That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with fourth-generation Wicklow farmer, Adam Sharkey, as part of this week’s sheep segment.
“I always wanted to farm from a young child, but I did lose interest in my mid-teens.
One step on the plane to Oz, I was grateful my grandmother asked me to take over running the farm when she did cause when I did, I got hooked again and have not stopped since.
I am a 28-year-old father-of-two, part-time sheep farmer, Roundwood, Co Wicklow. I come from a family farm and run the farm, which was my grandfather’s before my grandmother took its reins.
My earliest memories of farming revolve around running in and out of cows’ legs while my grandmother was hand milking them.
We always had sheep but only about 80 or so. My grandfather used to keep 12 cows and milk them by hand and bucket rear their calves.
He also used to buy in bucket calves, rear them, and fatten them. He used to kill about 10 to 15 every year, so there would have been about 20 to 30 cattle back then.
When he passed, my granny took over and was milking up until about 2004 or 2005. Then we farmed sucklers until we got out of them completely in 2012.
I work off-farm full-time in a warehouse that distributes IVF products worldwide. It comes in handy in the wintertime as you are stuck in 2 degrees and 5 degrees all day and even -19 at times, so I am well prepared for the cold winters.
Home and outfarm
The home farm is in Roundwood, and the out farm is in Laragh. It is only 5 miles away from the home farm, and it is high up as it is right beside the mountain. So you can see up from the home farm.
Running the farm is my grandmother, Patrica and I. A dog ran into her three years ago, and unfortunately, she broke her knee, so that made her take a step back.
She helps where she can, keeping a watch over the shed at lambing if I am working or have to go away for a while. She also feeds the pets, so that keeps her busy going with bottles.
Focusing on hill breeds
The breeds we keep are mainly Wicklow Cheviots and Lanark-cross ewes. We still do have a few cross-bred ewes, but this will our last year running them.
We have been slowly decreasing the number of lowland type ewes and increasing the hill breeds. The Wicklow Cheviot ewe is a native around this area. There are very few farms that do not have them.
They are a medium to large sheep that you can see grazing every commonage all over Wicklow. Being high up, you need a ewe that is hardy and able to rear her lambs on marginal ground.
The Lanark-x ewes were an experiment. I was talking to a neighbour one day about the mountain and at the time, none of the sheep I had, had ever been on it.
He said that a man, who he shares commonage with, that his horned ewes would rise to the top and stay around rocky areas. After hearing that, I got a light bulb moment and headed off to Achill where I bought 25 Mayo Blackface ewe lambs.
The first year I crossed them to a Lanark ram and never looked back. A lot of the ewes would have two or three-parts Lanark in them now and even some pure Lanarks from the Cooleys.
The idea worked great as when both Cheviots and Lanarks would go up the hill, the Lanarks would rise out to the top and the rocky parts. The cheviots would go with them, and you would not see them then until gathering time.
We put Cheviot ewes with Cheviot rams. The older-types and ewes I did not want Cheviot lambs out of, got a Suffolk for an easier and faster-finished lamb.
The Lanark-cross ewes got Lanark rams, and likewise, the ones I did not want horny lambs out of got Texels; the cross-bred ewes got Texel rams.
When I first took over the farm’s running, we had about 140 ewes. 90 ewes were lowland Boristype ewe and 50 Cheviot with replacements for both breeds from the Cheviot ewes.
We did this for the first couple of years, and then when the horned ewes came, there was a switch.
In the past few years alone, we have bought 10 to 20 ewes and ewe lambs, both Cheviot and horned. We have been breeding our own replacements to increase numbers.
With a high culling taking place every year, it has taken us longer than expected, but hopefully, this will be the first year we can sell surplus ewe lambs.
We run 200 ewes and 50 to 60 hoggets, farming 90-acres of green ground and a commonage share of 300-acres.
We mainly sell the lambs as stores from 40 kilos upwards. On the other hand, we send anything over 45 kilos to the factory. Lambs run on after-grass up until October; then, a creep is moved into the last field with them.
26-day lambing period
Lambing takes place around March 26th to April 25th. Singles are lambed out, and twins and triplets are lambed inside.
Ewes are checked at 6 am and then every hour or two during the day until about 11 or 12 and left then until the next morning.
Lambing took 26 days this year, but we did not use teasers to achieve this compact window. All ewes go to the hill, so the lower ground is saved up until late September when gathering happens.
There would be a good bank of fresh green grass when they come in, and they get Natural Stock Care Twin Plus two weeks before the ram goes out.
Higher scanning rates
I find this works as scanning went up from 1.3 four or five years ago to 1.55 this year. Scanning was back this year because a lot of horned ewes did not go in-lamb. I let the rams out with them on the mountain, thinking they would stay together in one bunch.
They never really settled properly until I took the rams away. Apart from that, I was very happy.
We have kept all replacements for the past few years, but hopefully, this year now, we should have ewe lambs to sell – depending on how many culls there will be in the middle of July.
Working off-farm full-time, I try to breed a ewe that is low maintenance and lambs away herself. Therefore, hardiness is a significant point in the way replacements are bred here.
When I bought the lambs in Achill, the man I bought them off kept saying he likes a ram with a small head. This ensures a ewe lambing would not have a problem lambing his lamb. It always stuck in my head when looking for a ram to breed replacements.
The part I am passionate about is breeding a sheep that makes people look twice.
I have Facebook and Instagram pages for Hillview Cheviot. I try to show the way I farm and the day-to-day of what I am doing. You would see anything from sheep right down to man’s best friend and the two main employees on the farm, the two dogs!
I think I am at the max capacity with sheep numbers. Working full-time off-farm with two young children and training young working dogs, my time is not spared, but it is manageable.
I will focus more on breeding hardier sheep and utilising the hill more, keeping sheep on it most of the year-round.
‘Every day is a school day’
Sheep farming is like the saying goes, ‘every day is a school day’. But if you learn and watch the older boys and their tricks, you cannot go wrong and ask them for advice.
The advice I would give anyone starting would be to get as much help and advice as you can.
If someone wants your help, help them as they might do something different than you, and it could be easier the way they do it.”