When the Grass is Greener

“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.


Observer Photography Book of the Month

Colin Graham

Sean O’Hagan reviews Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography in The Observer as their ‘Photography Book of the Month’:

“an ambitious book … it shows Northern Irish photography as a healthy, vibrant and characteristically sceptical medium in tune with global, rather than parochial, concerns. In that, it is ahead of the game.”

Read the review in full here at the The Guardian website.

Victor Sloan’s Belfast Zoo III, 1983.

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A successor to Warhol – with a pun for @pipmcgowan

While I’ve been bleating about sheep here, Colin has finished his book to accompany the major retrospective, ‘Northern Ireland – 30 Years of Photography,’ to open in the the MAC Gallery Belfast on 9th May.  The exhibition is curated by Karen Downey of Belfast Exposed and you can find more details here:


The Mac is currently showing the first Andy Warhol show to visit Belfast: a homecoming then for his Campbell’s Soup Can.

Lambing notes. No puns.

A twitter correspondent has asked me for an update on how our lambing has gone. The implication of finality in this question is deeply to be envied and is regrettably misplaced.  We have been inhabiting the labour ward for an unconscionably long spell. Last Wednesday, the chief obstetrician left his post for 24 hours to deliver a plenary lecture on contemporary Northern Irish photography in Belfast at a cool, urban gathering in the Film Department of Queens University Belfast.  While he talked about the aesthetics of shipyards and concrete . . . 

I was left in charge armed with his diagram of the shed – which with its finely drawn lines demarcating individually numbered pens with notes attached for each patient, was really just a cunning plan to convince me that the care of 30 ewes would be easy-peasy – and that familiar, yet still alarming piece of equipment, the stomach tube and syringe.

And on my first round of the ward everything did seem do-able, straightforward, pitching the silage into the troughs between the larger pens, and cleaning up the afterbirth in the larger pens, and feeding nuts to the larger pens  – that was all fine.  But then I had to do the water on the 8 individual pens and there learn again the age-old truth that mothering is not a given in man or beast. After I found the third ewe dry or nearly dry or reluctant to let her lambs feed, stamping them away, I began to wonder whether some Cow and Gate salesman had been round at birth offering free formula while I’d been inside with the children.  All, of course, lambing for the first time and with twins.  

The old trick is to bring the dog into the shed and tie him up next to the problem ewe – the theory being that the mother will keep her eyes on the dog and let the lamb suckle, thus increasing her supply. Bowie, appropriately enough, howls when he’s tied up.  So, recalling my own half-hour with the lactation consultant in Holles Street, I decided that  instead I’d sit the ewes one at a time on their backsides – this quite a tricky operation in and of itself – and latch each lamb on to a spin as they call the teats around here, some on their own mother, or if dry, on another.  At least they’d get a decent feed of colostrum to see them through the night.

And that’s how I passed a good three hours in the shed on Wednesday night. Got to bed at 3 am and dreamed fitfully of sheep – not as a flock – but as an identity parade of individuals.  

Then on Thursday morning, at 7.30 am, a neighbour rang to say our sheep and lambs were out straying on Mutton Lane.  So, before the boys woke up, I was out searching for shit on the road like Pocahontas trying to trace which way the rustlers had gone while heroic friend and neighbours (thank you Liat, Luky and Chris) drove round in loops to see if they could find them.  But there was neither trace nor sign, so after an hour hunting, I gave up and headed back to the shed, hoping we’d bred homing sheep  . . .  

There to discover a ewe struggling to deliver a dead lamb: head out, one foot forward, the other wedged in behind the pelvic bone.  Luky, thank heavens, had joined me by this stage.  ‘What would Colin do in this situation?’ was her very useful question, before she suggested that in Norway where she’d done a year’s agricultural training, they would saw the head off the dead lamb before pushing back in the torso and turning it.  I found I wasn’t quite ready for this Ted Hughes moment.  Neither did we have a sharp enough knife. So I pushed, and then she pushed, and she got the head back a bit, and that must have loosened something, because the ewe did the rest and out the big lamb came.  

And so, that gave us one ewe to try and foster some lambs onto and that worked for a while, after skinning the dead lamb (Luky you’re a star), and fitting its legs through little holes and tying the little waistcoat round with blue baler twine. And while we were doing that, another set of twins had to be delivered from a ewe scanned for one but with a second tell-tale bag of waters appearing after the first. So I pulled her second twin out, which was a first delivery for me, all alive, yippee!

And then it was time to feed the ewes in the front field which entails loading a 25kg sack of 18% Prime Ewe Nuts into a wheelbarrow and trotting down the drive with it to a deafening chorus of approval.  Assisted by the man who came to install our pump, (yes, we’re switching from our 1920s gravity fed stream supply to a well – there’s modernity for you), the sheep were fed . . . 

