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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
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.
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‘I am at an age where I realise that money is not everything’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with NI farmer, Edward Adamson (72), in this week’s sheep farming focus. 

“Many generations of my family have been farming. My grandfather was the third son of a farming family, so had to borrow the money to buy a farm.

He arrived at Kilroot on June 20th, 1920 and I am happy to have my son taking on the responsibility of our farming business now.

My earliest memories are rushing home from primary school to help cart in hay bales, well, more like a ride on top of the load!

Furthermore, my father was a dairy farmer, and that tradition stopped about 15 years ago when the dairy unit needed a complete revamp, and my son and I decided to stop milking cows.

My son is full-time farming, and I also consider myself a full-time farmer, but I am N.I. Regional Manager for the National Sheep Association (NSA), which takes up some of my time.

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Biannually, NSA holds a sheep event which takes quite a bit of organising.

My work with NSA has allowed me to travel quite a bit through my involvement with the sheep industry. I have been to New Zealand, Russia, and many countries in between.

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NI Sheep Farmer

Our farm in Kilroot, Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland is home to mainly Dutch Spotted, Clun Forest and Lleyn, which we run under the Kilroot name, and we register the Ile de France under the Carrick prefix.

My son, Stewart, and I run the enterprise of primarily commercial sheep, some pedigrees and about 55 suckler cows.

We have had Ile de France for over 35 years. They are a very good terminal sire with little lambing difficulties.

In the 1990s, we exported Ile de France embryos to the USA, and that was the nucleus that the Ile de France breed in the USA developed from.

As the sheep numbers increased, we added Clun Forest and Lleyn because of their excellent maternal ability and lower labour requirements at lambing times.

More recently, Dutch Spotted arrived from the Netherlands in 2018 before demand outstripped supply, and at present, they are proving very popular.

On the other hand, Herdwicks are a bit of a novelty and just kept to supply a small demand.

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Swifter Sheep

Lastly, we have had 30 Swifter sheep arrived from the Netherlands a few weeks ago.

These are the first of this breed into Ireland, and we see a place for them as they are an excellent maternal ewe with a prolificacy of 285% and enough milk to rear all her lambs.

In the modern pedigree sheep world, where a lot of embryo transfer is done, I think this breed will make an excellent recipient ewe capable of supplying all the milk these high-value lambs will require.

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Lambing and labour requirements

My son Stewart and I lamb the sheep on our own, so we need maternal breeds that can lamb and mother their lambs with as little intervention as possible.

The breeds we keep and our selection process allow the two of us to be able to manage on our own without the need to employ extra help.

Labour requirements are one of the costs of keeping sheep that we see as unnecessary with the right breeds.

Ewe numbers have increased naturally over the years, standing at between 800 and 900 at present.

Because of demand and cost, the Dutch Spotted numbers have been increased by flushing several of the best ewes.

The Ile de France lamb in January, Dutch Spotted in February, and we lamb the main commercial flock in April when grass growth starts.

We house January and February lambers, and we lamb all the others outdoors.

The earlier lambing ewes are pedigree and need to have stronger lambs to compete in the breeding market in the autumn.

We sell the others mostly for slaughter and keep the best ewe lambs for breeding for replacements or sell surplus females to regular customers.

The commercial ewes are flushed on good grass before we introduce the rams, but, in fact, we do not want too tight a lambing period as it would be more difficult for just the two of us to manage.

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Breeding objective and challenges

We try to breed sheep with good maternal traits, good prolificacy and the ability to rear them well.

Regardless of the hard work at times, it is very satisfying in the late spring and early summer evenings when checking stock to stop and enjoy watching lambs and calves enjoying themselves and feel that it is all worth it.

The variation in the climate from one year to another makes it challenging at times to manage grass and forage supplies for the stock on the farm.

The rocketing costs of inputs at present are not making it any easier.

We are taking soil health a lot more seriously now with regular soil testing and a reduction in our dependency on nitrogen.

We are involved in several breed societies, and I am chairman of the Agrisearch Sheep Committee, and as stated, I am a member of the RUAS Sheep Committee and Council.

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Ag shows

We exhibit at a few agricultural shows to help draw attention to our pedigree sheep breeds and use them as a means of promoting our stock.

We work hard at producing good quality animals and rely on repeat business as a way of selling our stock.

I do not have a particular favourite part of the farming business. It comprises a few different skills and abilities, and for me, this is part of what keeps it interesting.

I am at an age now when I realise that money is not everything, and farming has given me a quality of life that I appreciate.

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Advice for aspiring sheep farmers

Looking back, I do not think I would do anything different. I have a wonderful wife and family around me, good health, and an interesting way of life; what more could I ask for?

For anyone thinking of getting into sheep, you must ask yourself: do I like sheep?

Because there will be no life for you if you do not enjoy working with them. Try to be business-like in your approach to all that you do.

Make out a budget and work out if you can recoup any expenses incurred in your sheep business.

Try to work smarter, not harder; someone once said, ‘either you run the day, or the day runs you’.

There have been many highlights over the years, and hopefully, some still to come.

However,  because it was early in my showing career, winning the RUAS Interbreed Sheep Championship at Balmoral Show against 13 other breeds in 1993 is one I will remember.

We recently purchased a new stock ram for the Dutch Spotted sheep flock and have high hopes as to how he will breed.

As stated, we are quite excited about introducing Swifter sheep onto our farm and how they fit into the Irish sheep industry.

We hope to continue breeding sheep that can go on to new owners and do well for them.

There is nothing more satisfying than to see animals that we have bred being successful for their new owners.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

See more Sheep Farming interviews.

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