How supplying niche markets could help safeguard the future of hill sheep farmers in the west
What can be done along the western seaboard to try and stem the flow of people leaving farming? That was the question posed by Joe Scahill to farmers gathered for the Teagasc Hill Sheep Conference in Co Mayo.
The Westport farmer highlighted the information gathered by the Western Development Commission which showed a sharp falloff in people employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing in the region.
"In another 20 years if we have 40pc less again there won't be too many left," said the Zurich Farming Independent Sheep Farmer of the Year.
"I think if there was any species of wildlife in the country that the numbers were declining at the same rate as our farmers, I think they would be throwing money at them from Europe left, right and centre to save it. But there are no worries about us - we can dwindle away it looks like."
Mr Scahill, who built up his herd of 600 Scotch Blackface ewes and small flock of pedigree Blueface Leicester Ewes after leaving school at 13 to work the family's hill farm, called for more to be done to promote lamb as a healthy and convenient food.
He also called for a new farm early retirement scheme as many of those in their 50s or early 60s were in a "dilemma" over not being able to pass on the farm to the new generation until they reached retirement age.
Mr Scahill said it was vital that something is done for the light carcasses of 10-13kg coming off hill sheep. "I don't think anyone can think it is realistic to take €25-30 for mountain lambs and keep producing them," he said.
Michael Diskin from Teagasc Athenry described the hill sector was very diverse but it was "appalling" to see some of the prices that were being paid for store lambs.
Teagasc director Gerry Boyle said the hill sector has "significant untapped potential" for both mountain grazing and delivering crossbreds for lowland flocks.
Professor Boyle said the hill sheep sector plays a vital role in rural economies and also maintaining the natural landscape in many of Ireland's most scenic areas.
"Low output and often depressed markets for male store hill lambs has resulted in low margins for this sector," he told the packed conference.
"The hill ewe has significant untapped potential both in the hill environment and as the dam of prolific cross bred ewes for the lowlands."
In 2017 there were almost 2.94 million sheep processed in Irish factories with 57,000t of sheep meat exported at a value of €274m.
It is a 14pc increase in volume exported and a 12pc increase in the value of exports over 2016.
Hill breeds account for over a fifth of the national ewe flock, while a further 18pc of the flock are hill breed crosses.
Almost a third of the hill breed ewes are found in Galway and Mayo.
Teagasc's Frank Campion set out that crossbred ewe lambs by prolific rams are "highly attractive" to some lowland producers. He pointed out where the lambs are well bred they can "obtain prices far in excess" of a factory lamb.
"Niche marketing options like this, where viable, are vital to any sector but particularly the hill sector," he said.
A research paper pointed out that crossbreeding can deliver more saleable animals, lambs that are 3-4kg heavier at weaning, better performance during the finishing period and prolific females for sale to lowland farms.
John Walsh, general manager of Irish Country Meats in Camolin, said a "positive spin" highlighting the unmistakeable flavour could be put on hill lamb but consistency of supply was vital to access markets.
It was also highlighted that producer groups to market prolific crossbred ewe lambs and hill and crossbred males is something worth considering by hill sheep farmers.
Many purchasers prefer to buy directly from known sources and will pay extra for those that are vaccinated and have known high health status.
Mr Scahill said the Mayo Mule and Greyface group now have 60 members selling over 5,000 sheep in dedicated sales. He pointed out they were all vaccinated and produced to high standards. "Many buyers return every year knowing they will continue to find top quality breeding stock," he said.
Mr Walsh said the ideal market lamb is 18-20kg as retailers want produce that hits certain price points.
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