Name: David McBride.

Farm type: Sheep.

Farm size: 90ha hill farm.

Focus: Being profitable while also maintaining habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Schemes: Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, RSPB Curlew and Lapwing Scheme, Grouse Preservation Scheme.

David McBride is a sheep farmer who manages a fragmented holding in south county Antrim, including a stunningly-scenic 90ha hillside ‘fragment’ at Glenwherry, where we recently met.

From the comfort of David’s Hilux we traversed this dramatic upland landscape, basalt walls enclosing fields lined with ‘lazy rigs’ (potato ridges) and dotted with abandoned settlements.

Equally dramatic were the evening skies above us, hosting a stunning range of raptors, the whole wonderful rural ‘ensemble’ brought to life by David’s ‘eagle eyes’ and easy, insightful commentary.

We were on our way to visit David’s 85 Scottish blackface ewes, which we located happily foraging among the remnant snowdrifts.

David marvels at how, during a particularly severe snowstorm a few years ago, these ewes instinctively lined up atop the most exposed stretch of hillside for two whole days - while other breeds sheltered below them, and ultimately perished in the drifts.

Farmers at heart

The McBrides originally hailed from Kilkeel, Co Down. David’s father, WJ McBride, well-known in sheep-judging circles, spent his career in the Department of Agriculture. A farmer at heart, he gradually accumulated ‘wee bits of land’ - to which David has subsequently added, though rarely ‘lying into’ the home farm where he, wife Lesley and their three sons reside.

David previously worked in the construction sector, leaving before the 2007 crash, so he knows a thing or two about risk, profit and loss.

He later brought these skills to the local authority sector, working in ‘building control’, before taking redundancy three years ago to emulate his father by ‘retiring’ to farm full-time. Today he has built up a flock of 450 sheep and 100-odd replacements - mostly white-faced Lleyn-Texel crosses, which do well on the farm’s varied land types.

Profitable engagements

David runs a very low-cost system. He has a ‘good area of ground’ and stocks it extensively (around 0.35LU/ha), thus requiring no chemical fertiliser. He takes (‘Bed & Breakfasts’) slurry from local cattle units for his silage ground. He doesn’t feed any meal, believing that sheep are best suited to grass-based diets.

The flocks of lamb from mid-April onwards, with a lambing average of 1.7, exceptional for the location. The lambs are sold as stores, mostly to nearby dairy units who finish them – an ideal alternative when underfoot conditions are too wet for cows.

David on his upland holding in Glenwherry, Co Antrim.

Last winter, David shifted 250 stores to one such customer.

David cites a recent economic analysis commissioned by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), which highlighted the profitability of his farm. He abides by his father’s definition of a ‘good farmer’ - someone who doesn’t use his government payments to subsidise his food production.

Benefits of birdlife

Another of David’s many attributes is his very impressive, self-taught knowledge of birds. While walking, he spots a distant peregrine falcon pursuing (unsuccessfully) a grouse, then a buzzard perched on a faraway fence, later some lapwing. He has seen merlins, kestrels, sparrowhawks, golden eagles and sea eagles at Glenwherry, while three hen harrier chicks formed a regular greeting party for David last summer when herding, to his great pride and delight.

This rich avifauna attracts many ‘birders’, who occasionally help by reporting issues affecting the flock (including those caused by less-welcome birds like ravens, crows and magpies). It also helps attract funding – through the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS) - and assistance from organisations like the RSPB, who recently completed works at Glenwherry to support breeding waders.

David showed me some of these works, which include ‘recontouring’ vertical banks of spade-cut turf into sloped banks, thus encouraging revegetation and enabling better access in-and-out for young waders (and sheep!). Drains were blocked to create catchment ponds, rich in wildlife (snipe, woodcock, mallards and even swifts - who can help reduce incidences of fly strike), while providing a watering source for sheep during dry summers. RSPB staff also help David and neighbouring farmers to fill out EFS forms, a valued service which helps reduce hassle and improve scheme impact.

Farming frustrations

David clearly ‘thoroughly enjoys’ being on the hill – herding, fencing and birdwatching – though, like all jobs, there are downsides. His main farming frustration is the bureaucracy, which he finds occasionally baffling, consistently burdensome and ever-increasing in volume and complexity. He feels that, as a farmer, he’s often treated as ‘guilty until he can prove himself innocent’. David’s frustrations augur badly for a future in which farmers are expected to take on a greater ‘land stewardship’ role.

David blurs the false line between farmer and ‘environmentalist’, his love of farming and focus on profit resting easily with his lifelong interest in ornithology.

He engages readily – and fruitfully – with the Ulster Wildlife Trust, Irish Grouse Restoration Trust and RSPB who rightly view him as a key resource and valued partner. If farmers are to be part of, not apart from, the solution to our environmental crises, such collaborations and joined-up thinking between farmers and scientists will be essential. So too will better, simpler schemes which ensure a fair return for farmers, like David, who really do deliver for nature.

‘Identify your strengths and weaknesses and try to do what suits your land best’

The Merlin Bird ID app is a great way to help identify birds via their song – just download it on your phone.

Birdwatch Ireland and the RSPB are membership charities with lots of great information on Irish farmland birds.