Mhairi Dalgliesh (Scottish Young Farmers Exchange)

My exchange to Ireland through the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs was an experience that exceeded all expectations

SAYFC Exchange to Ireland – August 2017

Mhairi Dalgliesh 

My exchange to Ireland through the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs was an experience that exceeded all expectations. In two weeks I visited 6 counties, seen many sights along the way and made great memories and friends. Throughout this trip I was hosted by Macra na Feirme members and their families, the Irish equivalent of Young Farmers.  

My first few days in Ireland were spent in Thurles, in the County of Tipperary. Here I had the honour of representing Scotland in the International Miss Macra Competition. A festival that brings together girls from various counties within Ireland and countries beyond with experience in Macra na Feirme (Macra) or Young Farmers. This year there were competitors from 20 counties within the Republic of Ireland and one representative from Northern Ireland along with myself. The weekend kick-started with a visit to Coolmore Stud, the biggest and best breeder of thoroughbred racehorses in Europe.  What an operation it was to see! Set on 7,000 acres of prime land and 23 stallions in residency, one of which Galileo is acknowledged as being the best sire in the world! Next up was a Zumba class and it certainly did its job as an icebreaker!

The festival coincided with the August Bank holiday weekend making it very popular with Macra members from across Ireland. The thing that amazed me most was that the 3 jam-packed days were all organised by one small club; Clonoulty and Rossmore Macra. This highlighted to me what one club can achieve when they put their mind to it and certainly gave me a renewed energy and enthusiasm to push the boundaries that Thornhill YFC typically sticks to.

Picture 1: All the 2017 contestants and the International Miss Macra 2016 on day one of the festival

The next day was interview day. In the morning I was interviewed by a panel of three judges; on Young Farmers in Scotland, my involvement in YF and my background/personality. That would not be the only interview for the day though! In the evening, we were all interviewed on stage in front of a large audience. Although the questions were more relaxed as they were about your personal life, hobbies and interests; it was much more nerve-wracking! After the interviews, it was time to let our hair down in a dance to the well-known band; The Waxies.

The final day began with attendance and participation in Catholic Mass. My role was to present the Priest with the globe as a representation of the international contestants which the festival attracts every year. Thereafter, it was time for sports day. From milking cows to hanging up the washing, it was certainly my kind of obstacle course! The festival culminated on the Sunday night with a champagne reception, banquet dinner and dance. The results were announced at 1am and although I was unplaced, I had a brilliant weekend. I met some excellent examples of Macra na Feirme members who allowed me to learn much more about the organisation itself and the challenges they face. It is safe to say I picked up ideas to take back to Scotland with me.

From Tipperary, it was time for the tour of Ireland to begin and the first stop was County Mayo. For the next week, I would be travelling with the Canadian exchange, Matt English. A novelty of this part of the trip was rather than stay with a host family, I would be staying in a glamping pod in the area of Castlebar owned by Macra member Stephen Prendergast, see picture 2. In this area, we visited the National Museum of Country Life. This was a brilliant way to learn about agriculture, traditions and culture in Ireland. Some particular highlights included finding out about the tradition of strawboys. Strawboys were people who used straw hats shaped like cones, which draped over their face, as a disguise. The hats would be so tall that it was impossible to tell whether the man wearing it was tall or short. The men then attended weddings which they were not invited to demanding a drink or money and it was deemed extremely unlucky not to concede to their demands.

 Picture 2: My glamping pod which was an old livestock carriage

I also had the opportunity to visit Downpatrick. A coastal area with breathtaking views which was also used as a navigational point in WW2. The name of this particular point was EIRE- 64. The name EIRE – 64 was marked into the grassland using stone. This indicated to WW2 pilots when they were in neutral territory. From Downpatrick, you were able to see the oldest farming settlement in Ireland which is now 6,000 years old yet the stone walls are still present.

Upon departing Mayo, I was bound for the county of Cavan. For the next two nights I would be staying with Ramor Macra member Roisin and her son Oisin. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this part of Ireland and got to see and learn a lot about agriculture. What struck me most was that regardless of enterprise type, it was much harder for farmers in this area to make a decent living. They were working with much lower quality land in comparison to other areas of Ireland.

The first farm visit was to a dairy owned by the Gillick family who run a herd of beef cattle on rented land. Although the dairy was the main aspect of the enterprise, the family were only milking 50 cows in a 4 unit parlour. This was the first indication I received of how agriculture does vary between Scotland and Ireland. I soon learnt that dairy herds right across Ireland are much smaller in size in comparison to Scotland.

However, to boost income, this farmer had built two holiday lodges alongside a lake. An excellent diversification as when the lodges weren’t full of holiday makers they were very popular with those who wanted a fishing break.

The challenge that these farmers faced was increased due to the price of land rental. A particular example that stuck with me was that of the Gillick family. We got to see a particular plot of land that they were renting for their beef cows for the first time. For that first year, they were paying €42/acre. However, to rent the land the following year, the price was expected to rise to €104-125/acre!

