Since the 1970’s Patrick McGurn and his family have farmed the 41ha holding at Kesh, Co Fermanagh as a part time venture.
This area supports a unique landscape – internationally important wet grassland sites interspersed within the catchments of Lough Neagh & Lough Erne, yet poor soils mean 93% of the area is classified as SDA land, making farming in one of the wettest areas of Northern Ireland a challenge.
The farm itself supports a range of habitats – species rich rush pasture, fen meadow, lowland hay meadow, lowland raised bog, wet woodland & mixed ash woodlands.
Patrick and his son run a herd of 15 suckler cows, calving in spring and sold locally to market at approximately 6 months old.
“We have a mix of cows depending on what replacements are available. The Belgium/blue cross calves bring in the most money but are not really suitable to graze this marginal land. We changed to Aberdeen Angus as a terminal sire for ease of calving and receive a premium for the Angus, but losing money on Kerry Black calves compared to the continental breeds. Being a suckler herd farmer you get no recognition at market for the habitats and wildlife you support through grazing as well as the wider public services you are providing for society.”
Patrick explains “the only way to make money is to hold onto the calves longer &/or expand cow numbers. However, this would involve capital investment of £30,000 for winter housing, slurry, etc and would require a much more intensive system leading to a loss of semi-natural grasslands through reseeding and increased fertiliser usage, affecting the very species dependent on our extensive farming system (marsh fritillary, curlew, Irish hare breed on the farm).”
All the land, except the raised bog, needs some type of cutting each year. This has been supported through the LFA Compensatory scheme and ESA. The ESA agreement expired this February and Patrick is concerned about the future direction of the farm as this will greatly depend on what future support mechanisms are available to him and his business.
Although selling calves is their main objective they realise that the land they farm is special and “… want to be able to hand it over to the next generation in better condition.”
They recount stories of the past, being kept awake by corncrake but with the last confirmed breeding record for NI in 2007, Patrick is determined that the curlew doesn’t suffer the same fate. They will continue to take pride in their land and manage it for farming and wildlife for as long as they feasibly can.
Some extracts taken from the case study illustrated in European Forum for Nature Conservation & Pastoralism “High Nature Value farming in Europe” (2012)
Photo credits:Pat McGurn (father of Patrick McGurn) taken by Patrick McGurn, Cows grazing at Kesh (Patrick McGurn), Marsh fritillary (Patrick McGurn)