Flying the flag for the future of sheep farming is a personal mission for Jonathan Higgins, who has been helping on his family’s farm from a young age.
The 24-year-old is working to develop and preserve the practice of sheep farming in Europe with a focus on ensuring sustainability and efficiency in a climate where environmental impact and animal welfare continue to grow in importance.
Jonathan remembers his home farm being worked by his grandfather. “I was always out helping on the farm from as far back as I can remember,” he said.
“There is a sense of responsibility to carry on the family tradition, but farmers everywhere are facing the reality of carrying on family tradition whilst also facing pressure to be profitable and commercially successful.”
A 2018 Animal Science graduate from University College Dublin, the Sligo native is now pursuing a PhD in sheep and forage production on University College Dublin Lyons Research Farm.
His research is focused on areas where efficiencies can be made to help improve the sustainability of sheep farming at a local level.
The research looks at increasing ewe efficiency from homegrown forages while reducing the amount of concentrates required.
The 24-year-old is also planning a research trip to New Zealand where he plans to study first-hand agricultural practices which can be applied to local farms across Europe to preserve the practice and develop sustainability.
“When I finish, I will have completed 8 years of study. I can’t wait to see what the future has to offer but my love of farming will definitely draw me back to my home farm in the future,”
“I learn something every day working at the Research Farm that I feel I can apply to the farm back home, whether that’s to do with farm and land management or hygiene.” he added.
Despite challenges facing the millennial sheep farmer, Jonathan – who is supporting the European “Lamb. Try it, love it” campaign - remains positive about the future of his trade and recommends ways that consumers can support local farms.
With the rise of conscious consumerism, the economic benefits of buying local are helping locally-based farmers.
“When a consumer buys local, the money tends to stay local and is reinvested into the community,” he outlined.
“Additionally, as consumers are becoming more aware of ‘food miles’ and the carbon footprint of imported foods, it is becoming increasingly important to source your food locally.”
With these opportunities for local lamb to grow in popularity, Jonathan believes a major obstacle to the popularity of lamb is that it is not included in everyday diets.
“For example, a takeaway or restaurant menu naturally offers a chicken or a beef option. You don’t see lamb as an option in most places and for that reason, a lot of consumers see lamb as something reserved for special occasions only.”
Jonathan urges consumers to try more lamb at home in order to grow its popularity. “We grew up eating lamb about twice-a-week, whether that was in the form of cutlets, chops or stew mid-week and a succulent leg of lamb at the weekend.”
“Products like lamb mince are a great way to change perceptions and familiarise yourself with the flavour and preparation of lamb.”
In addition to its diversity of cuts and flavour, Jonathan reminds consumers of the benefits of supporting locally-based sheep farmers.
“Many meat-eating consumers are growing increasingly interested in trying lamb because of the environmental and economic impact of supporting local sheep farmers.”
“Generally, grazing sheep do not damage the land on which they roam as much as larger livestock can, and with our mild local climate lending itself very well to growing grass from February to October or November, sheep can be left out to pasture for most of the year, if desired.”
“These natural grazing practices ensure a high standard of living for the sheep as well as the preservation of local landscapes.”
As a response to the challenges faced by sheep farmers today, Jonathan suspects many of his generation of farmers will turn to part-time farming with other careers to supplement their livelihoods, much like his own plans.
Following the conclusion of his studies in 2022, the Sigo native hopes. at some point, to return to the farm on a part-time capacity.