In this week’s sheep farming series, That’s Farming, speaks to Rachel Pollock of Lagan Valley Zwartbles about her mixed pedigree flock. She discusses her venture from admiring commercial sheep in the show ring as a spectator to having her own flock of Pedigree sheep.
In recent months, Rachel Pollock, who farms in Lagan Valley, Co. Donegal, has become a dedicated sheep breeder, following her recent fascination with some of the world’s quirkiest sheep breeds.
It all started when Rachel requested two sheep from her fiancé, Johnny, as a birthday present.
After admiring the work of Johnny, and his brother, Ivor, owners of Finn Valley Texels, in the sheep industry, she was convinced she wanted to get involved herself.
A love for pedigrees
Lagan Valley Zwartbles, the name under which Rachel’s new enterprise operates, is composed solely of pedigree stock.
“It all started when I asked Johnny for two sheep for my birthday. I asked for two cute sheep,” she told That’s Farming.
Then, Rachel purchased more pedigree registered sheep within the following months.
With a long-term interest in sheep farming, her dream finally became a reality when she met her now-fiancé, Johnny.
After Rachel’s delight of receiving two pedigree Hampshire Downs, she has expanded to a flock of 25. The pedigree flock consists of three breeds: Hampshire Downs, Texels and Zwartbles.
Humble beginnings, homesick and hopeful
Rachel’s father is also involved in farming. Running a beef and suckler enterprise and operating a small flock since 2016, farming has always been an interest of the Donegal native.
Rachel, a full-time physiotherapist, recalls her fond memories of growing up involved in the family farm.
“When I was younger, I loved to help my dad out on the farm. I started off as bale patcher; then I was promoted to bale drawer.”
Consequently, as an only child, working full-time in Co. Dublin as a physiotherapist, Rachel missed home, and most of all, the farm.
“I couldn’t wait to get home at the weekends and get my wellies on.”
While Rachel’s flock consists of three different pedigree sheep breeds, she has focused particularly on her Zwartbles.
Furthermore, with the Zwartbles breed becoming more popular in Ireland and Northern Ireland, Pollock is keen to get involved and produce quality lambs for breeding.
“I just dote on my Zwartbles. They’re a really friendly breed, easily looked after, and I can catch them all!”
When discussing the ideal Zwartble ewe, Rachel describes her as “perfectly marked”.
“The ewe should have a straight blaze down her face, from the top of her head to below the chin. It must not touch the wool.”
Moreover, as a new entrant to sheep farming, she is always expanding her knowledge on the breed.
“I love a strong, stocky ewe, something with a good carcass. Four white socks are ideal; otherwise, I look for two socks on the hind legs. A white tip on the tail too.”
All the traits Rachel investigates when buying a Zwartbles hold the characteristics for the pedigree status.
“I love the showing side of things, which I suppose was influenced by Johnny and Ivor. The rosettes, the preparation, everything involved in getting ready for the show ring.”
Balancing a pedigree flock and a full-time job
It was clear after five years that Dublin city life was not meant to be for Rachel. The full-time physiotherapist recently managed to land a job near home in October this year.
Luckily, she has had the opportunity to work four “long” days in her workplace to allow her more time at home, to work with sheep.
Rachel discusses how she would love to farm full-time, “During lambing, Johnny and I were out lambing at 3 a.m. I just thought to myself, I would love to do this all day, every day.”
The plan is to retain lambs on the farm for breeding purposes if they are correct and well-marked.
At present, Rachel has rams out with her ewes; with scanning due to take place, so she hopes for lambing to commence in March.
“If lambs aren’t perfectly marked, they’ll be sold as a crosser.”
Coming home from work in the evening or during the weekends, Rachel is sure to be found with her beloved sheep.
Hereafter, she has no intention of expanding her flock further than the current levels at the moment.
Her husband-to-be influenced involvement in sheep, but Rachel also discusses how she always had an interest in working with sheep but “couldn’t really get into the swing of it”.
Comparing farming sheep as opposed to cattle, Rachel admits how the facilities she had available to her are much more suited to sheep.
Rachel discusses the challenges that many young farmers across the nation experience, pointing to “money, time, facilities and of course, weather.”
With limiting factors such as land, it is difficult to expand a flock of such elite sheep.
However, if you are a new entrant to farming, finances can also be a challenge.
It is all worth it for this young farmer, as she uses her time to perfect the breeding within her flock.
The future of Lagan Valley Zwartbles
While the flock is content with the current capacity, Rachel dreams of a wider, more diverse enterprise in the future.
This dream entails not only a quality flock of pedigree sheep, but also pygmy goats and possibly Highland cattle.
Plans are currently being put in place by Lagan Valley Zwartbles, with potential plans to further expand her knowledge of farming through obtaining the Teagasc Level 5 Green Certificate.
“I can’t wait to get out showing. With a lot of shows being cancelled this year, I’ve had a great opportunity to prepare for a season of showing in 2022.”
With a keen interest in producing quality sheep for an elite market, Lagan Valley Zwartbles are sure to be a recognised name within the breeders’ group in a few years.
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