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Conor Halpin
Journalism intern.
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‘This time twenty years ago, there was not a single sheep on the Cooley Peninsula’

In this week’s sheep farming segmentThat’s Farming, speaks to John Wehrly from Cooley Sheep Breeders’ Association about the group’s 11th sale, with upwards of 4,000 entries expected.

Cooley Sheep Breeders’ Association will celebrate its 11th anniversary on September 4th, 2021, at its annual sale.

The group, which is licenced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, has established what is now one of Ireland’s “leading” sheep sales.

From humble beginnings, the organisation has just under 100 members consisting of lowland and hill farmers.

John Wehrly, co-founder, told That’s Farming:

“In 2009, the Cooley Sheep Breeders’ Association sale was established. After the foot and mouth outbreak, breeders figured out it was hard to source good quality female breeding stock.”

“We have the event in Owen V. Wood’s field. He came together with Tony Rice, Peter Ward, Gerry Rice, Gerry McEnaney, Peter Shields, Gerard Duffy and I.”

“It seems to have worked as we would have different people from different parts of the country who want different stock.”

Sale conditions

Terms and conditions state sheep must be reared from Cooley Peninsula, and the group insist on a high health status, “to purely keep up the high standard”.

“We do offer free transport around the country. All sheep are top-quality.”

“Our first sale was in September 2010, and we showed exactly 1,150 sheep that year. It is looking like we will have upwards of 4,000 sheep at this year’s sale on September 4th.”

“Last year, prices unbelievable. Sheep went to every county in Ireland. With the help of social media and news publications, we have built up the sale. It is recognised as one of the leading sales in the country.”

Breed variations

The show and sale on September 4th’ is a multi-breed event of Mule, Lleyn-dross, Hilltex, Cheviot, Suffolk-cross, Suffolk-Cheviot-cross, Texel-cross, and Lanark Blackface sheep.

There will be six categories on the day, with each cup presented by local farming families and all sheep judged in pens of ten.

These include prize-winning mule hoggets, mule ewe lambs, Lanark horned hoggets, Lanark ewe lambs, cross-bred hoggets and cross-bred ewe lambs.

“Last year, mule hoggets topped the sale at €270. We had cross-bred hoggets, Lleyn hoggets, and Lanark-type horned sheep, ewe lambs and hoggets making upwards and over €200.”

“We find we have repeat buyers, with many sheep going to Monaghan, Meath, and Dublin, and as far away as Kilkenny.”

“What we hear back is that the sheep do really well. We would be on marginal enough land, and they are all nearly hill-bred ewes with good prolific.”

“They do well with the lowland ground down the country, which keeps bringing the people back.”

“We have a WhatsApp group where people put up pictures of lambs and hoggets they have for Carlingford. It is becoming very much part of our lives, and it is probably the main income for a lot of these people.”

“A lot of these farmers have and marginal land. So, it is a big part of farmers annual wage coming in, so it means a lot to the local community.”

“From the group’s point of view, the biggest highlight for us all was getting through the hoop/rings to get it passed with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, and all the logistics of having a sale, which none of us ever had any experience of before as we were just ordinary sheep farmers.”

Cooley Sheep Breeders’ Association, sheep farming, sheep farmers,

Sale day

As PRO and secretary of the association, John liaises with the relevant mart hosting the sale several weeks before.

John and his daughter, Cayla, begin their day at 4:00 am, bringing their own sheep to Carlingford.

“There is a hive of activity at this point. All sheep land in a three to four-hour window. We have to pick them out and pen them.”

“Then, I usually greet the judges, and I do a bit on the PA system, announcing prize-winners.”

“Once the sale gets up and running, I spent a lot of time in the ring putting sheep around or liaising with the auctioneers on the day whatever small problems they would be.”

“Then, of course, I would be in the ring selling my own sheep and try to get the best I can out of them.”

“Usually, the sale is over at 5:00 pm or 6:00 pm. So, usually, I would end up taking home sheep for somebody down the country to be picked up or delivered.”

“The next morning, we get up again, back into Carlingford, and we take down all the gates. So, it is a busy time, but good fun.”

Youth involvement

John has seen an increase in younger sheep farmers participating in the sale over the last five years.

Cooley Sheep Breeders’ Association holds a stock-judging event held every February and has raised over €35,000 for local charities before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This has left life easier for the group looking for sponsorship for the sale as everyone knows everybody in Cooley.”

“Up to 30 young sheep farmers, many of which are female, will showcase their stock in September, some with their own herd numbers.”

“The young people come with a different view to improving the stock and are more into it and know what is happening around the country.”

“They are maybe not afraid to invest in a ram, and are sharp. So, they can see what is breeding well and what needs to be done.”

“The biggest thing with young people, and I see it with own children, is they are very competitive. They want to win and are keen to improve their stock and are not afraid to spend, which is a big help.”

“They all are getting into presenting their stock and have the sheep lovely and clean, which was hard for us to convince some of the older generations to do.”

Future

The association has explored options of a two-day event but focused on holding one day sale this year. In addition, they may consider hosting a store lamb sale in the future.

Viewers who wish to tune into the Cooley Sheep Breeders Association sale on September 4th can log on to the LSL Auctions’ online facility and click on Carnaross Mart.

The Meath-based mart will provide an auctioneer for the day in conjunction with the Cooley Sheep Breeders’ Association.

“This time twenty years ago, there was not a single sheep on the Cooley Peninsula as they were completely culled, and twenty years later, we have one of the best breeding sales in the country.”

“We were just hoping to get a sale going in the corner of a field. Now, it is one of the best sales in the country,” John Wehrly concluded.

To share your story, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, – catherina@thatsfarming.com

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