“I never knew an animal like it for dying,” says my neighbour, gazing at the flock of sheep we’ve just herded down from the summer pastures to be ready for the shearer the next day. I look again. They seem to me to be in fine condition, all eighty-five ewes and their chubby lambs, but now I fear he has spotted something I’ve missed.
Until we started farming at Tibradden seven years ago, I thought grass was just grass. But conversations such as these, two pairs of gumboots stalled at a fence, have taught me that a sheep will assess a field with the acuity of an addict raiding a drug cabinet. Insufficient lime in the soil and the grass tastes bitter. Insufficient cobalt and the sheep will pine, meaning they don’t eat and won’t thrive. Insufficient copper and new lambs suffer swayback, teetering unsteadily on their front legs while the hind ones remain weak. And all it takes is a sniff of the air for a sheep to tell if the grass is worth grazing or if there’s better elsewhere. We’ve been mending fences in a bid to stop them straying, but it doesn’t always work. Recently I found twenty ewes massed in a scrum against a gate, trying to burst the bolt. So now I’m all on for diplomacy.
The past hard winter had the Dublin Mountains coloured ochre till late April. When spring finally came, I ordered sixty tonnes of lime from Carlow to keep the grass sweet to persuade them to stay. “I didn’t believe you could still find fields full of sheep in Dublin 16,” the spreader said, hopping down off the tractor he’d driven from Red Cross via all the back roads to avoid the M 50. He’s right: it’s getting to be a rare sight.
As each farm disappears, so do the contractors and their shared expertise and labour. The nearest agricultural vet lives in Enniskerry. Sean Cooney who scans our pregnant ewes for single, twin or triplet lambs, farms in Glenealy. Our shearer is a Wexford man. For agricultural supplies, we drive to Naas or Baltinglass. Our sheep are sold at Doyle’s mart in Blessington of a Tuesday. The nearest abbatoir for our freezer lambs is O’Gorman’s of Castledermot. And recently, the Department of Agriculture cast the decisive vote of no-confidence in our area by moving their branch office from Tallaght to Naas.
All this means that loneliness can be a peril for the South Dublin farmer. Our farms may face the city, but our livelihoods depend on the rural hinterland beyond the mountains. “You can’t graze the view”, they say round here. Yet this is the fate, I think sometimes, of those left farming on the edge of the Pale. We work part-time jobs or run several enterprises to keep these fields grazed by wandering beasts that turn little profit from nose to tail. We watch the skinned pasture grow stemmy overnight to wave in the breeze that funnels down the slopes of Kilmashogue. The sight of a buzzard being pursued off the premises by irate songbirds is our brief reward, or the early morning glimpse of a hare loping through the tall grass like a hound.
But this isn’t what we speak of when we stand talking at a fence, the other pair of gumboots and mine. Our shearer knows a man with a cure for the orf, a disease that leaves cold sores around a sheep’s mouth and eyes, who lives beyond Manor Kilbride. You ring him up and he says a prayer and overnight the blisters on the sheep’s mouths dry up and disappear. It always works for him and it’s cheaper than the vaccine. “Do you think it would work on Protestant sheep?” I ask. “It would surely,” he replies.
Why, I sometimes think, chasing our resistant ewes round a sodden field some dank January day, why do we continue to do this? “Because,” my husband says, “it’s become who we are, and it’s how we inhabit the place.” And looking at how each of our bodies has changed, I realize this is also physically correct. His shoulders have broadened under the weighty sacks of ewe nuts he hoiks through the fields. I’ve lost my waist to two sons and two shelves of recipes and the hours I spend at my desk trying to keep our books straight. It may not be a particularly fair match of consequences.
I lift my eldest son up into the lime tree that stands in our front field. He climbs through its nest of branches to a perch high above me, there better to inhale the heady scent of its tiny green blossom. “Do you think,” he calls down, “anyone else could have got this far before?” Beyond him, the car ferry has just pulled out from the East Wall and is nosing into the expanse of the bay. “No love,” I reply, “I think that’s about as high as anyone could ever get.” When he was five, he quietly broke my heart by telling me that when he was older he was going to live in New York. There’s silence from the tree. “Do you know, Mum,” he says after a few minutes, “where we live is pretty cool really.” And it is, I think, it really is.
Evening Herald, 2/7/2013.