Opinion

The sheep industry in Ireland has a great story to tell

I called in at Glencolmcille Show last Sunday and was amazed at the tremendous turnout of sheep for the event. It was great to see.

One of the judges on the day was Paul McEvoy, from Kilcoo in Co. Down.

He told me that the quality of pedigree sheep in Ireland is as good as can now be found in any part of the UK, or further afield for that matter.

He puts this down to the massive investment made by Irish flock owners in the best bloodlines available, internationally, over the past decade and the putting-in-place of flock breeding programmes that have maximised this genetic potential.

And if all this good work is going on at the very elite end of the breeding world, one can only assume that the ‘trickle down’ effect will ensure that the quality of commercial stock will improve accordingly.

In many ways, sheep production represents the forgotten sector of agriculture in Ireland. Yet, output from the industry continues to make a vitally important contribution to the food sector and the rural economy as a whole.

Sheep tick all the boxes. Management systems tend to be quite extensive in nature, making sheep good for the environment. Ewes thrive where cows cannot and, of course, sheep production systems fit well within a part-time farming model.

Add in the fact that sheep farmers should do proportionately better from any moves by the EU to push a future support system that rewards environmental stewardship, and it’s hard not to conclude that the industry has a pretty bright future ahead of it.

So much for the background: adding real impetus to the fortunes of the industry at the present time is the fact that sheep farmers are confirming very high lamb rearing percentages.

It’s a very simple equation: the more lambs available for sale, the greater the likelihood of making a profit. The core issue then becomes one of keeping all these extra animals alive.

The good news here is that farmers have full control of the factors that will allow them meet this challenge.

Either they have the management qualities to make this work for them or they don’t. No finger pointing at the EU or cursing the state of international markets comes into play when it comes to honing one’s sheep husbandry skills.

Admittedly, the sheep industry has had its ups and downs to contend with in the past. For example, it is the sector that is most vulnerable to the weather. Most of us well remember the carnage caused by the heavy snows of March 2013 and the heavy lamb losses that ensued.

However, if all goes according to plan, sheep producers should have a decent enough back end to look forward to in 2017. And, let’s be honest, they deserve it.

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