Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Sheep farming dependent on shear numbers

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

It was heartening to see the record crowds that flocked to the Clik Sheep Shearing Championships over the weekend. It's a sector that often felt like the poor relation to the other livestock sectors, a feeling that was compounded by the miserable returns from the enterprise at farm level for much of the last decade.

All that has changed for the time being though, and the sense of optimism is shining through events such as the Shearing at the weekend. Credit should go the way of the organisers, who took the gamble to think big at this year's site in Cillin Hill and it paid off in spades over the course of the two-day competition.

However, talking to farmers at the event, it was striking the number who quietly admitted that they were either ex-sheepmen or had scaled back numbers significantly over the last number of years.

And even with the huge demand for breeding stock in the marts at the moment, many seasoned observers believe that the sector may shrink even further to a national flock of 1.75 million ewes -- 2.25 million lower than it was just 10 years ago.

This is because despite a trebling of wool prices over the past two years and a 50pc increase in lamb prices, sheep farming is still not returning anything like what a dairy or tillage farmer is able to earn per hectare.

With the drive on for dramatic expansion in these sectors over the coming years, it's likely that sheep production will be increasingly relegated to the more marginal hill and mountain areas. At least the Brussels bureaucrats have now come full circle in realising that these areas need sheep to keep scrub at bay and are in the process of freeing up farmers to graze their stock in these habitats again.

But there are other difficult questions that the sheep sector needs to address. The uptake of technology in the sector has been limited to say the least. Just look at the average weaning rate- it remained unchanged at 1.3 lambs per ewe since the 1950s. Is there any other farm enterprise that has such an absence of improvement in performance?

Sectors that are at the cutting edge of technology tend to attract the young and ambitious. With sheep being one of the most physically demanding enterprises in farming, it relies on a steady supply of youth coming into the sector to keep it healthy long term.

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And while there were plenty of young, lean shearers to be found in Cillin Hill last weekend, the question is whether there will be the same concentration of them in 10 or 20 years' time.

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