From dairies to beef herds, it was time for a tour round a pedigree Charolais farm; the Mandella Herd owned by the Lynch family. Some excellent stock which had picked up numerous awards at shows and sales right across Ireland.  But this herd’s claim to fame was then they featured in the Farmers Journal for using donkeys to halter train cattle. Male donkeys are much better at the job than females apparently. The Lynch family own a male and female donkey whom they mate. If the young donkey born is a male, it will be kept for the purposes of training while if it is a female it will be sold.

Visits were also made to a robotic milking dairy and a dairy farm with an open air parlour. However, it wasn’t all farms!

I also had the opportunity to get a tour around the Virginia Show Centre. A facility which was purpose built for the prestigious Baileys Dairy Cow Competition. However, the local Ramor Macra had made an agreement that meant they were able to use the building free of charge if they assisted with community events. So whether it be helping set up for a fayre or stewarding at an Agricultural show, they were not only promoting their club and encouraging new members but also saving the club money in hall hire at the same time. I personally thought this was a particular strength of the Ramor club and something that was transferable to Scotland.

A climb at the famous local attraction; Lough Crew was of course necessary. It contains one of the four main passage tombs in Ireland and also allows for beautiful views across the countryside.

Week 1 in Ireland was nearing an end and it was time for what would be the longest journey of all, 7 hours of travelling on public transport to reach Killarney in County Kerry. On this part of the trip, we took in one of the most famous tourist routes; The Ring of Kerry. A stop along the route was made in Port Magee where we hopped on a boat and headed across to the island of Skellig Michael. Parts of the Star Wars films were filmed on this island. A real treat on the journey to the island was seeing dolphins swimming directly alongside the boat. Now that was something I was not expecting to see in Ireland!

The next change over between hosts took place at Tullamore Show. Ireland’s largest one day show and second biggest national show. There were some excellent sheep and cattle on show and it was interesting to see how the typical breeds on show differ.

Picture 3: Watching the dairy cattle judging at the show

From the show it was only a short trip to my next host family; the Casey’s in the Rathangan area of County Kildare. In this county, I would get to visit the place that was my one main aims to see during my time in Ireland; the Curragh Common Grazings. Acres and acres of flat grassland owned by farmers all over Ireland and also partly owned by the Queen. In order to identify the sheep, each farmer has a different colour in which they douse each sheep. Every night, farmers round up and collect their sheep and place them in a specific area. Some chose to pen their sheep up while others will just drop them in a particular part of the Curragh.

From my host family in Kildare, I learnt a lot about agriculture in Ireland. One of the most shocking facts was that in Ireland currently, the farmers considered to be making the best living are dairy farmers! Quite a contrast to Scotland however the crucial difference is that Irish dairy farmers have received a much more constant milk price and are currently being paid 33ppl of milk.

Until I visited Ireland, I never appreciated the tradition of cutting turf. Rathangan is set within the Bog of Allen, the largest raised peat bog in Ireland. It stretches 958 square kilometres across five counties of Ireland. In Ireland, it is commonplace to cut the turf out of a bog, dry it and use it to heat homes. 90% of this bog has now been removed over the past 400 years of peat mining.

The final county I visited on my trip to Ireland was Louth, where I would spend 3 nights staying with Nigel and Marita. Being so close to Dublin, it was of course the perfect opportunity to take in the tourist necessity; the Guinness experience. Very interesting to read and hear of the history of the enterprise and the stages in the process. Some particularly interesting facts were that the brewery was in a very run down state when Arthur Guinness signed the lease on it but despite that, he still signed a lease for 9000 years! Currently, the enterprise was in year 2500 of that lease! Additionally, two thirds of all the malting barley grown in Ireland is used to make Guinness.

The rest of my time in Louth was spent visiting some more farms. I found the farm enterprises in Louth were larger in comparison to other parts of the country. Visit number one was to a beef, sheep and dairy enterprise very similar in size and style to Scotland. However, they definitely had the most up-to-date milking parlour out of all the dairies I had visited in Ireland.  I also had the opportunity to visit Newgrange Farm. A farm of 350 acres which run 400 ewes but much more impressive was the fact that between March and August, they opened their farm to the public and allowed school groups to visit. The activities and attractions on offer included cattle, horses, pigs, donkeys as well as milking cows and go-karting. A fantastic example of an additional income alongside the farm. Very close by to this farm was the Newgrange Monument, the oldest monument in Ireland. Upon the day of the winter solstice, sunlight penetrates a narrow gap on the top of the monument illuminating the tomb beneath. This was used as a time telling device in the Stone Age.

Picture 4: Newgrange Monument

And that brought to an end, my trip to Ireland. A fantastic experience from start to finish! I had the opportunity to learn about Ireland and see how agriculture varies from Scotland. All of the Macra members I met along the way taught me so much about the organisation which allowed me to gain ideas to bring back to Scotland with me and ensured I had a brilliant time throughout my trip.

Mhairi Dalgliesh
August 2017)