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HomeEditor's Picks‘We came across Valais Blacknose sheep in videos on social media’
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-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 firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

‘We came across Valais Blacknose sheep in videos on social media’

Valais Blacknose Sheep Flock

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Nadia Patterson (25) from Belfast in this week’s Sheep Focus segment.

“I grew up in Belfast, so quite the opposite of farming, and now live with my boyfriend, Rhys, near Glenavy. Although I was not brought up in farming, I have lots of great memories of being taken to open farms when I was younger. I always loved animals!

For as long as I can remember, I have been an animal person, and as a child, I loved trips to local farms like Streamvale in Dundonald and The Ark Farm in Newtonards.

Growing up, I had rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs, but I always said one day, I would have goats.

Fast forward to lockdown in 2020, I had been living with my boyfriend, Rhys, at his family home, and fortunately, they had some land they did not use and were happy for us to get some animals.

He got me three pygmy goats for my birthday, which I do not think would have happened if it was not for lockdown.

It was not until two years later that we came across Valais Blacknose Sheep in videos on social media, and we just loved them.

We had our pygmy goats for around two years before we got three Valais Blacknose ewes.

Willowtree Valais Blacknose

Myself and Rhys work full-time and look after the animals in our spare time. I am a digital marketer mainly running PCP advertising for e-commerce brands, and Rhys is an administration officer for the civil service.

Our flock, Willowtree Valais Blacknose, is in Co. Antrim. They have a lovely nature; people describe their personalities more like dogs than sheep. Our sheep follow us around and always run down the field when they see us.

They are very gentle, love pets and scratches and the odd ginger nut biscuit.

It is also their stunning wool and markings; we show them and love getting them washed and ready for showing.

We initially bought two ewe lambs, Julie, and Jasmine, and then a few months later, we bought an in-lamb ewe Ivy and were lucky enough to get another ewe lamb, Juni.

We have just been through the process of AI with Julie and Jasmine and will be getting them scanned very soon.

To note, we used this process to bring in new English and Irish bloodlines and to breed the best characteristics in our flock.

Building flock 

Now, we have 4 Valais and 6 pygmy goats. If the AI has been successful, this year, we will be lambing in early March.

We will keep the ewes in a few days before their lambing date and lamb inside.

We like to lamb when the weather is starting to get warmer, but also as lambs will be weaned before show season.

As we are still building our flock, we will be keeping some of the ewe lambs born and selling the males as wethers for pets or rams, depending on markings, wool quality, and conformation.

We are looking for quality wool on body, legs and face and good strong conformation with a straight back and wide stance. This is something we will strive to breed over the years.

Just spending time with animals is an enjoyable aspect for me: seeing them run to you every morning for their breakfast and them wanting to spend time with you.

And, of course, lambing time, seeing lambs taking their first steps and then running around, skipping full of energy days after being born; it is so cute.

We showed our sheep, Julie, last year at the Ballymena Show. We are looking forward to show season this year and are planning on showing at Balmoral as well as other shows.

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Challenges

Northern Irish weather is one of the biggest challenges. Coming into winter, it is definitely more of a challenge, being out first thing in the morning.

Also, juggling a full-time job, a social life and looking after the animals can be a challenge, but it is definitely worth it.

Seeing our first-born lamb, Juni, have her first happy skips around the field and just generally watching her grow day by day has been one of our highlight moments since we began sheep farming.

I would typically do the morning feed, and Rhys would do the evenings. We both help out with general maintenance like mucking out, hoof trimming and have recently learned to shear them ourselves, which we will do twice a year.

We are members of the Northern Ireland Pygmy Goat Club and the Northern Ireland Valais Blacknose Club. Both have been so helpful and supportive in our journey.

Persistence and willingness to learn are key aspects of becoming a sheep farmer. Once you get the hang of things, it becomes second nature.

For example, hoof trimming or animal husbandry jobs, ect, it takes a while to get the hang of, but it does get easier over time with practice.

Sheep farming is a brilliant hobby, and it is very rewarding to see your flock grow.

Women in ag

The Valais Club would have slightly more females than males, but I have found everybody to be welcoming and happy to share advice; everybody is treated the same.

I suppose the farming industry would stereotypically be more male-dominated. I have seen a new programme about women in farming, which is great to see female farmers getting recognition on TV.

Personally, I do not think being a woman changes anything. However, we are small-scale and focus on breeding animals for pets, so I think we have a different experience than big farms.

Future

We would like to have a few more breeding ewes in the next year from new bloodlines.

We are focused on choosing the most suitable rams for our ewes to breed the best characteristics for the show ring. Once we have achieved that, we will focus more on selling our lambs.

Ultimately, we would love to have a small open farm where we can have visitors come and see our animals, especially, to learn more about the Valais Blacknose sheep, as they are still quite new to Northern Ireland.

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Reflection

If it was not for lockdown, I am not sure if we would have the animals. We got our first three goats, and it just snowballed from there.

It is great that Rhys and I have a shared passion for animals, but it is a very unexpected hobby as neither of us were raised on a farm.

Our family and friends are still a bit shocked when we tell them about our latest ventures with the animals as I grew up in Belfast; my lifestyle has definitely changed.”

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