Down on the farm


NATURAL TOUCH Micheál McDonnell

I live in the Erriff Valley around ten miles from Westport and as well as running the family farm, I am self-employed with my own IT company, Cyber Solutions and I work mostly with schools dealing with their IT needs, as well as broadband.
At this time of the year schools are closed for the Easter holidays which is good for me as I can concentrate on the lambing season, which is in full swing. My typical day usually starts around 6am to 6.30am and these days the lambing flock are checked first thing. If there are follow-up issues as regards weak lambs, possible fostering issues and moving to different fields, then that’s done next.
I have a couple of hundred black-faced mountain ewes and some suffolk to crossbreed.
About 60 percent of them will be in sheds up to lambing season and they are all let out prior to lambing to control disease and also because it is very labour intensive to lamb indoors if you don’t have help. They are let out the day before they are due to lamb.
Complications are rare as the blackface breed are a hardy and easy lambing breed and generally that is why we stick with them. We are not intensive and while we would have plenty of twins, we are not looking to have more. We would be happy to have one lamb per ewe and wouldn’t be looking to knock out three lambs per ewe.
I like to keep nature intact and some of the flock would lamb in the hills … nature will decide on their fate. It would be very rare when I’d have to pull a lamb and I haven’t pulled one yet this year. I like to give the ewe time to lamb. When you are not intervening you let nature take its place. It generally works out well.
The big issue is the fox, he is the big boy in town who you have to keep an eye on and in recent years the pine marten is also a bit more plentiful. Floods would also be an issue as would sheep lambing into drains and ewes walking away from lambs. It is no joke when there is bad weather. When the weather is good things will go run smoothly but if it isn’t things tend to go very wrong.
I enjoy this time of the year, you are always very active and a good way to lose a few pounds anyway. This morning I was up at 6am and it’s a good way of life. You see nature taking its course.

The next generation
People are not in touch with nature as they once were. Everyone is so busy now that we don’t realise what is around us. Farming is a way of life but a lot of people can’t be at it and as a result they lose touch with nature.
I have four children – two boys and two girls – aged between three and eleven and it is great to see them taking an interest. They love moving the sheep and seeing the lambs being born. It is great that they do it and it is important that they see it because in a couple of years they will be gone doing their own thing.
A lot of young people aren’t getting into farming because they see the hardship and are drawn to a different lifestyle where there is easier money to be made and more consistent money. They have a salary and are not relying on the market to tell you sheep are worth nothing and they might be better next year. If the money wasn’t coming in from the single farm payment there would be nobody at it at all.
I went back to college in 2000 as a mature student and did an honours degree in IT and Information Technology in GMIT in Castlebar. I left Allergan and went back to college and started my own company.
It suits me perfectly because the farming life coincides with a lot of the work I do. When you work with schools, the summer time off gives me time with the farming and for the Easter I have time for the lambing because the schools are off for two weeks.
I help out in coaching Westport U-12s in the GAA and bring the children to sport and help out every Saturday when I can. The girls are also involved in football and I try to get to their matches and see them all. I do a little bit of fishing but I don’t have much time with that.
I am secretary of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association which has a few thousand members and it is still growing. We look at different ways to help farmers and there has been a lot of positives to come out of it. We are doing it for the good of the farmer and not for ourselves.
The sheep are left up on the hill after they are sheared in July and once you let them go you will be relying on nature to take care of them. There could be an odd lamb taken by the fox but that is just the way it is, you have to live with that. Once they go to the hill that’s it. They are hardy sheep and that is why we stick with Mayo black sheep and not spend time messing with the different breeds.
The lambs are generally sold in September and that’s it until November when the sheep are brought down and dosed, and the whole process starts off again.

In conversation with Anton McNulty

Names: Micheál McDonnell
Age: 49
From: Erriff Valley
Occupation: Sheep farmer and self employed

Quickfire Questions

Tell us something about yourself we don’t know? 
I bite my nails quite vigorously.

Best advice you ever got?
Always make sure you can walk before you try to run.
Favourite place in the world?

Most famous person you ever met?
I met former James Bond actor, Timothy Dalton once – he was fishing on the Erriff.
What makes you nervous?
Telling the wife Mary I’ll be home in ten minutes and landing up after two hours.
Name three things always in your fridge?
Tuna, cheese, tomatoes.
Your most prized possession?
My wife and four kids and also my digital alarm clock I bought at a sale of work in Cushlough Community Centre in 1991.

If money was no object what would you do?

I am very content where I am but I would like to give my wife and my four kids a choice of where they would like to go in the world and we would go there together and spend some mad time together!

What you miss most about being a kid?
Santa doesn’t bring me anything anymore. He was a class act!
Most unusual thing you ever ate?
I had chargrilled lambs tails once. They were very tender!