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Commonage farmers given a hand up by SUAS initiative

Sustainability scheme is making a difference by incentivising locals to maintain mountains, one Wicklow sheep farmer tells Siobhán English

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Taking action: under the SUAS project, sheep farmers are paid to help keep the habitat managed properly for tourists and the animals

Taking action: under the SUAS project, sheep farmers are paid to help keep the habitat managed properly for tourists and the animals

Taking action: under the SUAS project, sheep farmers are paid to help keep the habitat managed properly for tourists and the animals

At this time of the year the Wicklow Mountains are looking their best, with thousands of sheep grazing among the vibrant heather across much of the 54,000 acres of this famous National Park.

However, few people think of the work that goes into maintaining this vast area all year-round.

Now, thanks to the new Sustainable Uplands Agriculture-environment Scheme (SUAS) project, sheep farmers such as Denis Halpin can make a difference by getting involved in controlled burning, cutting and other measures which are being taken to ensure the habitat is managed properly for tourists and the animals that graze here for much of the year.

"Sheep have grazed up here for years and it's true that some areas are neglected. The commonage here at Granamore is run by 10 farmers, and not everyone will agree at the same time, so until now it's been hard to get work carried out," Denis says.

Denis (pictured below) has farmed at Granamore for over 20 years, and his ancestors have been associated with the area for centuries. "My brother Jim did some research and discovered that the Halpin clan ruled all of Granamore, possibly up to the 1700s," he says.

After the Irish Land Act of 1931, a substantial piece of land was purchased from the Marquis of Waterford. It was subsequently divided out among numerous shareholders, one of whom was Denis' grandfather James Twomey.

Spanning over 11,000 acres, more recently Granamore has been managed by 10 shareholders, each of whom uses the area for grazing year round. Denis has grazing rights to 100 acres, but as this is open, unfenced commonage, sheep owned by all the farmers - around 900 - can roam freely as far as Glenmalure and Glendalough.

Denis inherited the original farm in 2000. At that time 45 acres of lowland was farmed by his uncle Christopher Twomey. Denis and his wife Ann have since purchased an additional 75 acres in the locality. "I bought my first piece of land at the age of 37," he says.

Sheep have been in this family for many years, and Denis continues the tradition with around 400 breeding ewes. Most are Cheviot and Cheviot-crosses, which are suited to the rough terrain on the mountain.

He also keeps about 15 beef cattle, but these numbers had been bigger before he was hit by TB and lost half the herd in one fell swoop.

"I went down with TB in 2000 when I just took over the farm. I had 45 cows at the time and lost 22 in one load. It was just too expensive to replace them," he says.

Denis admits that TB is a major problem in the area around Granamore - he says this is due to the presence of badgers and deer.

In the past 20 years he has seen a huge increase in the number of TB cases, and a dwindling in the numbers of sheep.

"Before I took over the commonage in the 1990s there was a lot more sheep up there. Then the recession hit. It's good to see numbers coming back up again, but slowly," he says.

"Some of the farmers here have to work full time so the 'shepherding scheme' set up by SUAS works well."

As Denis is a full-time farmer he has more time to check on stock and the sherpherding scheme sees him paid for checking on sheep owned by other farmers.

"It's a great incentive as through the SUAS project we also get paid for any work we do, like opening drains or strimming," he says.

Single Farm Payment

"We also get our Single Farm Payment on that land but we get penalised if burning is carried out outside of the designated dates."

Controlled burning is permitted between September 1 and February 28. Denis said that it has been much easier to carry out now under the supervision of SUAS.

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"Before now it was difficult to get anyone to light the match, but now we can have regular burning which is needed to stem the growth of bracken and heather," he explains.

For Denis, the lambing season begins in mid to late March.

"We divide the flock into three, with the multiples kept at home," he says. "We keep another 70 ewes on 20ac and another 150 on 34ac. All are on good lowland grass. The lambs are kept on the lowland and finished there, while the replacement hoggets are returned to the hill."

Last year's snowstorm was challenging; at one stage Denis was dealing with 10-foot drifts, so 2019 has been a better year all round.

"We averaged 1.6 lambs per ewe this year which was pretty good," he says. "We only have about 80 lambs sold so far, but the past few weeks have been difficult with Kildare Chilling closed. The option was to sell into the marts but prices are not as good, as we had been getting €4.70/kg."

While this time of year is relatively quiet on the farm, Denis said there is plenty of activity with the SUAS project, and they are extending off-road routes for the St Kevin's Way Pilgrimage, which follows in the footsteps of St Kevin from Hollywood to the monastic ruins in Glendalough, covering 30 kilometres.

"Currently hikers have to walk on the road for several miles out of Hollywood, but we are now hoping to open up some tracks between there and Granamore which will make it much safer," says Denis.

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