Mountain rescue - how hill farmers are fighting to preserve their way of life

Hill and commonage farmers in the Blackstairs and Cooley Mountains are determined to preserve their way of life

Blackstairs Mountains' farmers Thomas Mc Carthy, Larry Farrell, Peter Rose, Martin Shannon. Photo Roger Jones.
Blackstairs Mountains' farmers Thomas Mc Carthy, Larry Farrell, Peter Rose, Martin Shannon. Photo Roger Jones.
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

'It's my field. I nursed it. I nourished it. I dug the rocks out with my bare hands and made a living thing of it." This quote by Bull McCabe in John B Keane's famous play The Field rings true for all farmers, but perhaps particularly so for upland farmers.

While upland farming has been hit by poor prices in recent years, groups of farmers around the country are determined to preserve their way of farming the land.

One such group is the Blackstairs Farming Group, which includes areas in the mountain range that straddles Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford and Wicklow.

Chairperson of the group is suckler farmer Martin Shannon, who farms outside the village of Kiltealy on the Wexford-Carlow border.

He says that the group was formed in an effort to halt the decline of upland farming in the area and to improve the economic viability of the whole community.

"We want to bring commonage farmers together and highlight what can be done, including encouraging tourism and hillwalking," he says.

"We don't expect to move mountains, we just want to improve the situation in the community and make it better.

"The whole area has to be involved, not just farmers."

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Martin says the success of the BurrenLife project in Clare hugely informed their project and inspired them to successfully acquire funding from the Wexford authorities and the Heritage Council to carry out research on the type of farming activities and wildlife habitats that are in the Blackstairs area.

"We went to the Burren and saw the great changes they had made.

Blackface Mountain sheep
Blackface Mountain sheep

"The changes took about 20 years, though, and I'd like to see our project get underway in the next five years, so it'll happen in my lifetime of farming," he says.

This five-year plan came to life late last year when the group secured €1.5m worth of European Innovation Partnership funding from the Department of Agriculture to put their Blackstairs Farming Futures project into place.

"The project will involve us opening an office in the village of Rathanna, Co Carlow, where we will employ an agriculture scientist," says Martin.

"Farmers will then be able to apply to get fencing, build stone ditches, build pathways for hillwalkers and do work to improve habitats of wildlife on the Blackstairs."

And while the money is small when you take the 70 sq km size of the Blackstairs in to account, Martin says farmers in the area are hopeful it will help make hill farming more profitable and attractive to hand down to younger generations.

"Numbers of hill farmers are dwindling and there are less young farmers in the hills," he says.

"Many have part-time jobs and young people are moving out.

"But farmers are showing a great interest and it proves that everything and anything can help. If we get €1.5m, that is then spent in the area in terms of shops and petrol stations and other services."

Martin adds that his concern is one day that hill commonages will be taken over by shepherds managing the entire area as there aren't enough young farmers getting involved.

However, there are still around 60 upland farmers in the Blackstairs and Martin hopes that this tradition continues, because hill farming is a family affair and "isn't something that can be learned in an agricultural college".

"It's handed down to you from generation to generation. The sheep that are in commonages are a special type of breed. A lot of co-operation is involved in being a commonage farmer. There is mixing of sheep and everybody helps out each other. We'd hate to see that lost," he says.

And while the eight-month winter is hopefully over, Martin says that the fodder crisis was a struggle for farmers in the Blackstairs and many are "still fighting".

"It was an extremely difficult winter. Neighbours helped each other - if someone had a surplus they'd give it to someone who has a deficit," he says.

In the last two years, the Blackstairs group have held a showcase in Rathanna promoting farming and different local enterprises such as arts and crafts in the area.

"The area is alive and kicking and we're hoping to achieve as much as we can to make the area as sustainable and viable as possible.

"Talk is cheap, we could talk forever but at the end of the day, we hope to see a change for the community," says Martin.

'It was handed to us in good stead and we want to be able to do the same'

A new project hopes to put the dark past of the Troubles behind farmers and the wider community of the Cooley Mountains and peninsula in Louth.

Louth IFA chair Mathew McGreehan is a sheep farmer in Glenmore on the peninsula, and is spearheading a project in the area which hopes to inject a new lease of life in to the Cooley Mountains.

The project would involve the removal of bracken and scrub in areas of the Cooley Mountains that are hampering hill sheep farming and, in turn, create more tourism in the form of hillwalking.

“It’s hard to manage sheep on hills with bracken. Sheep get lost in them when they reach 6ft high in the summer,” he says.

“We’d like to be able to control bracken and hope farmers can, in return, get money for providing a public good. We want to get the mountains back on track.

“Most of it is in good shape but some areas need tackling.”

However, the project will only go ahead if the group get funding from the Department as part of the European Innovation Partnership programme.

“We hope to get funding as we feel it would be a positive news story for the area as we had the Troubles here,” says Mathew.

“It would help increase tourism in the area. We’re an ideal location between Belfast and Dublin.

“If we can make changes to the mountains, farmers will be able to diversify and see money on the ground.”

Mathew says he was eight years old when he bought his own sheep, and hopes that by protecting the biodiversity of the mountains he’ll be able to pass the tradition on to his family.

“Sheep have been on these hills for generations. They were handed down to us in good stead and we want to be able to do the same,” he says.

“It’s not easy, incomes are very low, but we hope by doing this we can create opportunities for farmers.”

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