Mussels, Sheep, and Peat Oh My !

Ireland is a country of many different landscapes and resources that its people rely on to survive. One of the best demonstrations of this is at the Killary Fjord where a sheep farm sits next to a mussel farm on a beautiful yet harsh landscape. A large part of Ireland is dominated by large turf bogs, a landscape that not all animals can survive in, you won’t find many horses or cattle there because they cannot get the nutrients that they need from this land. Sheep however seem to thrive here, getting all the nutrients they need eating the moss and grassy tops of the bog lands. The Killary Sheep Farm is a working farm that has over 500 sheep on its land grazing the mountain side.Not far down the road is The Killary Mussel Farm, another working farm that grows and harvest mussels that are sold locally in town. This beautiful landscape is perfect for the sheep and mussels who need specific environments to thrive, also providing farmers with the fuel to heat their homes, cheap and easily accessible.

The sheep graze freely over the mountainside and are checked on daily by the farmers and the sheepdogs who herd them where they need to go with skill. Tom, the farmer, calls out to his dog Silvia  “AWAY” and Silvia goes right, corralling the sheep to one side and herding them with precision and patience. The sheep are sheared in the summer when their wool becomes long and thick, this keeps them healthy and happy, Tom says never uses an electric shaver but instead goes for the harder but safer sheers that don’t cut as close to the sheep’s skin. Tom, uses turf like many others in rural Ireland to heat his home. There is a turf bog right on the property that he has been cutting for 13 years.

Tom Shearing One of his Sheep

Down the road on the water is the Killary Mussel Farm, yet another environment providing food for the local people. The environment to grow mussels must be very specific, they need the brackish water found in the fjord to be able to grow so many. This place is perfect for the mussels as it is for the sheep and easily accessible to the mussel farmers. Mussels on barrels in the water spawn and attach to ropes that are pulled from the water harvested and cleaned. Mussels are sold to only local markets and restaurants for around three euros a kilo,  much more than if sold to plants. When asked about toxins in the water like red algae, also known as red tide, the farmers said they ensure that the quality of the mussels is good by sampling water every Monday and sending it to a Marine Institute to check for toxins. Over all, Killary Fjord is an important environment for many of the local people providing both food, fuel and a source of income for local farmers.

Ropes of Mussels growing at Killary Mussel Farm

Animals Everywhere

The whole country of Ireland has fewer people than the number of people in New York City. The whole country of Ireland can fit into the state of Maine. “There are 11 million chickens in Ireland, more pigs than people living in Dublin, and more cows and sheep than people in the whole country” explained our bird watching tour guide, John.  These statistics clearly explain the habitat of Ireland. Animals are a major aspect of Ireland’s habitat and make up a large part of the country’s GDP which people rely heavily on in rural Ireland. 

While driving through the west coast of Ireland, as far as the eye could see, the land is all shades of green. On this land live sheep, cows, horses, other animals and people. In Ireland, animals are given acres of land to roam and live on. These animals provide their owner’s income. Agriculture makes up €666 million of Ireland’s overall GDP. Ireland is the 6th largest exporter of meat in the world. It makes sense why there are animals everywhere you turn in rural Ireland, many people rely on these animals as their main source of income. 

        The importance of animals was evident when we went to visit the sheep farm and the mussel farm. Farmer Tom has 200 sheep that roam over hundreds of acres of land. He relies on these sheep to give birth to lambs once a year. Tom relies on the sheep farming to support him and his family. Likewise, aquatic animals are relied on for income. For example, the mussel farmer harvests many mussels every year. These mussels are used to feed his own family, sell at the farm, and sell to local restaurants. In Ireland, farmers are reliant on both land animals and sea animals to make a living. These are just two examples that show the importance of animals to Ireland’s habitat. 

The “Mussel” to respect the world around you

The gentle breeze coming off the water, the sound of waves gently lapping on the shore. What imagery does this bring to mind? Perhaps a nice sunny beach in the Caribbean. Would you call me crazy if I told you that this was at the Killary Fjords, right in the heart of Connemara? I was surprised too, but this view was the result of glacial movement over  thousands and thousands of years in Ireland. Because of this Fjord the area surrounding it became a bastion for life, both land-based and aquatic.

