December 22nd, 1961

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 00:00

FROM THE ARCHIVES:Counting sheep caused sleepless nights in Border areas

What is the mystery of the Republic’s disappearing sheep? Agricultural experts have for long been puzzled about a discrepancy in our sheep numbers. When they come to compile figures for total stocks, while allowing for exports and home slaughterings they have often found an unaccounted deficit in the remaining sheep stocks.

Several reasons have been advanced for the gap. It has been suggested that mortality of mountain lambs is much higher than farmers know and that their calculations of stocks is inaccurate. None of the explanations, however, has been fully satisfactory but from the North of Ireland comes a theory that the real answer may be found in cross-border smuggling.

Sheep can be exported to Northern Ireland as cattle are but they don’t qualify for as high a subsidy as Northern animals and at times when the British sheep and lamb subsidy runs high it is a profitable business for operators to run the gauntlet of the vigilant police and customs patrols. It has been claimed that on one night’s smuggling of a load of sheep and lambs a profit of £70 can be made.

On the hundreds of tiny mountain roads and lanes that cross the border from Donegal to Louth a constant game of hide-and-seek goes on between the smugglers and the police and although seizures are frequent the illicit drives continue because the stakes make it worth while.

In one month this year the RUC seized 80 sheep in Co Down and Armagh and last year the total number seized in the North came to about 5,000. The people concerned in these transactions face serious risk. A seizure will involve them in substantial capital loss and there may be subsequent court proceedings. Sheep can be seized on suspicion of illegal importation and on the holder rests the onus of proving that they were not imported from the Republic.

But once the animals are safely across the border the chances of detection diminish as they are mixed with home produced animals and after the lapse of time it becomes extremely difficult to pick them out from the other sheep in a flock.

The puzzling question is: does the trade go on even at times when the profits are negligible considering the risks? If it stops in periods when the Northern Ireland subsidy is low then some other factor is causing the discrepancy in our sheep enumeration. The answer to this may lie in the miscalculation of stocks by farmers. While it is easy for the lowland farmer to give an accurate count of his sheep numbers, in the case of the mountain farmer the method must be much more haphazard. The animals for most of the year graze over thousands of acres of mountain and the only time when a check is made is in June when the flocks are taken down for shearing. Owners may base their stock assessment on a rough calculation that the flock when it returns to its grazing will produce a certain number of lambs in the following winter but the allowances for mortality may be very much wide of the mark.

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