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Farming on the edge

Farming on the three Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, Ireland, is quite literally, farming on the edge. Or, actually, on many kinds of edges. Winter pastures on the north coast cling to cliffs that jut into the crashing Atlantic, while on the southern side, orchid-strewn summer pastures sweep gently between ancient stone walls down to the sandy shore.

Pádraic Ó Flaithearta’s farm is on the largest island, Inis Mór, and was handed down to him from his father, whose father handed it down to him. “Land was never sold on the islands, it was handed to either a son or daughter or to a niece or to a nephew,” he says.

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That tradition has changed in recent years as many of the next generation of farm kids head to the mainland for other careers.

“Nobody wants to go back to getting up during the night to look at a cow when she’s having a calf,” says Ó Flaithearta.

Ó Flaithearta is one of 67 Aran Islands’ farmers in the five-year AranLIFE project that provides incentives to maintain the traditional agricultural system that has given rise to the rich biodiversity and cultural landscape of the islands.

When he was growing up, families were larger and one or two children would stay to farm while the others went off fishing or making their income in other traditional ways. Over the years more and more farmers had to work off-farm to subsidize their income — including Ó Flaithearta who has worked in construction most of his life.

Farming on the Aran Islands isn’t easy. The land is rocky and for centuries farmers brought seaweed and sand

up from the shores to create soil that would grow grass. With 75 per cent of the islands’ land designated as Special Areas of Conservation under the European Union, they can’t do that anymore, so it’s even more important to manage the scarce pasturelands they do have.

Cattle graze out year-round — there are no cattle sheds or corrals on the island, which doesn’t get frost or snow, and over the years, farmers have evolved a highly successful, balanced grazing system that makes use of sparse winter pastures along the rocky, northern side of the islands, and grassy summer pastures on the southern side.

Scrub and brambles grow profusely on the island and can quickly overrun fields and boreens — the traditional stone-walled corridors between fields that farmers use to move cattle from field to field.

“In the old days when there were three or more people in the house and they weren’t able to fish or whatever in the winter months, they had time to build walls, clear scrub and all that kind of stuff,” says Ó Flaithearta. “The reason it’s there now is that everybody’s working another job. They don’t have any choice. Young people have mortgages now; they buy better homes.”

Thanks to AranLIFE funding, farmers have cleared scrub from 92 hectares of land on the islands and from 28 km of boreens.

If farmers still put up hay for the winter they cut it by hand because it’s impossible to get equipment into the fields. Ó Flaithearta, whose herd consists of eight cows, eight calves and eight yearlings, is one of the few who still hand-cuts hay, although even he uses gas-powered trimmers instead of the traditional scythes.

Most of his neighbours now buy hay from the mainland, adding to their costs.

Water is another issue. There are no rivers or streams, so farmers have constructed large, stone water “catchers” that collect rainfall for watering their cattle. The AranLIFE project provided funds for farmers to repair existing water catchers or build new ones — and has increased their water-holding capacity by 450,000 litres.

Cattle are transported to the mainland by boat, which adds cost and means marketing via sales yards.

The fragmented fields are inaccessible by tractor or quads because of the abundant rocks. Traditionally, there have been no gates on the islands, so farmers moving animals from field to field have to disassemble and reassemble the “gaps,” i.e. areas of the walls that are built with a different rock to move the livestock through. It’s time-consuming and back-breaking. The AranLIFE project has allowed many participating farmers, like Domhnall Ó Flaithearta, who farms four miles from the main village of Kilronan on Inis Mór — to install gates. “In the middle of the night when a cow is in labour, the gaps can crush them,” he says. “It’s more suitable to have a gate.”

Pádraic Ó Flaithearta has five children who are all away working on the mainland, but his youngest son is still interested in the farm and comes back each summer to help cut hay. For the next while though he wants to concentrate on his career, so Ó Flaithearta is keeping the farm going in the hope that it can be an option for his son.

“I walk my farm,” Ó Flaithearta says, “I sit down by the water catcher and I wonder, what’s going to be here when I pass on?”

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