In this week’s sheep segment, That’s Farming, profiles Caroline O’Connell, who explains how the Covid-19 pandemic rekindled her love of the land and sparked the establishment of Castlecor Zwartbles.
Caroline O’Connell claims her love for farming “got lost and forgotten for a few years” when she moved away from home for college and entered the working world.
That was the case up until March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and rekindled her love of the land.
As a result, she has moved back to her home soil in Castlecor, Mallow, Co Cork, the home of her family-run organic sheep and suckler enterprise.
Here she resides with her father, Timothy, mother, Geraldine, and siblings, Rachel, John and Madeleine.
“My interest in farming has been there for as long as I can remember. I grew up on the family farm and always spent as much time as I could on the farm,” she told That’s Farming.
“I had pet sheep and a pet cow from when I was very young that I bottle feed when they were born and stayed pets throughout their lives, so my love for animals was always there.”
The qualified business and accounting secondary school worked part-time for North Cork Creameries throughout her studies. When she completed her degree in 2012, North Cork Creameries offered her a permanent position as part of its finance team.
“I decided to take it. I loved working in the company and still do. So, I believe it was the right decision for me. However, I did not push teaching to the side.”
“I keep it up by teaching business and accounting QQI further education courses a couple of nights a week at Mallow Night School, which is I now do remotely. So I have the best of both worlds, industry and teaching,” she added.
Her father, Timothy, a livestock auctioneer at Kanturk Mart, and her brother, John, are full-time farmers, running 180 organic beef cattle and 80 organic ewes.
“When I went to college and started working, my time on the farm and with animals took a back seat for a couple of years. Of course, not everybody is lucky enough to say that Covid has had some positive aspects for them, but for me, it has.”
“Working from home and not having the usual busy lifestyle was very hard at the beginning, but it meant I could start spending some time on the farm again. I did not realise how much I missed it [the farm] until I got back out there.”
For the first time in years, she assisted with lambing season, which she enjoyed in her earlier years.
“Also while working from home, I was able to spend an hour or two before work in the mornings on the farm, lunchtime, and most evenings, feeding, lambing, and so on. It helped with the negative impact of the pandemic and kept me sane,” she added.
The Organic Trust-certified farm is also home to the 27-year-old’s recently established Castlecor Zwartbles flock.
In late spring of this year, after spending time looking after her father’s and brother’s commercial sheep, she had a discussion with them about establishing her own flock.
She researched various breeds and desired something “a bit different to our own commercial sheep”. That was when she stumbled across the Zwartbles breed, which led her to establish her own flock.
“The pandemic made me realise how much I missed being on the farm, and mainly the lambing season. Zwartbles have become very popular in Ireland in recent years, and thus I found them quite difficult to source.”
“After weeks of ringing breeders around the country, I finally sourced a pedigree ram and two pedigree ewes in Tipperary. A couple of weeks later, I sourced two more pedigree ewes in west Cork. They were in-lamb, so I was delighted I did not have to wait until spring 2022 for lambs.”
Currently, she has four pedigree registered breeding ewes, and a pedigree registered ram. In addition, she has two ram lambs from the two in-lamb ewes she purchased, which she will sell as pedigree registered rams when they are older.
On the other hand, the Irish Zwartbles Sheep Association member intends to retain her sole ewe lamb for future breeding purposes.
“From research and conversations I had when I rang a couple of Irish breeders, I decided on Zwartbles because of their docile nature and easy lambing traits. They are also noted for being very easy to keep so they will suit my lifestyle.”
Expanding her reach
Her primary aim is to keep expanding her flock in the next couple of breeding seasons.
“So in spring 2022 – depending on what is born – I will either be retaining ewe lambs for breeding and changing the ram as he will be related to them. I will have ram lambs for sale and will buy in a couple of ewe lambs.”
“Eventually, when the flock is a little bigger, I will hopefully have both pedigree registered ewes and rams for sale.”
“We will also try the Zwartble pedigree ram on some of the commercial ewes, with the aim of breeding some replacement ewes for the commercial flock. This is because they have such great mothering abilities and easy lambing traits. We will also look at what sort of lambs growth and weight-wise we get.”
“I feel very fortunate to be a young person living on a farm, and for being part of an agricultural family, especially during Covid. It is a privilege to get up in the morning and go out on the farm in the fresh air, especially now having the sense of responsibility of my own sheep and lambs to be fed, checked and so on.”
“It has most definitely has had a huge positive impact on my life during the lifestyle adjustment that came with the pandemic.”
“I think the future is quite bright for women in agriculture. From my experience so far in becoming a breeder in the Zwartble Sheep Association and from my work in North Cork Creameries, I think women are taken quite seriously and treated equally in the workplace and on the farm,” she concluded.
To share your story, email – [email protected]