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HomeEditor's Picks‘In 2015, we returned to Ireland in the hope to become farmers’
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the company in 2015.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

‘In 2015, we returned to Ireland in the hope to become farmers’

Sarah Turner (32) in conversation with our editor, Catherina Cunnane, as part of this week’s sheep segment. We discuss moving to Ireland, how an orphaned lamb sparked her sheep farming venture, completing the Green Cert, establishing a farm from scratch and juggling family life with an 85-ewe flock with the new entrant sheep farmer. 

“I am originally from a small village in Buckinghamshire near Aylesbury. I am not from a farming background. However, I began working with animals as a teenager when I studied animal care at St Tiggywinkles, a wildlife hospital in Thame.

Also, I used to go beating on local estates during the game shooting season, which is where I met my husband, who introduced me to farming.

Moving to Ireland

In 2013, Aaron left the army, and we moved to his family’s farm in Ireland. A couple of months after we moved, he came home in the middle of the night soaking wet and handed me a tiny orphaned lamb.

I think that started it all for me. Before that, sheep were just sheep. However, within a couple of weeks of Aaron giving me that lamb, I had managed to acquire 20 pets and taken over part of my father-in-law’s slatted shed with pens of bottle-fed pet lambs.

We moved again in 2014, but there was always something missing. I finally understood the pull Aaron felt to come back to the farm. In 2015, we returned to Ireland in the hope to become farmers.

We spent the next five years managing sheep on other people’s flock numbers and land until we took on this lease and had the chance to farm for ourselves.

It has been harder for Aaron as he comes from a farming background and has wanted to farm his whole life. On the other hand, I was in my mid-20s when I realised it was something I wanted to pursue.

Green Cert

Because he was working full-time to support us financially, he could not commit to the Green Cert and asked me if I would do it instead.

I did a 3-year part-time Green Cert course with Teagasc in Killarney that I finished in March 2020.

I fell pregnant in 2019 and had severe morning sickness, making me miss about a month at the end of year-2 that I had to resit exams for.

I almost asked to defer my place for year 3, but instead, I persevered. Honestly, I am glad I did. I took a few weeks off and did the assignments at home after giving birth, but I managed to stay caught up and finished on time with a distinction, so I am glad I stuck it out.

I love sheep and want to be a good shepherdess, producing good quality stock.

Furthemore, I think we will get cattle in the future, but for now, I would like to focus on growing our flock and working out the system that works for us. I am a full-time farmer here in Castlcove, County Kerry.

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New entrant sheep farmer

We lease 57Ha of land. The majority of it is rough hill grazing and commonage.

We farm 85 Herdwick, Mayo, Lanark, Scotches and Swaledale ewes in March/April.

We lamb all our ewes outside than to avail of the fresh spring grass. Furthermore, we select breeds that would thrive on the hill. I always wanted Herdwicks; they were my dream sheep, so I bought a small flock of older ewes to breed replacements.

We had a Mayo, Lanark, and a Herdwick ram to breed replacements to build the flock. However, this year we are considering using a Bluefaced Leicester to produce mules.

We sell the rams as stores in August/September and keep a few wethers back over winter for the freezer.

We are currently keeping ewe lambs back to pick our replacements from next year, and we will aim to sell the rest as breeding hoggets.

Our first lambing season started with a bang, and nothing seemed to be going right. It is physically tiring but also emotionally; it can be hard.

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Losses, exhaustion and patience

No one likes enduring losses; all you can do is your best, and if you have done that, you have to try not to dwell on these things.

I had loads of help from the kids and Aaron when he was off work. Although I was a little disappointed when it ended, I loved it as exhausted as I was. I do not think I will ever tire of watching new life enter the world.

I enjoy having the chance to farm as a family, watching my children with their pet lambs and seeing how far I can push Aaron’s patience each time I ask him to teach me a new skill like fencing or reversing the trailer.

I like that we get to make all these memories together, and it is something we are all passionate about.

I am mostly just passionate about sheep. Honestly, I have a few favourites I raised as pets, and I love watching them grow and have lambs themselves.

However, the more time I spend farming, the more I find its environmental side interesting, and I would love to educate myself more in that area.

Responsibilities

I am responsible for the day-to-day running and the organising of tasks on the farm. The kids and I carry out daily feeding and checks, administer medicines and take care of anything that needs extra attention.

I would be especially busy at lambing time helping new mothers and rearing pet lambs. Also, I do all the paperwork and admin side of farming.

My husband is great at the manual work side of farming but has an aversion to making phone calls and filling out forms, so these tasks have always fallen to me.

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Challenges

As a new entrant sheep farmer, I have faced so many challenges. Getting the land to farm on has been one.

We have approached landowners before about leasing land, and the problem we face each time is that they do not want to part with their payments.

We have had to compromise and have to pay the value of our land’s Basic Payment to farm it.

Financially it has been a big challenge because we have had to buy in all of our stock. Also, we have to put in time and money to put in drains and top and spray the bracken and rushes that have taken over to improve the grazing.

Family life and embracing lockdown

I have three children: they are 1, 9 and 11.  The kids love getting involved with the farm. Our 9-year-old lambed her first ewe this year, and she can identify most of the ewes in the flock. She is hands-on with training sheepdogs too.

We have been in lockdown for the most of our farming adventure so far. It has actually been really good. We are so lucky to have had the freedom to have the space for the kids to explore.

I try to put a plan in place for busy times so that juggling home and farm life do not become overwhelming.

Coming from a non-farming background, I have been surprised most about my ability to do the things I did not think I could do. I was terrified of the thought of injecting an animal; I would get myself into such a state, but now it is just another job.

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Women in ag

Most people do not treat me any differently being a woman. The odd person would treat me differently no matter what career I choose. I have nothing to prove to them. I farm for me because I want to, and that is what I will continue to do.

I think social media has played an essential role in getting women in agriculture recognised.

I think the more the stereotype of the grumpy old farmer with a tweed cap is broken down, the easier it will be. Agriculture is a very modern industry, and with developments like handling units and better, safer farm machinery, it is no longer such a stereotypical manly tough profession.

The business side of farming is as important and the manual work side. Therefore, it is important to get educated. If colleges were pushing more agriculturally-based courses, it would be an easier, more inviting industry to enter into.

Having said that, it is difficult to get into farming whether you are male or female.

Most farms in this country are not big enough to warrant hiring farm staff, and land is a finite resource. Therefore, getting hold of land where you can farm is the biggest challenge.

Farming is such a rewarding career for anyone that wants to work with animals or outside. There is so much more to it than you would imagine; no two days are the same, so it is never boring.

Physical labour  

I find the more physical side of farming to be the biggest challenge. I am not physically strong, and certain tasks can be quite physically demanding. But, you have no choice to push through because no one is there to do it for you.

It does leave you with a sense of pride when you get through such tasks, though, to know you did not quit.

Reflection: New entrant sheep farmer

I should have done many things differently, but each mistake we have made, whether selling stock at the wrong time or using a ram that maybe was not best suited to our system, has been a learning curve.

Although I could have done things differently, each mistake will hopefully ensure we improve for the future.”

To share your story like this new entrant sheep farmer, email – catherina@thatsfarming.com 

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