How the latest science is keeping some of Ireland's oldest and rarest breeds alive
It’s almost nine years now since Mayo farmer Seán Carolan read an article by English historian Ray Werner who claimed that Ireland has a native, primitive breed of goat.
“I raised an eyebrow,” he recalls today. “How could I not know about this or have never read anything about this?”
He and his farming friends brought Mr Werner across the Irish Sea in January 2011 to speak, and the man has been over here about 40 times since, all the while carrying out a number of DNA tests on the putative old Irish goats to establish that this was, indeed, a distinct breed and probably dated back to neolithic times, to when Irish land was first used for farming.
“They’re kind of extinct, really,” Seán says. “There’s only a handful of people who would have them. They’re not even officially recognised yet as a breed, although in fairness the Department seems to informally recognise the breed.”
The Old Irish Goat, to give it the capital letters title, is a small, long-haired goat with 12 different colour patterns, making it more difficult to conserve as those involved would like to see all of those colour possibilities staying alive.
Based in Mulranny in Co Mayo, Seán Carolan uses his herd of over 30 goats for conservation grazing and, internationally, primitive goats of different sorts have been found to be ideal for this sort of activity.
“We’re hoping to find an economic use for them,” he explains. “In Spain they are recognised as being extraordinarily beneficial in terms of grazing management.” Even in London, primitive breeds are used for such purposes.
Seán also has sheep and while he has a walled garden on his land which is ideal in which to keep his goats, he says they can and do get on just fine in a “normal farm scenario” as they are hardy, independent types.
“Like most livestock, if they’re happy in the space they’re in, they’ll stay there. Good feed and good water, they’re the important things.”
So as one of the brains behind the Irish Rare Breeds Conference, now in its second year and taking place in his own Mulranny, why does Seán stay interested in keeping the Old Irish Goat bloodline alive?
“They’re an ancient Irish land-based breed, up there with the Kerry cow, and go back to the beginning of farming in Ireland. It’s hugely important to keep the breed going.”
Tucked away in little pockets of our countryside and our farms, among the “mainstream” breeds of cows, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats which provide much of our beloved animal-based foods, are herds and flocks of rare breeds, sometimes endangered species which can trace their lineage over a millennium back in time but whose bloodlines may not even last for a few more decades without a bit of help.
It’s for such a reason that the Old Irish Goat Society, in association with the Irish Rare Breeds Society, put together the first ever Irish Rare Breeds Conference and while over 100 delegates attended the inaugural event, organisers hope even more will come along to the 2018 version, taking place in Mulranny, Co Mayo, from May 24 to 26.
Those who keep quantities of rare breeds, big or small, will gather to discuss their animals, the advances being made all the time in genetic science, ideas to promote breeding, and ways to encourage Government assistance to keep the breeds alive.
“Ireland has a very, very peculiar list of animals, a few recognised endangered species,” Mark McConnell, chairman of the rare breeds society points out.
“I reckon that, while they are endangered, with the use of modern DNA technology we can preserve most, if not all, of the important genetics.”
Meanwhile, in the run-up to this year’s conference, Donegal-based Mark is putting out a call with a very specific purpose: “I’m looking to take a DNA sample from an Irish Game fowl that someone has sitting in a glass case after taxidermy so I can cross-reference with today’s birds. The more evidence that I can provide of their existence the better as I’m also trolling the museum to see if some of our kings were buried with them.”
Those of us of a certain generation may remember the song Droimeann Donn Dílis reverberating around the classroom as our teachers bravely tried to preserving this little corner of Irish culture in some young minds.
While it would be stretching it to say that the old Irish lament (weren’t they all?) inspired Tom Keane to get into the rare breed game, the Co Limerick farmer is nevertheless committed to preserving another niche of our heritage, namely Droimeann cattle.
Tom, and others of similar persuasion, will be attending next month’s Irish Rare Breeds conference to discuss the latest developments in flying the flag for our rare breed animals and making sure they have a future.
There are only a few hundred Droimeann cattle in Ireland at the moment, and Tom is the most prolific owner of them, with about 80 on his farm by the Shannon estuary.
“My parents are from north Kerry and that’s the last redoubt,” he says of the breed’s origins.
“They were, at one stage, a common cow all over Ireland but as the centuries progressed they were just in one small pocket of Kerry. Some used make their way up to north Kerry and Limerick and there would be a few in the herds years ago.”
Tom became immersed in this breed back in 2001 when his brother saw an ad in the paper for Irish moiled cattle and, when he visited the seller Jill Smith, found she had some Droimeann cattle as well and decided to take them.
Years ago, there seemed little interest in the Department of Agriculture in preserving the likes of Droimeann cattle or encouraging breeders, but there’s been something of a mindshift in recent times, with a realisation that biodiversity is something to be promoted along with a revolution in the genetic science which allows particular genomes to be isolated and identified.
In the years to come, with help from the likes of Donagh Berry at Teagasc Moorepark and Paul Flynn of Weatherby’s, the purer animals will be identified genetically, and owners will be able to know how closely related any bull is to the female cohort, making for better breeding.
Mostly they are used for beef purposes, although a handful across the country - including Tom’s brother Michael - milk the Droimeanns, which in the past were usually dairy cows before becoming meat specialists.
Droimeann owners formed a co-operative in 2016 and formal recognition of the breed is expected before long, so progress is being made towards ensuring the future of these cattle.
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