Connemara farmers shear hill sheep early in continuing heat

‘Unprecedented’ period of dry weather not yet a crisis, Minister for Agriculture says

Tom Halloran shearing sheep at Lettercraff in Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Tom Halloran shearing sheep at Lettercraff in Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

When Co Galway farmer John Geoghegan was competing in a motorcycle rally recently in Greece, he took more than a passing interest in the cultivation of olive trees.

“I never thought I might be considering it myself, but we might have to sow a few olive plants if this weather pattern continues,” he observed amid the high temperatures at his farm at Glengowla near Oughterard.

Geoghegan and his nine Team Ireland competitors on the recent seven-day Hellas Rally Raid in Greece became accustomed to temperatures of up to 40° – a contrast to the long Irish winter just past, when storms and snow led to fodder shortages and lost stock.

However, he and his neighbours in Connemara are now struggling with the current anticyclone over the State, with the prolonged lack of rain slowing down grass growth and reducing levels in rivers and water tables.

The hill sheep on Geoghegan’s farm of 200 acres know how to move to higher ground for any breeze, and are smart enough to seek out shade among trees, rocks and ferns, he notes.

Still, Geoghegan and his brother-in-law Tom Halloran rounded up a number of the animals from 6am on Thursday for shearing – several weeks earlier than usual.

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Blowflies

“Normally we wouldn’t shear them before mid-July,” Geoghegan and Halloran explained.

“The fleece isn’t quite ready on the hill sheep until them, but the problem is the blowflies or bluebottles attracted to the wool which can turn to maggots and eat their flesh, and so they have to be dipped.”

The pair used blades for hand-shearing, taking anything from a minute to three minutes for each animal.

The wool market is a “disaster”, Halloran noted, with prices as low as 15 cent a kilo this year.

Geoghegan, a third-generation family farmer, says he is lucky as his 200 acres of land, along with a share in commonage, are close to a tributary of the Owenriff river. He also keeps cattle and horses, and has noticed that sink holes in land across the county are completely dry.

Commenting on the situation on Thursday, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed urged farmers to keep in constant contact with Teagasc advisers and vets.

“This is an unprecedented period of dry weather, but I wouldn’t call it a crisis yet,” Mr Creed said, referring to the “uneven” impact on grass growth.

He said he and his officials were keeping in constant contact with stakeholders.

Mr Creed urged people to heed the “status red” warning in relation to risk of forest and gorse fires, and urged people not to plan barbeques near afforested areas and to be careful with cigarettes. He was speaking in Galway, where he opened the two-day ocean wealth conference as part of Seafest 2018.