Farm Ireland

Thursday 25 April 2019

The breed that came back from the brink

Dubliner Eavaun Carmody is spearheading the revival of the once endangered Dexter breed of cattle

Going native: Eavaun Carmody with some of her dexter cattle at Killenure Castle in Dundrum, Co Tipperary
Going native: Eavaun Carmody with some of her dexter cattle at Killenure Castle in Dundrum, Co Tipperary
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

WHEN Eavaun Carmody, first arrived in Killenure Castle between Cashel and Dumdrum in Co Tipperary nearly ten years ago, she'd no idea that she was about to embark on a career in farming.

She and her husband, Emmet Sexton, purchased the 450 year-old castle after falling in love with its charms and the prospect of the good life in the country for them and their three children.

It was only after a chance conversation in the local pub that Eavaun learned that Dexter cattle had actually originated in her parish, and immediately the entrepreneurial artist in her knew that they would be a good fit with the ancient surrounds of Killenure.

"I'm big into the whole idea of breathing life back into the heritage and culture that surrounds us - in this case the edible culture of one of only three indigenous cattle breeds to Ireland," she said.

Fast forward a few short years, and Eavaun is the proud owner of 185 head of pedigree Dexter, making her the unlikely owner of the largest herd of Dexter cattle in the country.

In addition, she has contracted farmers locally and nationally to also start multiplying numbers so that collectively they account for over 80pc of the entire breed on these shores.

"We only have about 16ac here at Killenure so we've just signed a five-year lease on 93ac down beside the village. The whole idea is to be able to produce enough to keep up with demand from La Rousse," said Carmody.

At the moment Killenure Dexter are supplying three animals a week, but demand is already there for five animals, and La Rousse are projecting demand to grow to 10 a week within the next couple of years.

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"We're killing them at 24-30 months of age but their carcass weight is only about 175kg. This means that we need a really premium price to make sense out of keeping the breed," said Eavaun.

While a 66pc premium over standard beef prices helps, Eavaun is also lobbying politicians to get the rare breed subsidy reintroduced.

"It used to be €200/hd, but it was up to a maximum of 10 head per farmer and it was discontinued completely a few years ago. We really need government policy to get behind an initiative like this that's keeping part of our heritage alive," she said, adding that the enterprise is now employing five people full-time and two part-timers.

However, Carmody has a couple of other ideas in mind to add further value to the project.

"We've just sent off our first consignment of hides to be tanned in Italy. All the tanneries are closed in Ireland now, so that's why we have to look to Italy, but I think there's tonnes of possibilities for the leather, whether it's used to make briefcases, cloths, or special cases for Irish whiskey.

"The other thing that we're actively exploring is the possibility of making bone China out of the bones from the carcases. I've already got a US investor very interested in financing a kiln here to fire the bones at 1,000C, and I'm also in touch with local ceramicists that have loads of ideas as to what we could turn this China into from broaches to crockery."

From 'poor man's  cow to gourmet treat

The first recorded mention of the Dexter breed appeared in 1845, when Lord Hawarden of  Dundrum House in Co Tipperary instructed his estate agent - Mr Dexter - to develop a bovine breed that would suit local smallholders.

Hence the dual-purpose element of good beefing qualities combined with plenty of milk.

Crucially, the small size of the animal allowed it to survive on very little, similar to one of the suggested parent breeds - the Kerry.

While the exact origins of the breed have been lost in the mists of time, it is thought that Mr Dexter combined the black Kerry with the brown Devon breed, also known for its ability to survive harsh conditions.

For this reason, the Dexter cow became known as 'the poor man's cow', but the arrival of higher output alternatives in the 1900s almost drove the breed to extinction in the 1940s.

However, the breed is now powering ahead again, with close to 1,000 pedigree Dexter cattle now grazing on Irish farms.

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