Dublin native Jim Croke, a man with not an ounce of farming blood accidentally fell into the farming circuit back, a hobby that stemmed back in December 2012.
With one acre of ground available, Mr. Croke was limited when it came to establishing a farming enterprise on a rather small holding, based in Tullamain, Fethard, Co. Tipperary.
An accidental discovery
Conversing with other farmers, Jim discovered Zwartbles by “chance” a sheep breed that is continuing to get to grips on Irish soil.
“One day I was talking to a group of farmers, who informed me that I can graze three Zwartbles on one acre of land, as opposed to one sheep. I knew I was on a winner and quickly performed a Google search.” Jim told Catherina of That’s Farming.
Jim soon forged contact with Suzanna Crampton, a well-esteemed Zwartbles sheep breeder with a strong social media presence internationally.
When Jim visited Suzanna’s he was reassured that he was taking a step in the right direction and what happened next was only to be expected.
Tullamain Flock was born through the importation of stock and the rest is now history, as Jim takes his place as one of Southern Ireland’s largest Zwartbles breeders.
Jim sourced his first Zwartbles, three in-lamb ewes from Northern Ireland.
“When they lambed down, I decided okay this is what I want to do. I decided to go and some more. The flock has gone from strength to strength.” Jim explained.
A blossoming enterprise
The flock has continued to snowball, with thirty-two pedigree Zwartbles breed ewes now dominating the pastures, with a total flock count of approximately fifty.
Last year a number of Zwartbles, both ewes and rams were imported from Holland, the home of the breed.
“I’m the first one in Ireland to go back to Holland and import directly. Usually, everything that comes to Ireland goes through England, through Northern Ireland and then down here, the route that everyone took.” Jim said.
Jim is quick to reveal that there are many reasons behind the selection of the Zwartbles breed.
“They are a great sheep to start off breeding with. They are very manageable and you don’t need sheep wire for them. They are very prolific and are absolutely fantastic mothers.” Jim explained.
Renowned for their maternal traits, the breed hails from Friesland, Northern Holland during a period whereby they were predominately used for milk production, alongside dairy herds, along with lamb and meat.
Jim has ventured into a spot of cross-breeding with Zwartbles and he continues to reap the rewards, as he pinpoints their abilities-good growth rates, the milk and the production of lean meat.
“If you have a Zwartbles sheep you can concentrate more on a butcher’s market and you can get more your animal. The meat also has a better flavour and a better texture. It is more desirable. You could have a 35kg carcass weight and not have a pick of fat.” Explained Jim.
Jim’s main objective is to breed for the pedigree market, but with a strict selective breeding policy in place, a number of progeny are slaughtered and distributed locally through friends and family.
“We are trying to sell females. That is the main market for the Zwartbles breed.” Jim explained.
The flock lambs down from December onwards, which is the “ideal” time of year for Jim, when it comes to the workload involved and mapping out showing careers for the farm’s progeny.
Ewes are generally sponged, with the removal of sponges occurring around 19th July, the day that the ram is turned out to the pastures, which helps to keep the breeding programme all under control.
Lambing occurs indoors on Mr. Croke’s farm and the new-born lambs and their mothers stay in pens for three days, which is followed by routine husbandry checks and progression into the nursery.
“I know all my sheep by name despite the fact that I have 32-ewes,” Jim explained.
Success in the show ring
Jim has picked up a number of accolades since he started out showing Zwartbles five years ago.
Jim’s showing involvements has witnessed him pave paths around the island from Goery Agricultural Show, to Athlone, Clonmel, Dualla and Connaught Spring Show.
The Tipperary breeder has won the shearling class in Clonmel for five years in a row.
Jim is happy to reveal that he has swept the boards at the Southern Ireland Zwartbles Supreme Breed Championship four years in a row.
The success of the first two years was sprung by two ewes that Jim purchased for breeding purposes.
In 2016, Jim scooped the prestigious silverware with Cara, a home-bred ewe.
An unbeaten champion
Cara must certainly has put the Tipperary-based flock on the map as she secured an Interbreed Champion title at the Connaught Spring Show 2016 successfully beating off stern competition in a class of ten different breeds.
“Cara was more or less unstoppable throughout the year. Unfortunately, she had a bad day in Tullamore. She was sick and didn’t show herself and she got reserve champion.” Jim explained.
Jim admits that he felt 2016 “couldn’t get any better”, but the performance of one sheep over the winter period took him by surprise.
Tullamain Dee, a leading lady of the flock won a Reserve in an Interbreed class and she went on to climb up the ranks, as an unbeaten champion.
Dee was offered for sale at show and sale and Jim declined a bid of €1,650, a figure that is believed to be one of the largest sums for a Zwartbles ewe, but it was a refusal that managed to spring further success, as she returned to Tipperary soil.
Dee, exhibited by Jonathon Workman and bred by Jim lead Tullamore Show claimed the champion cup.
The main Zwartbles Society is based in the U.K, covering Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.
Jim sat as the secretary of the ZSA Southern Ireland branch for two years and for the past twelve months Jim was appointed the secretary of the National Sheep Breeders Association.
Jim has experienced a rather busy few years, as he continues to gradually build up his flourishing flock, but he is also just after completing his four year Honours degree in Environmental Science.
Jim has intentions to cross the Irish and the U.K. bloodlines to start producing his own bloodlines and is optimistic to see the results.
“I like a long, tall elegant sheep with a condition.” Jim explained.
Mr. Croke has recently started introducing rare breeds including Lleyns and Cluns and to the pastures of his Tipperary-based farm, with intentions to expand on this front as time progresses.
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