Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 February 2018

John Shirley: Half a century later, the Borris ewe is still setting the standard

Some breeders only purchase Wicklow Cheviot
Some breeders only purchase Wicklow Cheviot

John Shirley

I thought the breed was even older than 50. That was my first reaction on hearing that the Borris Ewe Breeders are holding their 50th anniversary show and sale on Thursday, August 8 next.

Of course this area around the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains was probably stocked with sheep back to St Patrick's time. Old timers remember huge turnouts of sheep for the annual "Borris Fair" held every August 15 on the street of the town.

In 1963, a group of dedicated breeders got together, formed the Borris Ewe Breeders Association and began their show and sale at the new livestock mart beside Borris town.

And didn't they do well?

The Borris ewe became the country's Rolls Royce breeding ewe over the past five decades.

The name is established in sheep literature and terminology, in Northern Ireland as well as the south. At the peak of the sheep boom in the 1980s, Leinster Marts (owner of Borris Mart) sold 20,000 ewes over four breeder sales in August and early September. Customers literally came from every one of Ireland's 32 counties.

That's not bad for a handful of sheep producers from the side of a hill. Looking back, what were the ingredients of the breed's success?

Apart from the active support of the former Carlow chief agricultural officer, Tom Murray, the breeders got no input from outside.

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Like Frank Sinatra, the breeders did it their way.

They worked without the scientific recording that is provided today by ICBF's Sheep Ireland.

The fact that the core breeders remained a tightly knit group, not letting in too many outsiders, helped maintain standards and quality. The breed also cashed in on the great asset of hybrid vigour.

Actually the Borris Ewe started out as a white-faced sheep based on the Border Leicester cross Wicklow Cheviot. In the 1960s, it was said that you were more likely to see a Protestant at Mass than see a black-faced sheep at the Borris breeder show and sale.

But crossing the local white ewe with a Suffolk ram proved to be a match made in heaven, according to breeder Thomas McCarthy.

This cross brought extra growth, shape, milk and prolificacy, without sacrificing any longevity.

This was reflected in higher prices from customers.

Very quickly, the distinctive grey speckled ewe began to dominate the big Borris shows and sales and will do so again next week.

Borris ewe breeders are fewer in number today. Some source their foundation stock of white ewes for crossing with the Suffolk from Wicklow. Others, like the McCarthys, breed their own white ewes and only purchase Wicklow Cheviot and Suffolk rams. Either way, the conveyor belt for the Borris is still going. When you have a formula which has worked for 50 years, naturally you should be slow to make changes.

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