A sunny day in Ireland, so I took full advantage and wandered a wee road trip out to the very small hill top village of Ardcath to see a man about a sheep.
I had the pleasure of meeting Derek Brangan and his sons at a recent Wild Game Potluck Dinner. A country girl at heart traveling in Ireland with a love of grilled lamb chops, i did not have to think twice when invited to visited their sheep farm.
Derek comes from a long line of Ardcath area sheep farmers dating back to Cromwell’s time (1640s) in Ireland, and lives on the farm his grand father took on back in the 1940s, the home is actually an old R.I.C. (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks built in the 1840s. Ardcath itself is a tiny spot out on a back country road with gorgeous hilltop views known in ancient folklore as the battle site of High Kings And also home to the nearby megalithic site of Four Knocks (which i am going to venture back to someday soon) Located in County Meath, an area traditionally known for it’s rich agricultural land where in the Irish economic boom of the 90’s known as the Celtic Tiger would have gone for some say $80,000 an acre but now sees the likes of $10,000 to $12,000 an acre. With hard economic times in Ireland escalating operational costs, a soft market, and a soon to be extinct single farm subsidy, it’s near impossible for a young man to go into the farming business today. For a sheep farmer it’s even harder, as a farmer tilling the land or raising cattle can afford to pay more per acre and have a larger
profit margin. Sheep farming is an ancient occupation often associated with romantic thoughts of the Irish landscape and one must have a genetic disposition, a love of the work or just a bit crazy to take on such a labor intensive and profit prohibitive way of life. Once you obtain a flock, feed it, nurse it during its pregnancy (including an ultra sound scan to determine how many lambs may be on the way – 1 to 3 on some occasions), tag it, vaccinate it, preventative maintenance such as trimming and shearing (wool goes for 1.20€ a kilo and there can be 2.5 to 3 kilos sheared from one sheep but it costs approx 2€ a sheep for shearing if a farmer doesn’t shear himself) not to mention keeping the farm buildings and equipment running and fueled; a guy will be lucky to get by on the sheep alone! I arrived to find Derek and his son Adam in the midst of about 500 sheep (half the flock) with a small contingent corralled.
Today they were tending to a bit of pedicure service, trimming hooves of a new lot of sheep. A very labor intensive morning, they were able to check the entire lot in half the barn in under a couple hours. The video below might be a bit much for those with a soft stomach, but it shows the whole flock as well as Derek’s well run operation. Derek’s son Adam is hopeful to follow in his father & grandfather’s boot-steps. Derek seems proud to have his son with him on the farm but worries about the future of sheep farming in Ireland. With over 3o,000 sheep farms in Ireland small holdings such as The Brangan Farm are struggling to stay in the game and many in Ireland do not appreciate or eat lamb even though Irish lamb is probably some of the best lamb meat in the world due to the sheep feeding in temperate climate and lush green pastures. Some 70% of Irish lamb meat is exported to France. Derek feels that one reason lamb is not consumed more so is due to the younger generations being so conditioned to the tastes of processed foods, and when they do try lamb with it’s distinctive flavour, they have no taste for it. Despite all the obstacles in sheep farming it’s obvious Derek enjoy’s his farm and his sheep and is hopeful for brighter future when it’s time for his son Adam to take charge and continue the family legacy.
Inspired by my visit and wanting to do my part, I swung by the butcher shop on the way home to pick up some lamb chops for my dinner. Lamb is a naturally tender and flavourful meat, not needing much and best served at medium well I prefer. I made a marinate of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cracked pepper and fresh garlic and thyme (no rosemary around…bummer) and only soaked for about 10 minutes; too much marinate time or cooking time and your lamb will turn out chewy. No grill around either so I pan seared them in a hot skillet for just a few minutes on either side and yum! Dinner is served!
For my St Louis area followers back home in Missouri, I recommend Global Foods Market on Lindbergh in Kirkwood neighbourhood for good quality and low cost meat.