Sheep still a vital enterprise for upland areas and the west

Over 30pc of the breeding ewe flock are mountain ewes
Over 30pc of the breeding ewe flock are mountain ewes
Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

The latest sheep census report confirms the importance of the sheep sector for Irish farming.

Although the number of sheep farmers dropped by almost 600 between 2017 and last year, there are still over 35,000 flock owners in Ireland.

The bulk of the sheep numbers are held in flocks along the western seaboard, and also in upland areas in the east and southeast.

The county-by-county breakdown (left) illustrates the importance of sheep to the local economy in these parts of the country.

As the table shows, Donegal continues to have the highest number of sheep, with 504,000 in 6,000 flocks. Mayo has the next highest number with 418,000, followed by 409,000 in Galway. Kerry has 320,000, while Wicklow has 240,000.

Dublin, Clare and Limerick are the counties with the lowest number of sheep.

Overall sheep numbers were back in 2018, falling from 3.87m in 2017 to 3.73m last year. This is a reduction of 140,000 or 4pc.

Despite the latest reversal in numbers, the Irish flock has registered significant growth since 2009 when overall sheep numbers were just above 3m.

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The census also highlighted a reduction in the breeding ewe flock last year. The number of ewes fell by almost 90,000 head in 2018 or around 3.2pc, dropping from 2.65m to 2.56m.

Interestingly, however, the breakdown in breeding ewe numbers illustrates the importance of the mountain flock to overall numbers. Indeed, over 30pc of the breeding ewe flock, or 800,000 head, are mountain ewes.

A further 18pc, or 448,000, are mountain crosses, while 513,000 or 20pc are lowland ewes, and 800,000 or 31pc are lowland cross ewes.

Although, total exports of sheep meat last year topped €315m, with 70,000t shipped to overseas markets, sheep

farmer incomes are among the worst in the farm sector.

Teagasc's National Farm Survey for 2018 showed that average sheep farmer income fell by a fifth, dropping from €17,357 in 2017 to €13,769 last year.

Falling incomes have fuelled the exodus from the sheep sector, with the census confirming that around 12 sheep farmers a week walked away from the sector last year. The farm organisations have warned that the drop in ewe numbers must be a wake-up call for the factories and the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed. They blame falling incomes, the lack of adequate direct payment supports, and the imposition of compulsory EID tagging for farmers exiting the business.

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