Sunday 15 July 2018

Sheep shedder

We own the 20th part of the hill that gives the townland its name. That holding more than doubles the size of our farrrrm by adding 10 hectares to the 7ha which surround our home. The trouble with the 'commonage' is that it is owned in common and we cannot point to a single bush or rock or rich source of fraughans and claim exclusive rights to it. Two generations ago, the mountain was an essential part of the farming economy. In the Spring after lambing, the sheep would be driven up onto the mountain where they would eat whatever they could find. I gave some more exotic examples of transhumance this time last year. The in-bye fields would have a rest from herbivory and be allowed to grow into hay, which would, if everyone was lucky with the weather, be won as winter fodder. The ram-lambs would be sold to the local butcher after which salt, tea, butter, rashers and a new shovel would be bought on the other side of the street. An idyllic local circular economy: the local cinema would alternate between The Quiet Man and Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Globalisation put paid to all that. The butcher could buy cheaper, better quality lamb from New Zealand. The price of wool collapsed so that it cost as much to shear the sheep as the wool was worth. Teagasc, the government agricultural advisory service has, for the last 30 years, acknowledged that no small or medium-sized farm can survive without an external income. In parallel, the EU has determined that there is social utility in keeping farmers in place in the landscape, and funneled grants of money to off-set the losses of running uneconomic farms in the globalised present. Every 5 years, a new Cunning Plan will emanate from Brussels, with a different name and different rules. The rules often change to remediate the disastrous effects of the unintended consequences of the last set of rules. The latest fund is called GLAS [Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme] and it looks grand on paper . . . laid out across an agronomist's desk in Dublin. Less so when laid out across real fields and operated by real farmers with real sheep.

Anyway we signed up for GLAS because it seemed that the benefits outweighed the deficits (the training has been a total waste of everybody's time and a lot of tax-dollars). One of the key changes in GLAS is that, if you are claiming commonage as part of your holding, then you now have to use the commonage by agreeing to run a specified number of sheep on the hill for a specified number of months . . . just like folks used to do in the 1940s. The trouble is that, of the 20 farmers who own a share of the common, only 2 of them have been using the hill in this century to graze sheep. At the beginning of April we pushed 8 of our most mountainy sheep through the 'mountain gate' to shift for themselves upstairs. We never saw them together again; partly because we were looking in the wrong place. The day after shearing in June:
acting on the advice and hill-savvy of Paddy the Shears [at work above]. I went round to the Far Side of the hill to see if I could find our sheep between there and the Mountain River. I found one which, spooked by my approach, rapidly disappeared out of frame:
It has been 25 days since we last had rain and the bogs on the hill are all dried up but there is still a lot more green up on the hill than there is, for example, in our yard which looks like the green tide is draining away as you watch:
On Saturday we rose before the sun, had a cup of tea and set out to find our sheep. The early start was required because running unshorn sheep about the landscape in the heat of the day is a cruel and unusual punishment. We were delighted, with the help of binoculars, to find six of our sheep [three foreground sheep shown below, the others are a pixel each in the middle distance]:
That was  a dry run really because we had asked to borrow our neighbour Martin and his dog to help bring those sheep down to the bone-dry yard for shearing and a few scoops of sheep-muesli [mmmm good]. On Sunday morning therefore we were again up before sparrow-fart to meet Martin at 0640hrs on the Far Side.

Shedding sheep is a one of the tasks that is required of shepherds and their collies in sheepdog trials. The idea is to separate out two sorts of sheep from a co-mingle flock. How it's done. It was brought home to  me why it is done as our sheep moved across the face of a hill that was already dotted with sheep from other places. It fell to me twice to separate our sheep from a bunch of strangers heading in the same direction - mainly because ours were following them . . . like sheep. Don't forget that there are 200ha of hill up there and at least 200 other sheep to get in the way. The rest of the time my task was to follow a path more or less parallel to that chosen by our girls to discourage them from breaking in that direction. You may call me Rrrrrrex <arf!> <arf!>.
E v e n t u a l l y our sheep were encouraged to start moving quietly in a more-or-less SSE direction until they departed back through the Mountain Gate and down the green lane to home [as L]. Martin left us at the second gate because he'd seen two of his sheep in a peculiar place and intended to bring them back to the fold before they edged out of the county. That was a pity because The Beloved had the makings of a massive fry-up in the kitchen and I had to eat Martin's share of the sausage and rashers. The key thing with moving sheep is to keep the pace measured: slow and steady works. Anything else results in everyone getting hot and bothered and making poor decisions. As for the utility or sense of running sheep on an unfenced hill for which neither they nor their shepherds have any 'heft' [defined prev], I have my doubts. I think it's probably true that many canny farmers who have signed up to GLAS for the cheque have no intention of actually leaving €100 worth of asset on the side a mountain which they cannot reach without getting their arse out of their €100K tractor.

1 comment:

  1. Hard work there... Remember it, with a shudder, well.