BUSY MAN Westport sheep farmer Joe Scahill (right) pictured judging at a Mayo Blackface sale with Mike O’Toole from Clifden. Joe has 600 mountain ewes ready for lambing this season. Pic: Conor McKeown
You know spring is in the air when the days are still bright past 6pm, the daffodils are in bloom and sheep farmers across the county are gearing themselves up for lambing season. While Covid-19 has stopped most things in its tracks, there is no stopping nature. Lockdown or no lockdown, sheep farmers will be flat out for the next couple of weeks.
One of the busiest will be Westport farmer Joe Scahill, who has 600 mountain ewes ready for lambing. It is a year since the coronavirus arrived on our shores, and at the time Joe was apprehensive about how the pandemic would affect the sheep sector.
“I was worried, we didn’t know what way it would affect everything. We were worried if exports would be affected out of the country because we export a huge percentage of what’s produced,” he explained.
Twelve months on, and that fear has turned into optimism for the coming year. Demand for lamb has increased since the onset of Covid-19. The closure of restaurants for the majority of the year might have suggested otherwise, but with home cooking on the increase, freshly cooked lamb is back on the menu.
“Whether it is directly linked to the Covid I don’t know, but the consumption of lamb in our own market has crept up, and I think it was the same across Europe. A lot more people were at home, and I’d say the convenience meals went out the window a bit in a lot of homes. If you talk to the ordinary butcher they will tell you the business has picked up and that trade in meat is up 25 percent.
“Over the years we would ask why less and less young people were eating lamb, and often the answer you get is that it was a lot of trouble to cook after work. A lot of people who were working would eat out during the day and mightn’t even cook a dinner at hime. But that has changed and people have more time on their hands now, and that has worked for us in a way,” he explained.
A former winner of the Sheep Farmer of the Year Award in 2017, Joe farms 400 acres at Prospect outside Westport, where he lives with his wife Cathy and four children.
Hill sheep farming may be as traditional as it comes, but Covid has forced some of the old methods into the 21st century. With marts closed due to the restrictions, the biggest change is the move into online sales.
Having never bought or sold anything online before, Joe is a now an online advocate. He believes it will change farming for the better.
“I’ll be honest with you I never bought anything online before 2020 and I never had anything sold online. It wasn’t something that came into people’s heads as such, but when Covid came and people started to look at it, it became a necessity. I think it brought huge advantages.
“I am involved in a few sheep sales, and at harvest time we organised a big sheep sale in Ballinrobe. A third of the sales were bought by people online. If you didn’t have the online service you wouldn’t have those customers…
“We had a man from Cavan who was working down in Cork who tuned in and bought 50 or 60 sheep and him at work. He just rang after and asked if we could organise some lad to deliver them back home to his farm in Cavan.
“A couple of marts we tuned into you could see what you were buying. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid of buying stock online again. I found it very easy and I think it will be something that will be there to stay,” he said.
Joe admits that for some, the mart was a social event where many people went to meet people as much as buy and sell. The current circumstances have been difficult for many farmers on their own, he says.
Still, he is encouraged by a renewed interest in sheep farming among young people. He believes it can be a very attractive way of life for some.
“There has been a lot of interest from younger farmers at the tail end of the year looking to buy sheep and cattle and some pedigree sheep. The College of Further Education in Westport was also flooded with young boys and girls wanting to do the Green Cert.
“Anyone who takes over a farm in the west of Ireland will not cod themselves they will get loads of money but a lot of people love the idea of doing a bit of farming and rearing kids on a farm. It is the way of life that’s attractive even, if they had to work as well and let the farm be part-time.”