16 January 1998

Taking pressure

off grazing – double gain

FOR one Northern Irish family, erecting a boundary fence on hill grazing combined with better shepherding has improved both conservation and commercial sheep production.

The McCaughan family, who farm at Duncarbit House, Glenshesk, Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, run 450 Blackfaces, 300 Wicklow Cheviots and 120 ewe lambs across their 361ha (892 acres) LFA land, as Kevin McCaughan explains.

"Most of the Lanark Blackfaces are bred pure, but some are crossed with Cheviots to provide replacements for the in-bye flock, which is crossed with Suffolks and, increasingly, Texels, to produce lambs for sale for breeding and as stores."

The Blackfaces spend most of the year on the hill, only on in-bye land for tupping. But, as Mr McCaughan explains, ewes were often too thin at this critical time.

"We were finding that about 15% of ewes were barren because they were too thin at tupping. That was down to overgrazing, mostly due to some of our neighbours ewes – about 300 – grazing our hill."

To reduce overgrazing, and improve feed availability for his own flock, Mr McCaughan fenced the march on his hill land.

"This has paid off – we are getting lambing percentages of 100-105% compared with less than 80% in the past due to ewes being in better condition. It has also benefited wildlife – grouse have come back to the hill. We are now getting expert advice on burning heather and grazing management to ensure their numbers increase."

The McCaughans were also the first farm to sign up to the Glens of Antrim ESA which provides annual payments of up to £3000 to enhance the environment.

"This allows us to do work we couldnt otherwise afford, and we dont have to meet very stringent conditions to fulfill the agreement."

So far, some of the ESA payments have been used to restore derelict traditional farm buildings, two of which have been fitted out as lambing pens. "We have also planted and fenced hedges. However, we prefer to improve whats already there by giving it a kick-start and as part of that, we have fenced off old woodland to allow regeneration."

Improvement is a key feature of the sheep flock too, with Mr McCaughan aiming to improve profitability and reduce costs by having a healthier flock, and reducing the amount of concentrate fed.

"We have gone back to using a hardier ewe on the hill, which will last longer. Our flock has also been closed, so we are breeding our own replacements and aim to keep ewes for a year longer, thus reducing replacement costs."

McCAUGHAN STRATEGY

&#8226 Hill and upland flocks.

&#8226 ESA scheme members.

&#8226 Aim to improve profit.

McCAUGHAN STRATEGY

&#8226 Hill and upland flocks.

&#8226 ESA scheme members.

&#8226 Aim to improve profit.

Reduced grazing pressure has benefited conservation and improved ewe productivity at Duncarbit, Co Antrim, says Kevin McCaughan (inset).