Catherina Cunnane, That’s Farming editor, in conversation with Laois farmer, Emma Fitzpatrick, in this week’s Women in Ag segment. The former hairdresser turned full-time farmer tells this publication about developing a passion for agriculture back in 2016, despite growing up on a farm and her growing flocks of Valais Blacknose and Dassenkop sheep.
“I am a 41-year-old sheep farmer residing in Clonaslee, County Laois, and originally hailing from Mountmellick.
I am married to Aiden Fitzpatrick, a second-generation farmer who runs a suckler/beef enterprise, and we constructed our house at the height of the boom, 2006, to be exact on his home farm in Clonaslee.
We have three children and operate a suckler farm, comprising mainly Limousin and Belgian Blue cattle and have a commercial flock of sheep, predominately Beltex-cross and Charollais-cross ewes.
We have a small flock of Valais Blacknose sheep and a newer flock of Dassenkop, which I am very excited about.
Aiden works full-time off the farm, and I also worked full-time off-farm until this lambing season when I decided to be home and on-farm full-time.
It is a far cry from my hairdressing days, but I absolutely love it. Aiden’s days can start at 6 am before work to get some jobs done, and he could finish up at any time at night.
Sheep: A sideline
Aiden’s prime interest is his cattle, as we introduced sheep as a sideline, but I fell in love with sheep farming, which was not supposed to happen because I had zero interest in farming at all up to 2016.
Growing up in Mountmellick, both my parents worked in construction and in the last 20 years, my dad built up a herd of commercial and pedigree Limousin cattle, but
always had cattle as a sideline to the building trade.
My earliest memories are standing in gaps and sneaking Mr Kipling French Fancies through the gate to the cows and being told off for it.
Aiden’s parents were suckler farmers and had a flock of Suffolk sheep, but they gave up sheep farming and concentrated on cattle.
We reintroduced commercial sheep back onto the farm in 2016. We lamb indoors; it was the same way Aiden’s parents did it.
So, we lamb in early January, so we sponge commercials in early August out-of-season to create a compact, early spring lambing session.
Lambing indoors suits us better than lambing outdoors. Not only can January have harsh weather, but our fields are scattered away from our home.
It is more convenient for us, especially at night, as we can check the cameras, pop on the kettle, and bring a coffee down to a nice warm and dry shed.
We have our lambing kit set up if anything needs assistance. It also suits us as calving season often clashes with lambing, and the sheds are close by.
For me, the most difficult part of farming is lambing time, as it is the hardest and busiest time but also the most exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable.
Plus, I am not good with sleep deprivation. Over the years, I have had to harden up to those heart-breaking losses.
But the joy of seeing your lambs bond with their mother and bounce around together at feeding times outweighs the sadness.
I have learned to stop blaming myself and accept it and move on. Where you have livestock, you have dead stock; it is inevitable.
Valais Blacknose Sheep
In 2019, we came across the Valais Blacknose breed of sheep, and we became intrigued. We searched for information on them.
It is my understanding that it is currently not possible to buy from Swiss breeders in their native homeland. They do not have much interest in selling them, making imports from Switzerland extremely unlikely.
Most of the Swiss bloodlines in Ireland come via Austria. Native to the Valais region and the Swiss Alps, which we are currently making plans to visit, the Valais Blacknose dates back as far as the 15th century.
Nicknamed ‘the cutest sheep in the world’, they certainly live up to their name. Not only are they beautiful to look at, with their ringlets, but their temperament matches their gorgeous curls and fluffy black knees.
They are extremely affectionate and demand cuddles, making them fantastic pets.
They have a comical awkwardness to them; they cannot seem to run, so a fast stride turns into a four-legged bounce when they cross the field to greet you.
In 2021, we bit the bullet and bought our first hogget from Quarrymount Pedigrees in County Offaly.
We experimented in embryo transfers with mediocre results, but that is the luck of the draw with flushing sheep. We want to move to just natural breeding and protect our bloodline.
At the end of 2022, we bought our first batch of Dassenkop (Badger Face Texels). This breeding season, we want to concentrate on building our flock of pedigree Dassenkop.
The Dassenkop breed is still relatively new to Ireland but is very popular in Belgium and Holland.
They are a powerful black sheep with two striking white stripes on their face, hence the name Badger Face Texel.
They are a strong, well-built sheep with strong personalities, and like the Valais, they are very friendly.
Being biscuit lovers, they come bounding towards you the moment they hear the first crinkle of a packet of rich teas. Who needs a sheepdog when you have biscuits?
Over the next few years, I really want to build on my pedigrees, not just numbers, but quality.
My aim is to keep most of my ewe lambs as replacements and to produce good quality pedigree lamb rams for stock rams to sell.
We hope to start showing our stock in 2024; we have not ventured to shows just yet, but that is a goal I have set for myself. Going to Switzerland and Belgium is also on my bucket list.
I would advise any aspiring sheep farmers to start out small and go for quality without breaking the bank.
Know your breed inside out and take advice from seasoned farmers in the same field, but do not let people tell you how to farm.
We all farm differently in a way that suits us. Be well prepared ahead of lambing season and have a kit put together. If you go down the embryo path, remember it is down to luck.
I have learned a lot about sheep but do still have a lot to learn. When you think you know everything, that is a sign you need to return to sheep school.
The future of agriculture is unpredictable. Climate change is the number one topic at the moment, and rightly so, but it does feel like the farmer is taking the hit for it and being penalised more over other sectors.”
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