‘Farmers’ children’ happy to go back to their roots

President visit Oxfordshire farm

President Michael D Higgins meets Queen Elizabeth’s race horse, Micras. Photograph: Steve Parsons/Reuters

President Michael D Higgins meets Queen Elizabeth’s race horse, Micras. Photograph: Steve Parsons/Reuters

Fri, Apr 11, 2014, 01:01

The pigs squabbled, the hens were friendly and the cows scratched themselves in the midday sun when President Michael D Higgins went down on the farm yesterday.

Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina visited the 1,850-acre farm run by agricultural research body FAI in Wytham Oxford, Oxfordshire, and said they felt quite at home.

“We are both farmers’ children,” said Mrs Higgins, who had earlier snuggled a newly born lamb which had lain happily in her arms. “We feel quite at home.”

Dressed in a tweed suit appropriate for a day in the country for a man of certain years, Mr Higgins dreamed of the future: “And we’re both going back there.”

Animal husbandry

The FAI – the farming variety, that is – has done much to improve animal husbandry

, including dramatic cuts in the number of sheep suffering lameness and cannibalism among hens.

Lameness rates among its 1,200 ewes have fallen from almost one in five every year to just one in a 100 by a mixture of culling, vaccination and better daily care of the flock.

Meanwhile, the hens gathered companionably around Mr Higgins’s party, enjoying the dappled shade of young birch trees – which were immediately identified as such by Mrs Higgins.

The trees are the key to the FAI’s work, since the hens are encouraged to wander knowing the right kind of shade is available, said FAI executive Mike Gooding.

The research, carried out in conjunction with McDonalds – which uses only free-range eggs in the UK – has led to significant improvements among the flock.

Feather-pecking is down. So, too, is cannibalism. Farmers “can pay back the cost of tree-planting in two years”, Ashley Bright, one of the people working on the six-year-long research, said.


Harem of sows
Earlier, Mrs Higgins had been intrigued by the sight of a Gloucestershire Old Spot boar and his harem of sows, whose feed is spread on the ground of their pen, rather than in troughs.

“It encourages them to forage and cuts down on fighting,” the couple were told by Ruth Clements, though, occasionally, there was mild disharmony among the sows.

Recommending a recently read book to her hosts on pigs, Mrs Higgins said: “They remember their ground, rooting it out, it’s in their genes.”

The President and Mrs Higgins were met by Brigadier Nigel Mogg, the queen’s deputy lord-lieutenant of Oxfordshire, and British minister of state for agriculture George Eustice. Mr Higgins had expressed interest in visiting the farm, said Bord Bia chief Aidan Cotter.