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'Due to air miles, it is increasingly important to source your food locally'

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Jonathan Higgins may not see himself pursuing a career as a full-time farmer, but the UCD animal science graduate is doing his part to promote Irish lamb and Irish sheep farming.

Having spent the past few months as an ambassador for the European campaign, 'Lamb. Try it. Love it', this week the 24-year-old from Skreen, Co Sligo embarks on a three-month stint in New Zealand, where he will continue his research as part of his PhD in sheep farming, the results of which he hopes will help improve the sustainability of sheep farming at a local level.

Jonathan spent this past spring carrying out tests on sheep at home but will now spend the next few months on the farm of Massey University in Palmerston.

"I love farming and I have spent so much time helping out at home, but I am very interested in the research side of it," he says. "I completed my degree in 2018 and decided to do a PhD in sheep farming, which will take four years to complete."

Jonathan began his studies on the Lyons Research Farm, which is run by UCD, and during the lambing season at home in March carried out various experiments. The flock includes commercial ewes and pedigree Texels.

"My father Philip runs a 450-ewe farm so I was able to do a wide range of tests, some of which included comparing different feeds, recording milk volume over a period of 24 hours, and following lambs until weaning," he says.

The primary focus of his research is to compare a traditional grass-based production system with a system comprising grasses, forage crops and multi-species swards with three prolific sheep breeds, looking at an increased litter size to the national average for maximising a farm's production.

In New Zealand he will continue his research by examining their various forages, and how they utilise them.

"I also hope to get out to a few of the bigger farms, and in addition look at their export market and how the meat fares after travelling to this side of the world considering it takes us 30 hours by plane," he says.

Some 80 tonnes of sheep meat was imported into Ireland from New Zealand in 2016.

"Due to the current economic climate we need to do more," Jonathan says. "We rely so much on imports, and prices for Irish meat are not brilliant at the moment. Brexit is also a big unknown so we need to improve the product we are producing."

In recent months Jonathan has also been working alongside Bord Bia for the 'Lamb. Try it. Love it' campaign aimed at raising awareness as to the health benefits of eating lamb.

"Sadly lamb is not accessible to some people - you will never see it alongside beef or chicken at a takeaway," he says.

"Also some cuts can be time-consuming to cook, but there are more options now available, such as cutlets and lamb mince, which are quick and easy to prepare, especially for young people on the go."

Jonathan is highlighting the importance of supporting local producers.

"As consumers are becoming more aware of 'food miles' and the carbon footprint of imported foods, it is becoming increasingly important to source your food locally," he says.

Given the challenges farmers face, many young people of his generation may turn to part-time jobs to supplement their income, and Jonathan is no different.

"I regularly help out on the farm at home, but I do not see myself working as a farmer full-time down the road," he says.

"My interest lies in research and I learn something new every day, whether that's to do with farm and land management or hygiene, so hopefully I'll be able to return to farm on a part-time capacity in the future."

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