The most delicious (and only) mussels that I have ever eaten

Taking advantage of this bountiful area many have set up farms around the fjord. We hiked deep down the fjord to visit a mussel farm, the owner, along with his wife and employees talked about how they harvested the mussels, ensuring that they do not take too much so that it throws the ecosystem out of balance, they harvest around 80 tonnes of mussel per year, which may seem like a large amount, but they ensure that they only harvest the two year old mussels, leaving the one year olds so that they may continue the cycle of reproducing and maintaining the balance.

One of the many ropes of mussels (along with other sea creatures) that are harvested every day

The mussels are farmed via a system of ropes and buoys which is a way that does not destroy their natural habitat. After seeing this system I gained a newfound respect for the way that the people of Ireland respect their habitat, unlike in the United States, they do not simply take whatever they can and destroy their environment, but seek to coexist with the world around them, many houses are small and simple on the countryside, there seem to be more farm animals than famers by a large number! Although this farm exists solely for the production of seafood consumption, the owner stated that “I make sure to try a few mussels from every batch that we catch, to ensure that they are fit for consumption, as well as that there are no problems within the ecosystem.” Comparing this way of farming to how it is conducted in China, with over-polluting and destructing the delicate ecosystem, it is easy to say which group of people have more respect for the world around them.

Freshly caught fish

After a long day in the Irish sun, hunger can cloud the vision of many beautiful sights. But, food in Ireland is not eaten simply just to get rid of hunger. When eating breakfast, lunch and dinner the meals are cooked to be enjoyed. For every meal, groups of people are eating together and enjoying each others company through conversation.  A strong commonality between all of these meals is that they are locally grown and cooked.

A type of food that is very prominent in Ireland is fish. This is because the country is surrounded by water. A group of us were able to go to the Killary Farm one afternoon, which is located in a bay area. We had a special lunch this day, different from the most common lunch being sandwiches and vegetable soup. The Killary farm grows mussels in the bay right in front of the farm. Simon, harvests the mussels while his wife occasionally cooks them. The mussels grow on ropes for 2 years then get washed and harvested to ship out to local restaurants. Simon told us the mussels come off the ropes “the moment you touch them”. The mussels go through extensive washing to wash off the possibility of e-coli being on them and to make it safe to send to restaurants. Simon’s wife boiled a large plate of fresh mussels for us after we went out on the boat with Simon. She served us mussels with lemon with a side of soda bread she home made. The mussels had a little bit of salt, white wine, onions, and garlic on them to add flavor. Like many other foods we tried in Ireland, the seasonings were not heavy. They eat their food more naturally, and it tastes just as good because they use fresh products.

To eat the mussels, we used the dark colored shells from a previously eaten one to scoop out the fish. Oysters, are also a type of fish they caught in the bay. These were also prepared by Simons wife. She explained to us you eat oysters by the whole and without chewing them. The plain but salty taste of oysters is what makes them so appealing to eat. With fish, there is usually a side served with them because the taste is so strong. One example would be brown bread, freshly made from natural resources. No matter what the meal is in Ireland the plate being served is fresh, balanced, and locally made.

Shelby’s Gallery

Dive in

Killary Fjord boat ride

I climbed into a small boat, travelling a short distance before stepping onto an anchored boat on Killary Fjord. I was surrounded by deep blue waters dotted with lines of gray buoys flowing with the tides. Mountains surrounded the fjord, and everywhere I looked were picturesque scenes. Simon, the mussel farmer, held up infographics explaining the process of raising mussels. It takes approximately 4-5 weeks for shellfish eggs to develop into larvae. The gray buoys floating in the water held large ropes. Larvae attach themselves to the ropes, remaining there until they become fully-grown–a two year process. In use for eighteen years, the ropes were thick with mud and grime. I could picture tiny larvae attaching themselves to the threads of the rope to finish the rest of their development.

