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Protecting the Connemara/Mayo Blackface Breed for Future generations

Father & son partnership MartinJoe & Martin Kerrigan are hill farmers in Glentrague, Clonbur Co. Galway - a valley situated in ‘Joyce Country’ overlooking the scenic Lough Mask. Martin is involved in developing the Connemara/Mayo Blackface sheep, as Joanne Masterson, Teagasc Advisor, outlines here

(Image above: Martin Joe and Martin Kerrigan on the family farm in Glentrague, Clonbur)

'Joyce Country' Farming

Father and son partnership Martin Joe and Martin Kerrigan are hill farmers situated in Glentrague, Clonbur Co. Galway. Glentrague is a valley situated in ‘Joyce Country’ and overlooks the scenic Lough Mask. The farm is made up of 350 acres, 330 acres of that is mountain, 10 acres of foothills and 10 acres of permanent grass. The farm has been in the family for generations with Martin Joe taking over from his father in the early nineties, and in recent years Martin has joined his father as joint herd owner. Martin has shown a keen interest in farming from a young age. He also further educated himself in farming and availed of farm schemes when he completed the Greencert course in 2017. Martin also works off-farm as a lab technician in the local McGraths quarry in Cong.

Currently on the farm, there are 220 Connemara/Mayo Blackface ewes, 40 hoggets and 6 stock rams. Each year the duo keep their own replacement hoggets which amounts to approximately 40 hoggets. Retaining homebred ewe lambs offers the advantage of known disease status, and the opportunity to fully exploit genetic improvement.

In the last year, they have started recording the whole flock in order to be able to capture beneficial data on the flock. Having this data recorded on the ewes also helps to aid the selection of replacement females and identify ewes that need to be culled on the farm. They also record approx 40 ewes for the Mayo Blackface recording group for purebred status.

Martin comments, “The best way for farmers to improve the overall quality of their breeding stock and productivity is to start recording their flock, as it is a lot easier to identify bad genetic traits in their stock which can then be culled from the farm”.

Over the past number of years Martin Joe and Martin, sell some ram lambs to Teagasc for research purposes – in particular these lambs were used in the recent trial work on finishing hill bred male lambs at lighter carcass weights while meeting market specifications for muscle and fat cover. The remaining ram lambs are either sold as stores in Maam Cross mart or fed on and killed through the lamb-producing group Connemara Hill Lamb.

In addition, ewe lambs are sold at the Mayo Mountain Blackface sheep breeder’s sale in Ballinrobe and in Maam Cross mart at the special Blackface sale.

The focus is to have good quality strong ewe lambs to sell for breeding purposes. Also Breeding ram lambs, ram hoggets and aged rams are sold in Maam Cross mart at the special Blackface sale.

Hill Grazing Management

Having sheep breeds that will assist with the sustainable grazing management of hill areas is very important. The maintenance and care of upland areas are important for farming, biodiversity, recreation and tourism. In order to avoid under-grazing or over-grazing areas it is important to have sustainable stocking rates on hill areas. In order to balance upland biodiversity; sheep can be used as an ecological tool. Therefore, it is very important that breeds like the Connemara/Mayo Blackface breed are maintained and improved for a more sustainable role, which can go hand in hand with maintaining and improving habitats.

Martin comments “ the Connemara/Mayo Blackface breed plays an essential part in grazing management in hill areas, as without them the hills would become overgrown and taken over by more dominant plant species”.

Connemara/Mayo Blackface Breeding Group

In the past year, Martin has been involved in development and promoting the Connemara/Mayo Blackface Breeding group. It is a new breeding group set up for all farmers who breed Connemara/Mayo Blackface sheep. Young driven farmers in the area who respect and see a bright future in the Connemara/Mayo Blackface breed and hill farming for future generations have set it up.

Breeders in the area were concerned that the genetic traits of the Connemara/Mayo Blackface breed were in danger of being diluted as a result of crosses with other Blackface breeds. The main goal of the group is to revive this unique and versatile hill breed and ultimately hope to improve the overall quality and standard of the breed. In addition, another reason for setting up the group was so that farmers of this breed of sheep were properly represented in the heart of Connemara and to be able to provide premier sales in local marts.

The group hopes to showcase the breed by providing a premier sale in the heart of Connemara that will attract buyers nationally. Having breeding groups like this can help to develop and improve stock locally that will have long-term benefits for farmers and rural communities.

Future of hill farming

Later this year the group will have two premier breeding sales in Maam Cross Mart exclusively for members only – A ewe sale and a ram sale. If anyone wants to get in contact with the group there is a Facebook page set up Connemara/Mayo Blackface Group and email connemaramayobbg@gmail.com. The group are now accepting membership and will be promoting these sales in the media later this year.

Although parts of hill farming can be difficult, there are also many positive and rewarding aspects to it. Having farmers like Martin Joe and Martin who care about the future of hill farming by improving genetics of hill breeds, hill grazing management and improved farm profitability will help future generations to remain farming in hill and mountain areas.

For more on Hill Sheep farming check out Virtual Hill Sheep Conference 2021