Today Ruth and I had another early start and headed baa-ck to the Ards peninsula for a day on a farm, this one predominantly sheep (numbering over 600 – you’d fall asleep long before you finished counting those), with some beef cattle, cereals and willow also grown.
We were welcomed into the farmhouse for a cup of tea with the farmer and his parents, and had a laugh at a sign in the kitchen – ‘ewe’s not fat, ewe’s fluffy’ – a good motto for us perhaps, given the copious amounts of food we have been given this module! We heard a little about the farm and how it functions before going out to the shed where some of the ewes were dosed for worms – in contrast to the solution that was used at the dairy farm which was poured on the cows’ backs, this one has to be swallowed and so required a little more precision! Various lambs were moved about and some went through the foot bath to try and prevent foot rot, ever a problem in damp NI. They were happy to trot through the foot bath but less so when they saw the clippers come out, a necessary task to ensure the future health of the flock.
We then headed to a nearby farm with the farmer for a meeting of local UFU members with representatives from UFU headquarters. Ruth and I felt quite out of place with our relative ignorance of the issues farmers face (although we would have felt worse had we been there at the start of the module!), but were made very welcome by everyone, albeit after a heart stopping moment when we were asked how long we were talking for! My short stature once again proved problematic as we heaved ourselves up onto (surprisingly comfy) bales for the duration of the meeting, and my feet dangled a good foot off the ground. What followed was a chance for the UFU staff to talk about the main issues as they see them, followed by a chance for discussion and the farmers to raise their own concerns. It was great to see the UFU in action, having heard about their work at the start of the module (https://frombaatoahh.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/day-1-moo-beginnings/). Unsurprisingly, Brexit was much discussed and lots of speculation took place, along with the challenges of working with environmental campaigners and the price differential between here and mainland UK – this really shocked me, I never knew that meat of the same value would fetch a significantly lower price in NI than elsewhere in the UK. Being at the meeting was a baa-rilliant insight into the opinions of farmers in this area, although we were glad to head back to the warm farmhouse for a roast dinner!
Much of the afternoon was taken up with preparing the lambs that were going to be sent to the abattoir. Each needed to be checked and weighed, before their tag numbers and details were recorded (Ruth and I took this very seriously but were glad we avoided the less enviable task of shaving the wool off around their bottoms). They were then sorted into pens and we were told to count them, all the while resisting the urge to fall asleep! I can confirm sheep are even harder to count than cattle – they are all identical, love to move around and some sheep themselves are even sleeping and obscured! All too soon (for the lambs, at least), it was time to say good-baa and put them onto the lorry for their one way journey – it was bye bye, black sheep – and there was mutton to be done for them, it was time to face the chop! (Admittedly Ruth and I were rather more sentimental about their fate than the farmers!) Various paperwork has to be filled out to ensure the traceability of the lambs, and fulfil other regulations, and while this wasn’t a problem for the farmer we were with, in a survey carried out in England and Wales 62% reported that paperwork and record keeping was causing them stress (article available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1757527/ – ‘Stress in Farmers: A survey of farmers in England and Wales’.)
Work on the farm continued with another set of lambs to be dosed and returned to pasture, before we saw the willow fields and biomass boiler, an important part of diversification for this farm. It was hard to baa-lieve it was 5.30pm and our time on the farm was over – I had a great day and really enjoyed getting a bit more of a flavour of what life is like for farmers in NI, the challenges they face but also what they are doing to overcome them. All the farmers I have met have had a really strong resolve to try and improve things – they are not the kind of people to sit around and complain if they could be doing something about it themselves!