Situated at the gateway to the Connemara region, nestled at the foot of the Sheeffry Mountains with the towering Mweelrea as its backdrop, is one of Ireland’s largest working farms.
Catherine O’Grady-Powers and her husband, Jim, a US native, run Glen Keen Farm which comprises 1,700-acres and just under 500 sheep.
“My ancestors, the O’Malleys, were tenant farmers at Glen Keen from the 1700s. They, like many others, were evicted from Glen Keen during the Irish Famine in 1847.” Catherine told Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.
“My grandmother, Margaret and her husband, Hugh O’Grady, had the opportunity to buy Glen Keen through a land purchase agreement in 1922 shortly after Ireland became an independent state.”
“Some of my earliest memories of farming here was when I was around 5-years-old walking behind our cattle with dad and my uncles. We would herd cattle out towards our grazing lands over by Doo Lough Lake.”
“I also recall how much fun I had playing on the cocks of hay and getting lost in the hay bales in the hay shed.” the Louisburgh, Co. Mayo native laughed.
Bright lights of big cities
“As a teenager, I found rural life here very quiet and I could not wait to go and explore the bright lights of big cities.”
After third level, she moved to London, where she worked for airline companies and met her husband, a pilot by profession.
“We dated for six months, got engaged, I moved to the USA and we got married twelve months after we met,” added Catherine, who worked in PR and finance in the US and for her husband’s company, providing various training programmes.
Returning to the Emerald Isle
Glen Keen was always close to her heart so when her uncle asked her if she would she consider returning home to take the reins of the farm, she was “overjoyed”.
“It was a big shock for Jim, but he embraced it and we moved back to operate the farm at Glen Keen.”
“Jim continued his work in the USA as we had to make a significant investment into upgrading the farm which, at the time, was quite run down.”
Catherine and Jim, sixth-generation farmers, who have a five-year-old son, James, are constantly researching increased profit opportunities for the working farm.
Due to the size of their farm, they hire in extra help during busy periods, availing of shearing and scanning services and working closely with a Finnish veterinary college.
Five years ago, they introduced Texel rams to the flock to produce a more profitable Hilltex lamb, by selecting ninety Blackface ewes to breed with two Texel rams.
With a 90% success rate and a higher number of couples produced, the trial proved a success. “The introduction of Texel rams has been a perfect fit for us. Lambs stay fleshy at any weight and can survive in harsh conditions in the mountainous terrain.”
“Hilltex lambs achieved double the value of a Blackface hill lamb with the same amount of farm efforts.”
Initially, the couple was concerned about the lambing process in terms of care and observation of a Blackface ewe producing a larger Hilltex but the mix has proved to be an excellent match with ease of lambing and no additional measures required.
“It is exactly the same process as lambing a Blackface lamb as a Hilltex. We are delighted with this easy solution that has resulted in increased profits for the farm.”
In 2017, two pedigree Texel ram lambs were added to the flock and mated with 30 Blackface ewes.
Catherine stated that the Texel ram introduction has provided the farm with a very positive outlook and it is an area that they intend to further develop.
All Hilltex progeny are sold at marts, with females from Mountain ewes mated with Blackface rams earmarked as replacements. All males are sold except for thirty that are retained for tour lunches, promoting the farm-to-fork concept.
Breeding and lambing seasons
The breeding season at Glen Keen begins in mid-November, with sheep gathered from the mountains from the end of October.
“We perform a wellness check and administer some vitamin and nutritional doses. We divide sheep into batches depending on the size of the lowland fields that they will go to for mating.”
“The ratio is fifty ewes to one Blackface ram and forty-five ewes to one Texel ram. We have two large fields comprising of 30 and 22-acres so we will put three rams with 150 ewes into these areas.” Catherine added.
“Lambing season starts in mid-April, a great sign of growth and re-birth. It is a special time for us, watching nature take its course and the celebration of life and growth all around us.”
“The winter weather can be challenging. We keep our ewe lamb replacement stock down on the lowland and feed them during the winter. They are outdoor sheep, but severe weather conditions can make this a challenge sometimes.”
The family opened their tourism business in 2014, through the South West Mayo Development Co, where they received a grant for the construction of a state-of-the-art purpose-built tourism facility.
In recent years, it has been growing rapidly, operating on a seasonal basis, attracting approximately 30,000 visitors annually.
They have eight visitor experience packages: sheepdog herding demonstrations, cultural and heritage walking tours of ancient sites and traditional turf-cutting.
Others include wool spinning and dyeing, mountain hiking, traditional Irish music and sean nós dance lessons, Irish coffee making demonstrations and immersive cooking experiences.
“2020 was booked to be our best year for business since we opened; however, all international visitor groups had to be cancelled or re-scheduled to 2021.”
“We are now providing video content and virtual tours to our global tour operators to enable them to keep their customers engaged where Ireland is top of mind when planning their travel itineraries for the future when it is safe to travel again.”
“As a farmer and agri-tourism business provider, I have a lot of responsibilities, but I am very fortunate. Jim and I are a great team and divide up tasks so that neither one of us are overburdened.”
“We are always making plans weekly and monthly to ensure all areas of responsibility are looked after. It is 7-days-a-week, but we love it.”
“The landscape here still retains the ecology of the Ice Age and acts as a living museum to Irish history. Walking over the un-harvested potato ridges, abandoned from Famine times, sends chills up my spine!”
“We have one of the remaining cluster villages here, still intact. It escaped the evictions and levelling of the villages here that once housed forty families. There are two bronze age forts on the property and an ancient burial site.”
Looking ahead, the continued development of their working farm and agri-tourism business is their prime objective.
“We aim on the continuous maintenance of a healthy flock where we are always investigating technology and ideas for better sheep farming practices.”
“We will also continue our work on biodiversity where we will be adding to our wildlife corridor where we planted over 1,000 native woodland trees.”
“Our ultimate goal is to be happy, healthy and maintain our beautiful farm for future generations,” Catherine concluded.
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