In this week’s sheep segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Carly Murnane, a professional wool crafter and shepherdess. We discuss her wool crafting expertise, her journey into sustainable farming, the lambing system, her passion for surrounding ecosystems, and her plans for the future.
Carly (42) was born in Devon in the UK, but she moved to West Cork when she was 10-years-old with her family.
While she runs a wool crafting enterprise, Carly has an equine background, growing up with ponies and working and training horses until she was in her 30s.
After her equestrian career, she embarked on her shepherdess journey.
“My maternal grandparents were smallholders raising mixed stock and fruit and vegetable orchards on about 5-acres, and my parents continued the tradition of homesteading and market gardening,” she tells That’s Farming.
“I am the first generation to farm on a slightly bigger scale and raise sheep. I always had an interest in self-sufficiency and living from the land, plus a love of animals.”
Carly explored avenues to diversify and add value to her sheep products, making use of all the resources they can provide us with.
“I started out by learning to tan the skins of the animals we raised for meat which would otherwise have been wasted, and that led me to explore wool crafts as well.”
“I have always had an interest in arts and crafts, so this work combines that with my passion for animals and farming.”
She sells her naturally hand-tanned sheepskins, felted vegetarian ‘living sheepskins’, which are 100% wool made from the shorn fleeces.
Her range of sheepskins also includes hand-woven natural wool rugs from her flock.
Carly’s interest in sheep developed around eight years ago, to which she previously kept horses, goats, and poultry.
The farm, which comprises 22-acres of mounted owned, plus grazing arrangements where the flock is grazed to maintain pastures for some smaller farmers, is in Inchigeelagh, Co Cork.
“I bought the land in late 2019, and we have been gradually moving over to it away from rented lowland pasture over the last two years.”
Moreover, she works full-time on the farm alongside her crafting career, having previously worked as a gardener and horse trainer.
Mayo-Connemara Blackface, Jacobs, Shetlands, and crossbreds are the main breeds on the farm.
“These breeds are desirable for their hardiness and suitability for grazing mountain land, plus their long fleeces, which are perfect for making my felted fleece rugs.”
“I am still in the early stage of building up the flock, having previously a very small lowland flock. It is only in the last two years I have transitioned over to building up a hill flock.”
Currently, Carly owns 25 ewes, with plans to increase to 35 to 40 over the next couple of years.
“This year, we lambed mid-April over five weeks but plan to push it back to late April to May next year. This will better suit conditions on the hill.”
Carly lambs her sheep indoors in polytunnels with the aid of cameras for some assistance.
“I use cameras for the convenience as I lamb on my own, and with such a small number of ewes, I do not want to be getting up in the night unless I have to.”
“We try to time lambing for spring grass, so we can turn ewes and lambs out as soon as they are on their feet and sucking.”
She plans to use a teaser in the future, as with a small flock, it would be more convenient to have them lamb as close as possible.
Plans for progeny
Carly retains ewe lambs as replacements to build the flock; they also produce a small amount of meat. This includes lamb and hogget for the supply of the local community.
“Shetland lambs are small but have a high meat to bone ratio, excellent flavoursome meat, and finish well on rough grazing. This suits a very low input system.”
Hereafter, the shepherdess hopes to produce quality breeding stock in the future.
“I am breeding for hardiness, resistance to parasites and foot problems, and ability to thrive in an organic system with very low inputs, plus excellent fleece quality in a variety of natural colours.”
“We had a live lambing percentage of 160% this year, which I am happy with for a young flock with lambs reared on the hill.”
Carly aims for strong singles from the hill ewes and a minimum number of twins.
“Good grass is limited, and I aim to keep inputs low, even though the Shetlands have proven they can easily rear twins on the hill.”
Sustainable farming in Cork
“I love working with the sheep – they all have names. Most are friendly, and I know them all individually and enjoy being with them.”
The Cork shepherdess claims that her passion for farming is driven by the connection to the land, being out in nature and living simply and sustainably.
“We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us. There is something deeply rewarding in that; it is hard to put it into words.”
“I am most driven regarding farming with nature, working with the land in a regenerative way, building better soils, diversity and productivity.”
“All of this while also being sensitive to the existing ecology of the land and the wider environment. I think this is the way forward for sustainable farming.”
Regarding the future, Carly plans to remove the Jacobs and crossbreds, as she believes they are not working well in the current system.
“I intend to focus on the Mayo-Connemara Blackface, increasing the numbers of those over the next couple of years by retaining replacements. This year, I will probably buy a few more Blackface ewes.”
She hopes to have a strong flock that is well adapted to the conditions, rearing their lambs on the hill and producing good fleeces in various natural colours for her rugs.
“I have always worked with animals on the land, and being from a smallholding background, I have come into farming with a simple ethos of living sustainably from the land we live on.”
“The sheep are now integral to the management of our mountain land, providing us with products of both food and fibre from marginal land that would not produce much else.”
She concludes, “I am still very much learning every day from the sheep and other experienced farmers. I am excited for the future of the farm and the flock.”
Carly sells her natural sheepskin products online through Etsy – Wild Irish Shepherdess. Besides, you can follow her journey on her Instagram platform, @wildirishshepherdess.
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