Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 17 July 2018

'There's tradition at work here' - Hill farmers attempt to secure their future with new brand

Brendan Joyce on his farm at Maam Cross, Co Galway. He is the 10th generation of his family to farm sheep in Connemara. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Brendan Joyce on his farm at Maam Cross, Co Galway. He is the 10th generation of his family to farm sheep in Connemara. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Alex Meehan

Ever spent any time driving in Connemara? If you have, the odds are you've seen the ubiquitous local black-faced mountain sheep up close.

These free-range animals roam over large parts of the west coast of Ireland as well as in Waterford and Tipperary and are perfectly adapted to life on the hillsides and mountains where other breeds of sheep can't cope.

However, farmers working with these animals have a problem: how to create a market for them when the most popular lamb on the market comes from larger, heavier lowland sheep. That's why farmers have grouped together to launch a scheme to market mountain lamb into Europe, capitalising on the positive image created by the Wild Atlantic Way abroad.

"What a lot of people might not know is that hill lamb is smaller than its lowland cousin. The classic French lamb that thrives in lowland areas weighs in at around 16 to 22kg when it is killed and goes to market. A hill lamb, by comparison, averages only between 10 and 15kg, which is why they're sometimes called light lambs," says Brendan Joyce, a 10th generation sheep farmer from Connemara.

As well as coming from a long line of sheep farmers, Joyce is the vice president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), which has put together a deal with Kepak and Bord Bia that will see 400 light lambs a week killed for markets in Europe from August 1. The lamb is to be marketed as Atlantic Hill Lamb, and outlets for it have already been identified in Scandinavia and Italy.

"The thing about light lamb is that there's obviously a bit less of it. It grows slower and takes longer to mature. However, we would argue strongly that it has a superior flavour to make up for this. Mountain lamb already has a great reputation with chefs in Ireland, and personally I believe that these lambs are more flavoursome," says Mr Joyce.

There are 'significant' but as of yet unrealised market opportunities for hill sheep farmers say Teagasc. Photo: Brian Joyce
There are 'significant' but as of yet unrealised market opportunities for hill sheep farmers say Teagasc. Photo: Brian Joyce

That argument is easy to grasp. Light lambs live in the wilds of Ireland's hills and mountains and have some unique selling points.

"They eat wild herbs, heathers and grasses and live in wild environments up on a mountain. They are a product of their habitat. They're an extremely robust species, and that means they don't need much intervention in terms of medications and so on, so you're talking about a healthy end product," says Mr Joyce.

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"We're technically not allowed to call them organic - a lot of our farmers share commonage with other farmers, so it's not possible to get an official stamp of organic provenance -but to all intents and purposes these lambs are. A lot of our members farming in the mountains are effectively organic in everything but name."

The problem for light lamb farmers in recent years is that there hasn't really been any market for them. Due to their smaller sizes and problems with fat coverage, many were held over until older and killed as hogget.

Clare Island
Clare Island

Recession

"Around 12 to 15 years ago there used to be a great market for light lamb in Europe because the Spanish and the Portuguese weren't self-sufficient and they liked smaller animals, so a lot of our light lamb went there. But that changed. Those countries became self-sufficient and on top of that the recession arrived," says Mr Joyce.

"A lot of companies didn't want to trade with Spain and Portugal because there was a risk that they wouldn't get paid at this time. The result of all this is that many light lamb farmers are producing lambs in the hills only to sell them on to other farmers that take them on as older sheep because they didn't have the ability to sell them directly themselves."

Colm O'Donnell reads aloud a letter to An Taoiseach on behalf of hill sheep farmers who staged a protest outside Enda Kenny's constituency office in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin
Colm O'Donnell reads aloud a letter to An Taoiseach on behalf of hill sheep farmers who staged a protest outside Enda Kenny's constituency office in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photo: Michael McLaughlin

Hill farmers frequently don't have the lowland grazing ground needed to finish lambs up to a higher weight.

When lambs come off the mountain and are weaned off their ewes, the farmer has to make a decision: they can either sell them straight off the mountain for whatever they can get or start intensively feeding them to try to get their weight up. A third option is to sell them off as stores.

"Those aren't attractive options if you're farming because they lead to poor returns," says Mr Joyce.

A further challenge for farmers like Mr Joyce is that they are severely limited by geography. Unlike lowland farmers who get into financial difficulty, they can't change focus and try a different kind of farming. Their land isn't suitable for cultivation, and only limited breeds of animals will live there.

Herd of Black Face sheep grazing on cliffs at the westcoast of Ireland.
Herd of Black Face sheep grazing on cliffs at the westcoast of Ireland.

"As a farmer who farms the hills, there is no alternative. Normal sheep can't live in these environments so it's about making the best of what you've got. In my case, I'm the third generation farming on my particular farm, and I'm the tenth generation of my family farming sheep in Connemara," says Mr Joyce.

"There have been no female sheep brought into our flock since 1951, when my grandfather took up the location. Those ewe lambs are replaced year on year and there's tradition at work here.

"Bringing new sheep in would be very difficult because they wouldn't have been raised in the hills and be as used to it. That ability evolves over many generations."

In 2017, hill lambs were sold in marts up and down the western seaboard for between €25 and €35 each.

Mr Joyce and the INHFA's ambition is that its members could improve their product, develop new markets and see that figure rise.

"If we could bring that lamb to a certain well-achievable quality, it could go for between €60 and €70. That's potentially massive for us," he says.

"We've sat down with our farmers and agreed that if we are all collectively going to go for this market, then at all times we need to keep a consistently high level of quality and produce correctly-graded lamb.

"We've also gone a little bit further and sat down with the factories and with Bord Bia to see exactly what they want and what the market wants."

With discipline and management, Mr Joyce thinks that his group can get there. They need 20,000 light lambs to fulfil this current deal, while there are an estimated 600,000 hill ewes in the national flock.

"We have light lambs coming from Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Connemara and Mayo, as well as some from south Tipperary and Waterford. We're hoping to scale it up to include as many hill farmers as possible," he says.

"In places like Italy, there's a tradition of smaller lambs going into the food chain, but often those lambs are intensively reared.

"By comparison we have a very good story to tell, and I firmly believe that the farmer has to get more involved in marketing and promoting their products, all the way through the chain to consumers."

Mr Joyce says the group is hoping to bring customers out to see the lambs in the wild.

"That's not just so they can see where the lamb is coming from, but also so that the farmers can find out at first hand exactly what is required by the consumer.

"Both are equally important. It's only 400 lambs a week to start with, but the potential is for much more than that. That's how you create demand."

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