'It can be hard for women to get access to land'

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My Week Claire Fox talks to Sinead Cusack

Sheep and suckler farmer Sinead Cusack always says that her biggest farming achievement is that she is "still farming".

In the early 2000s, farmers on the Nephin Owen Duff range commonage, where Sinead farms, were forced to reduce their sheep flocks due to overgrazing regulation from the EU. This dramatically decreased Sinead's Mayo Blackface flock from 100 ewes to 30.

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"It was a tough time. Luckily we had the REPS scheme payments at the time that kept us afloat, and in 2012 we were allowed increase our stock again even though there is a cap on the amount we can have," she says.

Sinead, 44, now has 70 Mayo Blackface ewes on 100 hectares in Burrishoole near Newport, Co Mayo and also helps her dad with his 200-ewe flock. They also have a suckler herd that consists of a mix of Charolais, Limousin and Shorthorn, plus Sinead's beloved Highland cow, Isabelle.

Sinead Cusack
Sinead Cusack

"My dad did a tour in the UK with the local farming group and loved the Highland cows. We then decided we would buy one and bought Isabelle from a farm in Perthshire as we know people over there.

"They are truly beautiful cows and there's a beautiful calf out of them. We hope to get a good calf out of her in spring 2020 by AI."

Calving and lambing time is Sinead's favourite time of the year as animal welfare and making sure animals are born properly is something that is important to her.

"Nothing makes me happier than having a lamb delivered safely. Luckily the suckler cows are good mothers and are able to calve on their own, but I always keep an eye out and step in if necessary," she says.

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Sinead is hopeful that the beef price crisis "settles down" but understands both sides of the argument.

"I can see it from some farmers' point of view because it is hard when you're not getting a good price for your product. It's important that people take a stand," she says.

"But I do see that sheep farmers and cattle farmers out there want to sell stock and they can't because they can't get in to the factory. I hope it settles soon because I am worried that we would lose a market that we sell our beef to if it continues."

Sinead also feels there is a lot of pressure on suckler farmers to reduce numbers but doesn't believe that any reduction would have a major impact in her area.

"Sucklers have always been around in our community. People don't have big numbers so I don't think they would be able to reduce much anyway," she says.

"There are more dairy cattle out there and they are increasing all the time so it's the bigger farmers that may be impacted."

The phrase 'farming is the backbone of the west of Ireland' gets bandied about a lot, and Sinead agrees that agriculture plays an integral part of the community in her area.

Community spirit

"There's great community spirit here on the commonage. When we bring down our lambs from the hills, all of the farmers help each other out and bring a few of each other's down to lighten the load," she says.

In 1996, Sinead says she was lucky to be able to inherit her grand-uncle Tommy's farm but she acknowledges this isn't always the case for female farmers out there.

"It can be hard for women to get access to land. Women are continuously on the farm but sometimes they don't step out and allow themselves to get recognition," she says.

Sinead's friends and neighbours were keen for her to get recognition for her dedication to agriculture, with one friend nominating her for the Corrib Oil Women in Farming Awards during the summer.

"I got a call from David in Corrib Oil in July that I was among the finalists for the competition. My friend Fiona Murphy had nominated me. I couldn't believe it as awards are things that I wouldn't be in to," she says.

"In August then the judges came to visit my farm they put me through my paces. I didn't mind the questions but I couldn't believe then when I reached the final."

The finals took place at the Ploughing, and Sinead beat off stiff competition to be crowned the winner.

"I really was surprised when I won because the other two finalists are both doing great work on their own farms. We are all doing our best and trying to make a few pound," she says.

"I've been blown away by all the support and well wishes and phone calls I've received from people. It's taking getting used to but has been a great experience."

As well as farming, Sinead plays a central role in organising the Burrishoole Walking Festival, which takes place every June Bank Holiday.

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