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    The Art of Hill Sheep Farming on Ireland’s West Coast

    Author: Lucianne Hare
    More by Lucianne

    Sheep Farming in Ireland

    Nestled between rugged scenery and coastal landscapes, the west coast of Ireland is not just a haven for stunning views and cultural heritage, but also a stronghold for one of the country’s oldest and most enduring agricultural traditions: hill farming. Specifically, hill sheep farming, which has been critical in supporting rural communities for centuries. As you explore Ireland you can’t help but discover a fascinating world where tradition and nature intertwine, offering a unique insight into the traditional farming practices that have shaped Ireland’s countryside.

    The Origins of Farming in Ireland

    Neolithic Ireland, Carrowkeel Sligo Cairn E & F

    Neolithic tomb built atop aa hill in Co Sligo.

    Agriculture in Ireland dates back over 6,000 years, with the first farming practices introduced by Neolithic settlers. These early farmers cleared forests to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, laying the foundation for Ireland’s rich agricultural heritage.

    As centuries passed, farming techniques evolved, but the rugged terrain of Ireland’s west coast demanded a unique approach. Enter hill sheep farming – a practice perfectly adapted to the challenging but beautiful landscapes of counties such as Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Cork.

    What is a Commonage?

    Sligo hill farming sheep

    A sheep grazing on a commonage in Co Sligo.

    One of the most intriguing aspects of hill sheep farming in Ireland is the concept of “commonages.” There are approximately 4,500 commonages throughout Ireland today. This land covers around 426,000 hectares (1,052,668 acres). These commonages are shared grazing lands where multiple farmers hold grazing rights, a practice rooted in ancient communal traditions. There can be some challenges in managing the communal ownership over commonage land such as land use planning, conservation and balancing interests, however, the benefits far outweigh any issues.

    Commonages are particularly vital on the west coast, where the land’s wild ruggedness makes private ownership less practical. Instead, these shared lands allow for efficient use of the available resources, ensuring that the hills remain rich and sustainable for generations to come.

    The Numbers Behind Ireland’s Sheep Farming

    How Many Sheep Live in Ireland?

    Ireland is home to approximately 3.8 million sheep, a significant number given the country’s relatively small size and human population – there are just 5.13 million people living in Ireland. Of these, a substantial proportion of sheep are found in the western counties, where hill farming is most prevalent.

    What is Irish Hill Farming?

    Irish hill sheep farming, characterised by hardy breeds that can withstand harsh weather and sparse grazing, is essential to the agricultural economy of the region. It’s not just about numbers; sheep farming in Ireland is about maintaining a way of life that connects the present with the past.

    Does Ireland Export Meat?

    The sheep industry is a significant contributor to the Irish economy, particularly in rural areas, where it generates important economic activity and employment. In 2022, sheep meat exports to over 35 countries were valued at €475 million, a 17% increase from the previous year. The sheep industry is strongly export-oriented, with the majority going to France, Belgium, and Germany.

    Does Ireland Export Wool?

    One notable (and unfortunate) change in recent years is the collapse of the wool market. This has impacted sheep farming. Today, shearing sheep is a cost rather than a gain to sheep farmers. It costs €8 to present a 3kg fleece on a farm, costing farmers across Ireland over €21 million annually. Beyond just the costs of sheep shearing, the collapse of the wool industry is also a lost tradition. Wool was an important industry in Ireland until the 20th century but today, most wool has become little more than a byproduct.

    Blackface Mountain Sheep

    Known for their resilience and adaptability, Blackface Mountain Sheep are the backbone of hill farming. Their robust nature makes them ideal for the challenging conditions of the west coast. They are a hardy breed that can tolerate the cold, wind and rain in mountainous areas.

    Blackface ewes are known for their good mothering abilities and the breed is smaller and hardier than lowland sheep breeds. Blackface mountain sheep are a common sight for anyone heading out into the hills of Ireland – not to mention adorably photogenic.

    Cheviot Sheep

    Originally from the Scottish Borders in the UK, Cheviots have become a popular choice for hill farmers in Ireland. Their hardiness and good mothering abilities make them well-suited to the rugged terrain. Lambs are particularly adorable – visit in spring during lambing season to spot the babies frolicking in the fields!

    Suffolk Sheep

    While primarily a lowland breed, Suffolks are sometimes crossed with hill breeds to produce lambs that thrive in both hill and lowland environments. Keep an eye out for the dark coats of the new lambs while you’re our exploring the hills of Ireland.

    sheepdog

    Shepherding

    Shepherding in these areas is a labour-intensive process. It requires a deep understanding of the land and the animals. Modern shepherds often use quad bikes and sheepdogs to manage their flocks, blending tradition with innovation.

    Lambs

    Breeding

    Careful breeding programs are essential to produce sheep that can thrive in Ireland’s harsh conditions. Farmers often select for traits like hardiness, good mothering ability, and wool quality.

    Shearing and Lambing

    Cuddling a baby lamb.

    Two of the most critical times in the hill farming calendar are the shearing and lambing seasons.

    Shearing takes place in late spring to early summer, providing wool that has been prized for centuries. While the wool is no longer used, sheep still need to be sheared to ensure good health and comfort.

    Lambing, typically occurring in the spring. It requires constant vigilance and care from the farmers to ensure the survival and health of the newborn lambs. For anyone spending time in the outdoors in spring, keep an eye out for the new lambs in the fields. Take care to be mindful of them too, and respect all signs when walking on open farmland.

    Experiencing Hill Farming

    Feeding lambs in Ireland.

    For visitors to Ireland, particularly those from America, exploring the world of hill farming offers a unique and enriching experience. Many farms welcome visitors, offering tours that provide insights into the daily workings of a hill farm, the history of the practice, and the stunning landscapes in which these farms are situated.

    Participating in activities such as sheep herding demonstrations or wool crafting workshops can give you a hands-on appreciation for this vital aspect of Irish culture.

    Hill farming on the west coast of Ireland is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of its people. It is a practice that has withstood the test of time, adapting to changing circumstances while preserving its core traditions. Whether you’re trekking through the heather-clad hills, visiting a bustling market, or simply enjoying a meal of locally sourced lamb, the influence of hill farming is ever-present. For those seeking to connect with Ireland’s rural heritage, a journey into the heart of hill sheep farming is an unforgettable adventure.

    This article, written by Lucianne Hare, used research and personal experiences from Wilderness Ireland guide John Neary. 

    Visit Ireland

    Meet the Author: Lucianne Hare

    Swapping the gentle hills and lakes of Yorkshire for the wild landscapes and rugged coastlines of Sligo and Donegal, Lucianne is our resident expert surfer, swimmer and all things water sports.

    View profile More by Lucianne

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