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. 

Life of a Farm Animal

When looking at Ireland one of the first things I questioned while driving across the countryside was the amount of unused land and the habitat of the farm animals that inhabited them and why farmers allowed this. In the countryside it could be seen that people owned a lot of land, as homes were generally not close to each other at all. The animals on these properties have room to roam and be free to feed wherever they please on the property. This is something that is much different in the United States as farm animals tend to not have the same amount of freedom and are locked in small pens so they can have as many as possible ready for sale.

While visiting the Killary Sheep Farm, we were able to see how the farmers tend to their land and the animals on them. Tom Nee, the farmer who owned the land demonstrated how his sheep are free to roam around these fields and how he keeps track of them. He has 3 Border Collies that he uses to herd the sheep into pens so he can take care of them. Watching Tom and his dog Sylvie, I saw how he cared for the sheep as he trained his dogs not to bite and to only to direct the sheep to where he wants them to go. When asked about the dogs being happy Tom told us that, “Sylvie is only happy when she’s working and gets upset when she’s not with me.” This was something that made me realize their more than just work animals; they love to be with him.

Sheep are something you will see everywhere in Ireland and which initially made me believe wool must be a major export for these farmers. I always thought the reasons farmers sheared the sheep was to sell the wool to create clothing, which I later found out was not the case. Tom said, “this wool is worthless, you can only get $.25 for this one sheep’s wool, I shear them because they would die if I didn’t.” This explanation is something I was not expecting to hear because I didn’t understand why the farmer cared that much for all the animals he has on his property if these sheep in particular were all meat exports.

One example we saw from Tom that showed us how his animals are treated and have the ability to live a good lives was when he showed up an injured lamb he found in the fields he walks every morning. Tom and his brother were nursing him and two other injured lambs back to health instead of just letting them die. This is not traditionally the same reaction in the United States as the government has more relaxed farming laws allowing animals to not get treated the same way. From what I have seen so far in Ireland, It’s easy to conclude that animals are treated much better than we currently see in the United States.

Shearing Sweater

“None of them are ready yet” are the words Tom said as he attempts to grab one of the scared sheep who run with nowhere to run to. Tom then grabs one successfully by the horns as it’s legs wiggle all around. This is part of Tom’s job and what he does for a living, he gets a sheep that is ready or almost ready to be sheared then shears off their wool and sells it. Tom is one of many farmers in Ireland who shear sheep for a living, shearing each one yearly. This was news to me, I had never thought on the logistics of how wool clothing was made until that very moment. As Tom asked for volunteers to shear the wool off the sheep, I clenched. “It does not hurt them”, “they are supposed to be cut” “it is like a haircut” is what individuals in the RWU study abroad group and Tom were saying, but I could not bear to see the sheep squirrel around like if they are in agonising pain. After seeing a sheep’s wool being shorn the only thought in my head was how could they kill a sheep or even a cow. I believe that it is not okay to raise animals just so humans can consume them; however, that is easier said than done. I am not a vegetarian but have tried to be before, and failed. I simply do not like the idea of taking care of these animals for some time just to eat them. As soon as Tom finished shearing the wool of the sheep, it ran away to where the other sheep were. To me the shearing processes seemed like a painful haircut as tom had grabbed and turned the sheep by its horns.

Sheep Haven

Killary Sheep Farm

Tom grips the scissors tightly in his right hand while he strongholds a sheep in his left.  He makes quick decisive cuts while shearing the long sheep wool. By the end, free of the heavy wool, which sits in a large pile, the sheep looks half its original size. Now the sheep will be able to be cool for the summer and slowly grow back its wool, until next year, when it will be sheared again. I am astonished the sheep did not get hurt once. Even as Tom allowed volunteers who had no experience shearing a sheep before cut some of the sheep’s wool, the sheep is free from even the tiniest of scratches. The scissors never once touched the sheep’s skin.

At home, I own three sheep. Each spring my sheep also get sheared, however the technique used by the shearer is not as kind. Instead of scissors, the common practice in the U.S. for sheep shearing, is to use an electric razor.

As Tom leads us on our tour around his luxurious sheep farm in Killary, Ireland, I scramble to catch up with him. Once I catch up to him I tell him about how my own sheep are sheared with a razor, not scissors. Due to this, I explain, my sheep often get nicked and develop open wounds that are prone to infection.

Tom sputters. “That is just plain cruel!” he exclaims, speechless. “You need to find another shearer this instant!” From his face, I can tell that Tom is visibly upset about how my sheep are sheared. I explain to him that shearers in Maine, where I am from, are rare to find and all that we have employed have used the same method of shaving. Before coming to his sheep farm, I hadn’t even known there was an alternative.

As Tom and I discuss his sheep and my sheep, I take a moment to take in the scenery around us. The sun is shining and there is not a cloud in the sky. We are surrounded by a five hundred acre sheep farm, filled with luscious green grass for the sheep to graze and set next to the water, which offers a cool breeze on this warmer than normal June day. It is a sheep’s paradise.

