'My water buffalo just love the climate here in Cork'
Darragh McManus meet the first Irish farmer to milk his profits for mozzarella
West Cork is famous for many things -- scenic beauty, food, footballers, coastline and, of course, Michael Collins. But buffalo farming? Not so much. Or not until now, anyway.
Johnny Lynch is 42, a father of three and a farmer with a 200-acre property between Macroom and Inchigeela. He's also the owner of 64 water buffalo, whose milk he uses to make an Italian speciality in Ireland: mozzarella cheese.
In partnership with local businessman Toby Simmons, they produce and sell 250 kilos a week, under the name Toons Bridge Dairy. They hope to double that by next year. And it all began over a St Patrick's Day drink.
Johnny explains: "Toby and myself were in the pub on March 17, 2009. He said he was bringing the cheese from Italy, was selling a lot, and would I be interested in milking these animals. When he said it first I got a fit of laughing -- I never even knew buffalo were milked.
"I got into it both for economic reasons and to do something different. When I was milking cows, same thing day in and day out, I'd be in no mind to get up. Whereas now, I'm awake at half five every morning, rearing to go. A change is as good as a rest.
"We went to England first, where they have about 14 buffalo farms, but couldn't bring them from there because of Blue Tongue disease restrictions. So we went to Italy instead and shipped back 30 animals."
Now the business is thriving for the farmer and his neighbour Toby, who since the early nineties has been importing and selling olive oil, chillies, feta cheese and mozzarella, among other products, in Cork city's famous English Market.
Johnny admits that "it was a big laugh at first for my friends", but the laugh was soon on them. He adds, "The sums quickly started adding up, and now we hope to be milking 100 buffalo within five years. There's definitely a market for it: this year we only had about a quarter enough milk for the amount of cheese in demand. And mozzarella is only one type: we're experimenting with hard cheeses as well."
The end product is made in a plant, co-owned by Johnny and Toby, a mile from the farm. Johnny says, "We hired a cheese-maker called Sean Ferry, with 23 years of experience. I bring the milk there for half-seven and work with him, making the cheese, between 11 and two."
Johnny doesn't have any cattle left on his farm, and has noticed differences between them and his new animals.
"Buffalo are much more clever than Irish cows, which means they're much more stubborn as well -- if they don't want to go somewhere, they won't.
"They are very friendly too, but you need to have wire around everything: they'll get out and break things. They're very strong. And the horns have to be left on, because that's how the animals sweat. They can be aggressive to strangers, but no more than other animals."
After doing several months of research, Johnny and Toby realised that the project could work, both economically and agriculturally; one surprising thing they learned was that the Irish climate is perfect for buffalos.
This is the first farm in Ireland to do this, but so far so good. Toons Bridge Dairy even promise that their Irish mozzarella will prove superior to its Italian counterpart, as their buffalos are kept outdoors and fed on grass, not factory-farmed.
Johnny's remarkable story is now the subject of a TG4 documentary, going out on Sunday. Cogar: Buabhaill ar na Bánta (Where the Buffaloes Roam) was produced by Mikey Ó Flatharta and directed by Italian Manuela Corbari -- which explains how the show came about.
"Manuela was working with Toby at the time the idea came to us," Johnny says, "so we took her to Italy as a translator. She asked if we minded her bringing a camera along, and we said fine.
"I said I'd talk away in Irish, thinking it'd be no problem -- I'm a sorry man now! There were times when I didn't even know what I was saying. I'm not fluent at all, even though I grew up in an Irish-speaking household; I couldn't speak English until I went to school."
So what next for the buffalo farmer? Johnny says, "We're thinking about getting into wild boar -- they'd fly off the market."
Flying pigs? Almost as unusual as water buffalo in Cork.
Cogar: Buabhaill ar na Bánta, TG4, Sunday at 9.30pm.