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.