Mussel Ropes

To the right of Simon was a machine. Inviting us to gather around, he went to the small cabin of the boat, flipping a switch. Out of the water came a series of ropes, completely filled with fully grown mussels. He detached one and brought it over to the machine, turning it on. Simon raked several mussels off the ropes to demonstrate how the machine worked, mussels spinning through brushes before dumping out into a large bin. Turning the machine off, we examined the contents of the ropes.

Simon explained that other sea life settle onto the ropes as the mussels grow. These included ghost shrimp, which resembled a praying mantis of the sea, as well as sea squirts– thick translucent worm-looking creatures that squirted water out at us. Those creatures posed no harm to the mussels, but Simon said starfish larva often attach to the ropes. When the starfish fully develop they cover the mussel until it suffocates and opens up, eating it.

Every morning Simon harvests one ton of mussels. He is incredibly committed to his work, which was demonstrated not only through the knowledge and care that he puts into the farm, but also through dedication to his customers. Simon told us about toxins that can impact the mussels. Water samples are taken every Monday to test the water for toxins, but the results aren’t processed until Thursday. If Simon is feeling unsure about the water, he will do a taste test of the mussels himself to make sure that he isn’t selling tainted shellfish to his customers, whom would become sick upon consumption. We were all shocked when he shared this, as he said that a few times he had gotten sick when completing his quality control check. I can’t think of higher commitment to serving quality shellfish than putting your health at risk to make your customers happy.

After learning about harvesting shellfish, we climbed back into the boat and returned to shore, where Simon’s wife and fellow shellfish lover, Kate, had prepared mussels for us. A bowl of bright orange mussels sat before me. Having never tried one before, I was hesitant. Some others in the group showed me the “ropes” of eating mussels. I dived in, not to be disappointed.


Stepping off the plane at Shannon, I could feel the cool, moist breeze painting my face as a smile crept around the corners of my mouth. I had been looking forward to this trip for months and I was finally here. Upon setting my feet down for the first time on Irish soil, I could tell that I was in for an experience of a lifetime, but what would transpire during the following two weeks would be a journey that I will never forget. Very soon, I realized that I did not pack as well as I should have. I expected Irish summers to be hot and I received in return a wet, cold, Rhode Island type of weather that I had been wishing to escape since I was finished with my finals. At one point during the first few days of the trip, a man stated the “since we had been here, a heat wave had taken over the countryside” and it was only 85 degrees out…. shocked I exclaimed “What?!?” promptly regretting the amount of shorts and tank tops that I had packed along with the research safari hat which I was unable to show off. At the Connemara cultural center, we learned that “it rains about 250 days out of the year here” which plays a key role into the type of landscape that Ireland has.

Céide cliffs
Céide cliffs

Made up of vast, beautiful grasslands that are trotted upon by various kinds of livestock, Ireland is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. With the amount of rain that Ireland receives each year, a lot of the land is made up of bogs. Once shoveled, the bog turns into a substance that is called turf or peat. The dug-up turf is then burned to be used for cooking and heating up homes. The bogs can also act as a preservative. At the cultural center, we were told that “the bogs can preserve human bodies for longer than a hundred years” and we were even showed an example of the bone tissue that had been infused into the muscle, creating an eerily bendy matter.


Mussel farm fjord
Mussel farm fjord

Agriculture is clearly a massive aspect of Irish life. About halfway through the trip, we visited a sheep farm where we were able to witness the amazing display of a border collie herding in a pack of sheep for them to then be hand sheared. It was quite a sight to witness, as the shepherd was able to handle the animal with grace without causing them any harm. We then walked down to a fjord, which is a glaciated valley surrounded by great big mountains. At the shore, was a mussel farm, which takes in “about 80 tons of mussels per year.” The farmer only takes in a certain amount of mussels each year so that he does not have a negative effect on the ecosystem, which goes to show how the Irish respect their habitat and have no interest in seeing it change.