Our cultural heritage is the main reason so many international visitors choose Ireland for their holidays.
In non-pandemic times, Irish people, music, art, poetry and our rich history have brought many a traveller to our shores.
One piece of our heritage puzzle we might not be as aware of, however, are some of our heritage breeds of livestock.
These animals can be considered a “living history” and should be equally celebrated. They represent the deep roots of our agricultural past, and the farmers who keep them aren’t doing it for financial gain – they are doing it to help preserve their lineage and to continue to tell their story.
When we consider a “genuine farmer” (the definition of which, in regards to the Common Agricultural Policy, is up for debate) in this sense, do the small herd farmers keeping heritage breeds qualify? They work hard to maintain their stock, preserve their lines and – yes – produce high-quality foods from these animals. But to some, these farmers appear “amateur” or “casual” in their approach. These are some of the things James Gannon and I discussed a few weeks ago, when I visited his farm near Castlerea, Co Roscommon.
The art of farming
James, who keeps a herd of 13 Irish Moiled (also called Moilies) and Droimeann cattle and makes Cloonconra Farmhouse Cheese, isn’t just a farmer – he is also an artist.
“Music, language – these cows are just as much a part of our heritage,” he says as we walk his fields. “The Moilies were traditionally for butter, and they can live off rough forage. They prefer being outwintered (wintering outside) and they’re perfect on marginal land. [Before I started making cheese], I used to sell their beef – and the beef was absolutely delicious. It’s not rich like Dexter; it’s sweet; likely from that foraged diet.”
Brink of extinction
James began keeping Moileds more than 15 years ago. At the time, the few herds left were in Northern Ireland, parts of Britain and in Co Cork. The breed goes back thousands of years (according to the Irish Moiled Cattle Society website, it is believed the Vikings raided the cattle from Ireland in around 1000AD and skeletal remains believed to be of the breed can be dated back to 640AD) but during the 1970s and 80s, they had declined to near extinction in Ireland. They are roughly 25% smaller than an average Fresian cow and can feature a distinctive white stripe down their back.
James had kept a suckler herd for several years before the idea for cheese-making came to him. He had grown up in a farming family in Co Dublin and remembered how they used to make their own butter. Those memories largely drove his start with heritage dairy.
“I was a sculptor and after the last crash, things really slowed down [in that area],” he recalls. “We had the cows already and people were talking about the [Moiled] milk, saying it could be great and asking if I’d tried milking them. I made some butter with it; that was the start. I’m milking 10 now in total.”
James went from making butter to soft cheeses and now has ended up with a semi-hard, raw-milk cheese which is aged for approximately two months.
James doesn’t use an artificial rind (for example, he doesn’t dip his cheese in edible wax); he chooses instead to expose the cheese directly to the air around his farm. The result is deeply flavoured and creamy, with a beautiful umami savouriness.
“My cheese doesn’t really age beyond six to eight months,” he says. “It’s made in a similar fashion to other small farmhouse cheeses. You don’t press it very hard and you just brush it off a few times to knock out the natural mould growth.”
He feels that by milking a smaller number he is much better able to control the overall quality of his cheese.
“In the past, people would have always handmade small amounts of cheese with raw milk,” he explains.
“I feel it’s much safer working in those small amounts. During peak times, I will milk in the morning, then finish and start making the cheese.”
Peak times are the late spring and summer months post-calving. Moileds make delicious milk, but James dries them off very early (in October). This is due to lactose levels in the milk increasing at this time, which is not ideal when you make a semi-hard cheese (it works, however, for soft cheese). This suits him, as his cheese ages and is able to be sold beyond the drying-off point. The cows then stay out in the field and generally don’t need silage until Christmas.
“We milk twice a day during the peak months,” he says. “I do around 700l per week in the summer months; you’d get about 70kg of cheese from that amount of milk. I sell the cheese directly to restaurants, mostly, and at farmers markets. I’m in one Sheridan’s cheese location (Galway), Mike’s Fancy Cheese sells it in Belfast and Loose Canon [in Dublin].”
James makes a modest living from his farming, cheese and art. As he nears retirement age, he doesn’t plan to expand his business. He is happy with the clients he has, and enjoys focusing on his art when he isn’t milking or cheese-making. He farms organically and is certified through the Organic Trust.
The cheese requires a separate organic certification, which he doesn’t feel is necessary in the grand scheme of things.
“With these breeds, you’re really busy farming three to six months of the year,” he says. “This system works for me. If you make a few extra bob with the cheese, it’s all worth it. There’s so much to be done [at those times] – there’s a lot of preparation and a lot of work [in it].”
Chris McCarthy is the manager of Achill Tourism, but more recently he has picked up cattle farming. Specifically, he has started keeping Moileds, which would have been traditionally found along the island’s marginal lands. He says they are well-suited to the region and easy to manage.
“They’re easier on the ground, they overwinter better and they produce an extra layer of hair in the winter so they’re used to this climate,” he says.
“They’re foragers; they eat rushes, plants conventional cows wouldn’t eat. We have a Hereford running with them and she knows the run of the place so they follow her around. We have six pedigree Moiled cattle – they’re registered as the Achill Herd and we’re registered under the Moiled society of Ireland.”
Chris is collaborating with another local farmer, Paul McNamara, to bring the breed back to Achill. He says they are well suited to the west of Ireland and deserve to have a place on the island once again.
“They suit the west of Ireland. There’s no slurry going out, you don’t have to build big sheds, they’re not poaching the ground. Paul and I are trying to go down the road of regenerative farming.”
Chris is no stranger to farming, but it was originally the traditional Achill blackface sheep he previously farmed. He says it was his son who first took an interest in cattle and their small herd has grown from there.
“These Moileds calve every year, they’re high turnover in terms of fertility,” he explains. “We use a registered AI who has the Moiled bull semen. We’re working with the national park and wildlife scheme and Mayo Northeast; they’re assisting us in every way.”
Achill already is home to a prestigious line of food products, including Achill lamb, Achill Sea Salt, Keem Bay Fish, Achill Oysters, Achill Whiskey and Achill Honey. In the near future, Christ and Paul hope to join the ranks with Achill Moiled beef.