“I used to name the sheep,” Tom tells me, “but now there is just too many, I can’t keep up.” The fact that he cares enough to name his sheep proves the level of care he gives his sheep – a level  most large sheep farmers in the U.S. do not. Tom provides the sheep with a habitat now close to extinction in the U.S. Most sheep in the states that are bred for meat are kept in pastures that don’t even pass F.D.A. standards. Tom has created a haven for the sheep to live in. Two lambs skip behind us, bleating excessively.

“They think I’m their parent” Tom explains, “Their mother died during birth, so I had to feed and raised them myself.” In the U.S., it would be rare to find a farmer willing to put the time and effort into raising two lambs on their own. It is more likely, had those two lambs been born in the states, neither would have made it past a week. I am hopeful that before more animals lives are negatively impacted that the U.S. will begin to mimic a model similar to Tom’s sheep farm for raising animals.


“Baaa” by Shelby Payanis

It has always been one of my dreams to hold a lamb, and at the Killary Sheep and Mussel Farm in Killary, Ireland, that dream came true! But I did not just get to hold one, my classmates and I were all given bottles of milk so that we could feed a whole bunch of them – it was amazing!

Me, feeding the lambs!

At this farm we also got to witness first hand how the sheep in Ireland are able to run free amongst acres and acres of land, and watch how they can be herded by a sheep dog – more specifically a 2-year-old sheep dog named Sylvie! Tom Lee, owner of the farm, told us that, “Sylvie is only happy when she’s working – she loves it!” Also, before coming to Ireland, I often heard the joke or myth that there are “More sheep in Ireland than people,” and after visiting, I have to confirm that this indeed may be true.

Sylvie takes a breather before returning to work.

There is a significant difference between the process of farming in Ireland and the United States. Although I do not agree with raising animals just to consume them, in Ireland, the farmers work tremendously hard and genuinely care about the lives of all of their animals before they have to turn them into consumable meat.

In America, cows, sheep, chickens, etc., spend their entire lives in small and crowded factories before they are put on a conveyor belt and turned into a package of meat that is shipped to the nearest Stop and Shop. However, in Ireland, the animals get to roam free and enjoy the beauties of nature before they are sold at the local market.

Sylvie leads the sheep back to their pen.

But even that shows the difference between Ireland and America. In the states, we often do not know where our meat comes from, and most of us only consume it because it is convenient. If we had the same process in our country as they do in Ireland in which a local farmer (who you know) is gathering this meat for you, maybe more and more people would not consume them. According to WorldAtlas, “Six percent of the Irish population are vegetarians.” This seems low, but Americans are not even on the list! This means that even though American citizens often do not know where their meat comes from, they are still willing to buy it and eat it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trip to the farm and I thought it was fascinating to see the great quality of life that these animals are given before they are turned into consumable meat. This may be the vegetarian in me talking, but I hope that as more and more people visit this place they will start to see that eating animals isn’t always the “right” choice – just a convenient one.

And they’re off!

Sheep in Ireland


Just as people stroll through the towns and villages of Ireland, many animals do as well. I found myself commonly walking on the left side of the road and turning down to my side to see cows, horses, goats, and sheep. There are many farms in Ireland, owned by people that live on the property and take care of the land. The Killray Sheep farm is owned by a man named Tom. The Killray sheep farm is located in the parish of Bunowen, an hour away from Spiddal. The farm is about a twenty-minute walk away from the main road. It is on the top of green mountains that overlook the bay. The sheep wander around as they please. Most farmers use  catchments made with rocks that are slanted down at an angle to collect rainwater so they do not have to fill up buckets of water, this process happens naturally. This is done in order to help save water while hydrating the animals. The sheep nibble on grass as their main source of food. Since the grass is tall and long in Ireland, this gives them a large food resource. Sheep tend to wander in packs and not alone. Commonly, big sheep travel with a few small ones. This happens because the parent sheep want to make sure their children are okay. According to the farmer Tom, sheep are very protective of their young. They will chase people if they come to close to them without being by their side. Sheep connect to their parents in a deeper way then you would expect. Tom discussed with us  how two of the baby sheep often follow him when he passes by. This is because they have no mother, so he needs to feed them from a bottle. The sheep associate him with their mother figure and tend to follow him for protection.

Sheep dogs are raised to be working dogs and gather the sheep into one area. Tom goes about this process by standing in the top corner of a large fenced in area that has about ten sheep in it. He uses whistles and a few commands that direct his herding dog, Silvia, to move the sheep in a certain direction. He uses a command for left, right, faster, and slower.  Seeing this process completed, Silvia gathered all the sheep to the top of a little fenced in area effortlessly. This is necessary in order to shave the sheep’s coats. Tom uses large scissors to shave the sheep so he does not hit the sheep’s skin during the process. Tom says “they feel better” when the trimming is done because their coats are so heavy to hold up.

        The young sheep fur is soft and white, this is because most of them have not been trimmed yet therefore their fur is fresh and clean. The fur that is trimmed from the sheep smells surprisingly clean. The fur is washed and used for clothing after being cut. The sheep in Ireland are mostly raised for the use of humans to remove and sell their wool for clothing.

Shelby’s Gallery

Sean’s Gallery: My Irish Story