a zero-grazing system.

While the heifers might have seen elephant grass or miscanthus before, its use as an energy crop here in Ireland means they have never tasted it.

Callinadra is a flowering plant from the pea family that is native to tropical regions in Africa and is more commonly known as the 'Powder Puff' or 'Fairy Duster'. The highly nutritious leaves of this shrub-type plant are cut off and fed to the heifers.

Leucaena is another flowering plant that the charity has been encouraging farmers to grow not just for its nutritional value.

Native to the Americas, it has a variety of uses, including livestock fodder, green manure and soil conservation. Like clover, it is a nitrogen-fixer and so has additional environmental benefits.

When the heifers calf down, their offspring will be given to other families in the locality. Heifer calves are used for milk and calf production, while bull calves are used for breeding and, later, beef.

Although the heifer calves are highly sought after by families, an Irish-bred AI bull calf is also extremely valuable because of his genetics, and they are often crossbred with local cows to breed cows that are hardy like the native population but better milk producers like their Irish relations.

Bóthar's Mr Ireton believes the gift of an Irish cow can transform Rwandan lives.

"'We were peasants before but now our pockets are full of money'," a Rwandan farmer once told Peter.

"He was still living in a mud hut and dressed in rags but he was the happiest man in Rwanda," says Peter. "This is a wonderful project to be involved in."

Irish Independent