'Some burning needs to be allowed if we are to maintain the mountain'
'In five years parts of these mountains will be unsuitable for walkers," says farmer Willie Drohan on the impact that a ban on burning in recent years has had on the Comeragh Mountains which lie on his back door in Co Waterford.
"We want to keep our sheep on the hills and we want walkers to enjoy what we have to offer, but in order to do this the mountains need to be maintained. If there is no burning allowed soon, it will simply get too overgrown to graze, and to walk on."
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Willie says some areas of commonage ground, where he shares the grazing of sheep year-round with several other farmers, are now totally overgrown by ferns.
Even parts of the road that leads to the spectacular Mahon Falls is significantly narrower than it was 10 years ago due to overgrowth.
"It is just sad, as the Scotch Blackface sheep were introduced to this area over 240 years ago and need this land for grazing," says Willie. "This is the worst I have seen the mountains in over 20 years. If burning was done in a controlled manner, it could make such a difference."
A sixth-generation farmer, Willie rightly takes much pride in the picturesque location where he and his wife Bridget rear their five young children.
He inherited the 80-acre farm where he lives, and a 200-acre out farm several miles away, from four uncles. Since 1993 he has built up a sheep, dairy and beef enterprise which keeps him in full-time employment year-round.
"There was always sheep, beef and dairy here but over the past 20 years those numbers have increased," he says.
Presently he milks 55 cows for Glanbia, and calves them down in the spring before buying in additional calves to rear and sell as stores. His flock of Scotch Blackface sheep now stands at some 650 ewes - largely thanks to the huge success of his enterprise, Comeragh Mountain Lamb, over the past decade.
Born from an idea of selling his lamb for profit to customers rather than at a loss to the factories, what started out as two lambs killed weekly for farmers' markets in Waterford is now a thriving business where he supplies between 35-40 lambs to hotels and restaurants and various other retailers countrywide on a weekly basis.
One of his first clients was Waterford Castle; Willie and his business partner, brother-in-law Aidan Dunwoody, now also supply meat to the Ballymaloe Cookery School and the Tannery Restaurant in Dungarvan. Aidan looks after distribution three days a week.
Unlike most lowland sheep, Willie's live out all year round, eating wild grasses, flowers and herbs. He says this gives the meat that unique flavour.
"They graze over a much broader and varied landscape and have more omega fatty acids in their tissues than other lambs," he says. "They have a good life on the mountain and are only brought down to the lowland for the last few weeks before slaughter."
Ewes are also only brought down from the mountain a handful of times a year, including in March for scanning and again in July for shearing.
"The Scotch sheep are best suited for the mountains and we would only bring them down in winter in the case of severe weather, like during the snow last year," Willie says.
"We lamb outdoors and this begins usually in the first week of April and it is all hands on deck for about three weeks. During that time I have someone who takes over the milking every day. We castrate all our ram lambs in May and the first of them are ready for slaughter in early August."
This process is completed by O'Flynn Meats in Waterford city, which, like Comeragh Mountain Lamb, is a previous winner of the prestigious Eirgrid/Euro-toques awards aimed to recognise the best artisan food producers in Ireland.
In 2012 Willie and Aidan also won the Santa Rita/LIFE Magazine Irish Restaurant Local Food Hero Award, and they are aiming for further recognition having just submitted their application to have Comeragh Mountain Lamb added to the EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) list.
The PGI mark designates a product originating in a specific place, region or country whose quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its geographical origin. It is held only by a handful of Irish foods, including Clare Island Salmon and the Waterford Blaa.
"It's funny the way things go. Some years ago sheep trade was bad, but it is now much improved, and the beef sector is suffering," Willie says. "You would have to question beef farming the way prices are at the minute, but as someone once said to me 'don't put your eggs all in one basket'.
"Fortunately we have a few things to keep us going."
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