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Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Spring has finally sprung, there is warmth in the sunshine and life in the fields. The liveliest of springing is from lambs, most of which have been born in the last few weeks. Early lambs, born in January are just reaching maturity now and from this week on Spring Lamb should be available in our local butchers and meat counters. Lamb is my favourite meat, so sweet and flavoursome and along with beef tends to be the best meat we produce in Ireland. I visited Tim Keohane at his farm near Clonakilty to find out a bit more about lamb farming in West Cork and to see what Spring means to him.

 

 

 

Beef is the main income on the Keohane family farm, but in addition to the cattle Tim and his father John have 120 ewes, producing about 200 lambs each year. They are close to finishing lambing and the last few weeks have been the busiest period of the year, during which they’ve had to keep a 24 hour eye on their sheep. Apart from helping with any difficult births, it is also very important to attend to the bonding between mother and offspring. Tim explains that one of the biggest threats to a lamb’s survival is rejection by its mother. This can happen for a number of reasons including if it were to inadvertently suckle from another ewe, which can easily happen when they are inside in close quarters. Rearing rejected “orphan” lambs is a time consuming task that Tim can ill afford and it can be difficult to get them to a good weight in time for market. One solution for orphaned lambs is fostering to another mother by covering the lamb with the afterbirth from a new born at time of birth. The foster mother will be fooled by the smell into accepting the orphan as one of her own. Fostering is also used when the birth of triplets may put too much strain on a ewe and one lamb is fostered out to a mother with a single birth.

 

After a few days inside mother and lamb are released to the grass, so with Tim’s dogs Max and Ben for company we went out to look at the rest of the flock. Ben is semi-retired now having injured his back legs in an accident, but Max was bursting to show what he could do and with a few calmly spoken commands from Tim he brought the flock to us. Tim’s sheep numbers have fallen back a lot from what he used to keep – 500 ewes at one stage, and the profit per lamb is very low, each fetching €70-80 when they are sold in the early autumn. But it was evident from watching Tim work in partnership with the dogs that there’s more to this than money. For me it was a real treat to see a trials standard sheepdog in action and for Tim a source of quiet pride. He and the dogs had been in constant communication since I entered the yard and Tim was particularly conscious of the relationships and hierarchies between the dogs themselves. He told me that he finds the hands on nature of sheep rearing satisfying, if demanding, in comparison with the mechanised business of managing cattle.

 

Raising lambs profitably is very dependent on the markets they find, the optimum being local butchers. Butchers like larger lambs with a bit of fat on them, typically from 45-50kg, whereas factory lambs will usually be sold at a liveweight of 42kg. These lighter lambs suit the supermarkets better and the carcasses do not have as much fat for trimming. Of course individual joints sold in a supermarket are also going to be cheaper simply because they are smaller. Tim remembers when there were up to a dozen butchers buying at Bandon mart, creating a bit of competition and happy to buy larger lambs. But the number of butchers has declined sharply in the last 20 years, falling from 7 in Bandon to 2 now. The trend for buying smaller lambs in supermarkets works against an operation like Tim’s. To service this market profitably a farmer might need upwards of 1000 ewes and be located closer to a main factory, the nearest being in Wexford.

 

Easter came a little soon for Spring Lamb in 2008 but it should be plentiful from the end of March. When it is in season the more delicate tasting Spring Lamb is a delight but do look for meat with a generous coating of creamy-white fat, for which your local butcher is generally the best bet, a conclusion which brings me neatly to my other visit of the week – Michael Twomey in Macroom.

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