Michael Viney: Herding the history of Ireland’s native sheep

Another Life: Western seaboard housed ancient breeds adapted to the leanest of diets

The Orkney island of North Ronaldsay is famous for the way it keeps its sheep. A stone wall circles its shoreline and the sheep are kept outside it to feed on seaweed, on which they have happily subsisted for centuries.

At the inner end of Killary Harbour, the big fiord along the north of Connemara, Irish sheep, too, may be found at some low tides, tucking into juicy clumps of bladderwrack. In their appetite for seaweed, they also link to a history of meagre, peasant subsistence.

I wrote here last month of the massive sheep-ranching venture of William Houstoun in the wake of the Irish Famine. Leasing mountain moorland from the local lords, the Scottish army captain made Ireland's biggest farm from the Partry mountains to the sea and brought in Scottish shepherds to marshal his thousands of blackface sheep. This relied on evicting a great many Irish tenant farmers and banishing their few sheep. Houstoun also blamed them for stealing his own.

The “native” sheep of Connacht helped support the people of crowded clachans, surrounded by potato ridges. An 1893 baseline report for the Congested Districts Board found more than 800 farms in south Connemara, with some 2,500 sheep in little flocks of two to 16.


What the sheep were like has been emerging from a project for their regeneration as a rare heritage breed, aptly named the Cladoiri, or sheep of the shore. Owned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and homed in Connemara National Park, they will be given a future in conservation grazing and as an added interest for eco-tourism.

Seaweed grazers

Their ancestors were notably small, with white, narrow faces and shoulders and a lean body. Their worth was in their wool, which was very fine and suitable for spinning and weaving, but it probably took six animals to yield a stone of it. As blackface and other improved breeds took over, these “natives” were pushed out to graze the seaweed on the shore.

As a breed, they were deemed effectively extinct by the 1990s, but their distinctive DNA has been salvaged through the personal interest of sheep enthusiasts.

Sean Cadden, a retired farm adviser, and farmer Tom King, both of Westport, sought out a small flock of Cladoir-like sheep in south Connemara. They were bought and added to by Connemara National Park, and DNA testing found the distinctive strain of the breed still strongly present in most of them. Local farmers, members of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers' Association, will help in captive breeding.

The Cladoiri project is too new to rate more than a marginal mention in the extensive rare-breeds “case study” on the website of the National Rural Network (NRN). This has offered the Galway sheep as “Ireland’s only native sheep breed” .

The predominant lowland ewe at the mid-20th century, it had shrunk to fewer than 1,000 by 2017 and was in danger of extinction. As “a good producer of finished lamb”, it still attracts farmers in ways the cladoir seems unlikely to do.

The red meat of Ronaldsay’s seaweed-eating sheep, on the other hand, is said to have an “intense and gamey flavour” from the iodine in their diet, which may intrigue the more experimental chef.

Neolithic man

The wilder stretches of the western seaboard are a natural home for ancient breeds of livestock adapted to surviving on the leanest of diets. The small black Kerry cow, for example, is thought to derive from the Celtic shorthorn brought north with Neolithic man. Long-lived, extremely hardy and light-footed on the hill, it was developed chiefly for milk production.

The Dexter, from the same stock and only about a metre tall, goes on breeding for 14 years or more. It has been the meat-and-milk choice for many “alternative” smallholders in the UK and Ireland.

The Connemara pony, Ireland’s only native pony, is now so glamorously popular that a history linked to the ancient Celta could seem to be on the romance. Once a small farm workhorse, its enthusiastic adoption for improvement and a herd book came in 1923.

The Kerry bog pony, once the everyday beast of burden of even smaller farms in the west, is now a critically endangered breed. It was given official recognition, after DNA typing, as lately as 2005 and seems likely to survive as the mount of small children.

The west’s most celebrated ancient breed has yet to find a place in a roster of rare livestock. But used for selective grazing in conservation areas, the Old Irish Goats of hillsides above Mulranny, Co Mayo, could warrant a winner’s rosette.

The goats’ appetite for mountain furze could be important on some hillsides as climate warms. A decade of training by volunteer herders has now made them transportable and biddable. Last autumn they were brought to browse effectively on thickets of the giant “rhubarb” Gunnera tinctoria, Connacht’s most troubling alien plant.

In last week’s column, on bats, the research led by Prof Emma Teeling was originally wrongly given as based in Trinity College Dublin rather than University College Dublin. My apologies.