And just as I was closing the field gate behind me, I spotted a car at the front gate with a man in a suit watching me.  He gestured for me to come down and talk to him.  It turned out to be a man whom I’d met once before when he’d visited the house in a professional capacity.  “Please can you sell me some lambs?” he asked. ‘What for?’ I asked, struggling for a minute to imagine that my dream had come true – our pet lambs on the bottle in some private zoo.  ‘Eating,’ he said.  ‘They won’t be ready to eat until October’ I told him.

No, he wanted them small, 14 kilos or so, and he would like to return with his friend. And then, I twigged rather late, that this was a Halal request.  And although I don’t think that slitting a lamb’s throat can be all that much more cruel than shooting a bolt through a lamb’s brain in an abattoir, having spent much of the night delivering the creatures and nursing back to health the skinny shivering ones, and much of the morning hunting sheep on the roads, and delivering steaming slimy lambs, it was all I could do to protest: ‘But they are only just being born! And they wouldn’t even be weaned  . . and . . and. . . and. . .!’ Yes, rules and regulations about slaughtering too, but at that particular moment, they were the least of it.  

So, those are my lambing notes.  We have 14 ewes left to deliver on the labour ward. Colin is home. And heroically returns to the shed every couple of hours in between correcting his proofs on his new book while laboring with an ear infection. And from here on out,  all our prayers are for warm weather, fertilizer, and a sudden greening of the fields.  Then our work will be done for a while.








Lambing (with puns).

The two lambs nursed by Jo died as I feared after 36 hours. They were simply too premature to survive. We’ve had better luck resuscitating one pedigree Zwartbles we scooped off the field, its tongue already cold, although it felt warm to my frozen finger when I discovered it with Fabian Grennelle, apprentice shepherd. The ewe chose the stronger twin and headed off. So, for the past two nights we’ve had Damon Allbaa-n staying. I came down this morning to find Kim sitting on the floor in the drying room feeding it with a bottle. The rest of the day it spent largely at the kitchen table on Jo’s lap. I’ve never heard a lamb purr before. By this evening, Colin had had enough and Damon Allbaa-n went back to the barn where he was successfully fostered by an ovine. Are you still wondering about the name? Well he lives in a house, in a very big house in the country . . .

Here’s a picture of Colin and Ivor with Damon’s twin brother before he was pushed out to roam the snowy fields with his maa.

Foster mother

See last post.  A twin with perfect Zwartbles markings – white blaze, white socks, two-tone tail – has joined its brother in the drying room under an infra-red lamp.  Jo is unhappy with the white plastic bucket arrangement and her designer’s eye strays to the wicker basket my grandmother used for cut flowers.  “They’d have more space in that,” she says.  I point out that ancestral wicker is porous and particularly difficult to clean.  “Don’t you think they look a bit squashed?” she says of her two steaming patients.  I can see her aesthetic sense is taking a bit of an agricultural beating but tell her they were probably a bit squashed too in the womb.  I’ve left her now, squatting on a stool in the drying room with the tiny lamb out on her lap, Practical Sheep-Keeping spread open beside her.  She is tickling it under the chin. I have a terrible dread of the morning.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Well, it’s started.  I went down to the boiler room to retrieve some clothes for tomorrow and found a bucket with straw, stuck in under the laundry rack. It was shaking a little.  Inside was a tiny black lamb, born this evening, and brought in to warm up before we stomach-tube it with the beestings Colin will strip from its mother.  “Jo, any interest in nursing?” I called, thinking of the long night ahead of coaxing an under-weight neonate to survive.  And as I write, my fashion-designing, Londoner, step-daughter is making up a hot water bottle for the little lad, a zealous glint in her eye.

Snow thorns

The townland markers
The townland markers

The hawthorns in the Lawn where the Easter bird used to lay Smarties in plastic coin pouches, mysteriously inscribed AIB, in the nest my grandmother Kitty and I would have built the week before. Sticks, pieces of wool, feathers, moss, if the nest was good enough, the bird would lay. Before that these two trees marked the townland boundary between Tibradden and Kilmashogue. They may be among those dotted along the line of Cloragh’s demesne on the map James Byrne drew for Sarah Davis in 1811. In this light, the trunks remind me of my grandmother’s hands, blue-veined, opalescent. Though fallen, may they extend their protection still to my cheeky youngest son who, quite rightly, has neither time nor patience for such supernatural piety.


Merry Christmas!

In tribute to Mark O’Connell’s essay, “Every Man his own Shopping Channel”, in the current issue of The Dublin Review (49), I thought this lovely gift deserved a small unboxing ceremony of its own.




With thanks to Marina for a beautiful Croc.

And thank you to all who dropped by this blog over the past few months. Merry Christmas everyone, and all best wishes for 2013! xx Selina.