'Tradition' trumping economics to keep hill farmers on the land

So many factors are stacked against the ageing owners of our upland sheep farms, but a sense of attachment compels them to battle on, new academic research finds

Status: Social identity and one's standing in the community are important factors in keeping farmers on the hills
Status: Social identity and one's standing in the community are important factors in keeping farmers on the hills
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

Why would bachelor farmers with no successors continue to work difficult hill farms, even when it is uneconomical to do so?

That's the question Dr Eileen O'Rourke of UCC looked at when she researched the factors behind land abandonment in Irish uplands.

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Politicians and society in general face a choice on whether they want to maintain a lived-in countryside in our uplands or an abandoned one, she says.

She finds that the root cause of all the issues facing the uplands is that agriculture is not economically viable in these areas.

"The fragility of both the community and hill farming system is driven by a lack of economic viability, along with an inability to supplement farm income by either off-farm work or farm-diversification," she says.

"This, along with an ageing population, lack of successors, geographic isolation and poor infrastructure, means that the once tightly coupled social-ecological system is unravelling."

Dr O'Rourke's research concentrated on a typical Irish mountain valley in Munster - to protect the identities of the people surveyed, she does not want to give any more details of the location - and is based on seven months of fieldwork.

"It is quite an isolated study, but it is quite representative of the national picture," she says. "I didn't expect to find these farmers to be so isolated."

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But these farmers have a strong attachment to their home place, and there is also a powerful sense of tradition and duty. They are traditionalists, she says.

From the interviews she conducted, it became clear that the hill sheep farmers' social identity and perceived standing in the community are still linked to being an active farmer with a large flock size.

"Certain family names were always associated with being big farmers, and it is perceived to be important to be carrying on that family tradition, as well as maintaining the family name on the land," Dr O'Rourke says. "The interviews indicate that the overwhelming motivation for the majority of farmers in the valley is 'tradition'.

"They want to fulfil the inherited responsibilities entrusted on them by their parents and their parents before them, regardless of the shifting policy/subsidy environment that ultimately dictates the viability of their farms."

Dr O'Rourke finds a general consensus that the situation is at a "tipping point", and that the current generation of hill farmers will be the last to farm the mountain in the way they have traditionally done for generations, albeit with adaptations.

"I was frequently reminded that 'soon there will be no one here' and that the mountain 'will go wild', meaning out of human control," she says.

In terms of output, the mountains are struggling to keep up with the requirements of the market, Dr O'Rourke says.

"In the past, it was semi-subsistence. They had their turf as fuel, they grew their own vegetable gardens, and they had the mutton from the hills," she says. "Nowadays, though, the mountains can't finish young lambs at the weight and age processors are demanding."

There is no demand for the older hoggets that were traditionally produced on the mountains.

"We no longer want the products from places like this, but we want the by-proucts of the farming system," Dr O'Rourke says.

"We want to maintain the countryside, graze the hills, prevent fire, but is a disconnect between what the mountain can produce and what the market demands."

Dr O'Rourke stresses the importance of tourism in upland areas and highlighted the often unrecognised contribution of farmers to the industry.

"Tourists come for the landscape," she notes. "Most drive around and get these tour buses to the Ring of Kerry or the Wild Atlantic Way. But they don't want to see a deserted countryside.

"A cultural landscape requires management. These farmers have the skills and the knowledge to maintain the landscape but they need to be rewarded for doing so."

Hill farmers are essentially using their income from EU payments to subsidise their loss-making sheep and cattle enterprises, with bought-in feedstuffs being their biggest farm expenditure.


They were asked why they continue to carry large stock numbers, when under the current decoupled Single Farm Payment, it would be more profitable for them to live from subsidies.

They unanimously replied that they could not do that, they are farmers after all, and they have to "produce a product".

They also said they had to have a reason for "getting out of bed in the morning".

Dr O'Rourke says that if the environmental goods and services of the this farming system are to be maintained by agricultural subsidies, notably agri-environment payments, will need to be more targeted and evidence-based.

"Currently, it is the larger production-oriented farms that receive the highest payments from both pillars of the CAP," she points out.

Dr O'Rourke says issues of land abandonment and depopulation in these areas need a broader approach than a solely agricultural one.

"It's also important that there is a wider rural development. During the economic boom, a lot of these farmers worked in the construction sector. These small hill farmers are not going to provide a viable living for a young family; someone is going to need an off-farm income. It is vitally important there is employment in the wider rural area. That requires political will."

As for the farmers, while she highlights their vulnerability, Dr O'Rourke describes them as very resilient.

"These farmers accept change. I would ask them how they feel after all of their hard work over the years, and now there is no one to follow on.

"'They say that is the way it is and 'we have done our bit'. The important thing for them is that they have done what they can in their lifetime," she says.

'Women opted for emigration over the poverty and drudgery of hill farms'

None of the hill farmers interviewed felt isolated either geographically or socially, even though they could go for days without meeting anyone.

Indeed, Dr O'Rourke finds that many of the farmers expressed a delight of returning home to the tranquillity of their mountain and sheep after a noisy day in town.

However, she notes that the few people who have married into the valley, especially two mothers with young families, see things differently.

"They feel strongly the difficulty of bringing up a family in such a geographically isolated place with poor services," she says.

In her study she notes that when children start school, they have to be driven in and out of the valley a few times a day to catch the school bus.

The mothers also claim that the lack of services in the valley, in particular, internet access, puts their children at a further disadvantage, with one opting to drive her kids back into town in the evening so that they could access internet, which is often necessary for school homework, in a friend's house.

Frayed social system

"The social system has also frayed in these areas, Dr O'Rourke says.

"In the past, farmers always collected the sheep together from the uplands.

"They did the dipping and the shearing together. There is no more of that.

"A lot of the farmers are older now. I spoke to one farmer who could no longer go in the mountains. It has become more isolated and individualistic."

Dr O'Rourke also says the concentration of bachelor farmers, often caring for elderly parents, is striking.

"This trend commenced some time ago when it is said that many women refused to marry into the perceived drudgery and poverty of hill farms, preferring instead to emigrate," she says.

"This along with depopulation marked the start of the fraying of social resilience in the valley."

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