Sheep and Ireland go hand in hand. The fluffy, wooly creatures rambling over the hills, through valleys and along the seaside are quintessentially Irish. Yet did you know that virtually every single sheep you’ll encounter on the roadside or while hiking in the mountains of Ireland was actually introduced to this tiny island nation? Yes, it’s true. Although some of the more specific breeds here may date back hundreds or even thousands of years, the vast majority of ‘Irish’ sheep were brought here more recently from overseas. What you’ll notice as you hike through Ireland, of course, is that they’ve no doubt settled in extremely well and found quite a comfortable home for themselves on the Emerald Isle.
So, if you’re about to head off on a hillwalking trip through the West of Ireland – or have just come back from one of our many sheep hotspots – and you’d like to learn more about these cuddly creatures, read on for some interesting facts about the sheep of Ireland.
Below you’ll find the who, what, when, where, why and how of all things relating to sheep in Ireland.
Are there really more sheep than people in Ireland?
Yes, this is quite possibly still correct at the moment. Although in recent years the human population has increased in Ireland while the number of sheep has potentially dropped back down, as recently as 2016 our national census results indicated that there were 4.8 million people in the Republic of Ireland, yet a staggering 5.2 million sheep! The Irish counties with the most sheep, in order, are Donegal, Galway and Mayo, with almost half a million each, followed closely by Kerry and then Wicklow. The smallest of these five counties is County Wicklow, yet with its comparatively paltry population of ‘only’ 250,000 sheep and thanks to its smaller stature, it could very well be the county with the highest population density of sheep. So if you want to see plenty of sheep up close, I’d highly recommend taking a hike through the Wicklow Mountains, along the Kerry Way, or check out Connemara and Mayo in the West of Ireland too.
When were sheep introduced to Ireland?
Although evidence indicates that there are certain breeds of sheep that were once native to Ireland dating back many centuries, these have mostly been outbred by imported breeds from overseas. These foreign sheep started arriving in large numbers from the 1500s onwards, however one of the main influxes was actually right around the time of the Great Famine period in the mid 1800s. And unfortunately this wasn’t to help feed the starving inhabitants of the country. Instead, it no doubt exacerbated the problems surrounding the lack of food during the two main famines, as the sheep were brought over from Scotland and England in order to graze on the larger farms of Scottish and English landlords. This of course only further used up fertile land which could have otherwise been utilised by the locals who were in short supply of nourishment. Furthermore, this also compounded the problems of the famine due to the fact that these sheep were predominantly brought to the western counties mentioned in the last paragraph. It was precisely these counties that were already hardest hit during the famine era.
What are the main sheep breeds in Ireland?
The most common breed of sheep in Ireland is the Scottish Blackface, easily spotted due to its black head and legs – just like the famous claymation ‘Shaun the Sheep’ from the creators of ‘Wallace and Gromit.’ This particular species was introduced from Scotland, of course, and as such found the terrain and climatic conditions in the northwest of Ireland quite similar to back home. They are exceptionally hardy creatures, able to withstand the long, cold, dark and stormy winter months here in Ireland. They have long fleeces and curved horns, whereas the more common variety in lowlands – the Suffolk – are somewhat fatter and have shorter, woolier fleeces. There are also specific breeds around Ireland such as the Galway sheep and Kerry Hill sheep.
Are there ‘wild’ sheep in Ireland?
I wouldn’t say there are any truly ‘wild’ sheep here in Ireland, as they are virtually all descended from heavily domesticated, imported breeds these days. However, on my walks on the mountainous trails of the west coast, I’ve seen my fair share of sheep gone ‘feral’ as I like to put it. It’s these sheep that have broken free from their pastures that you can see dotting the mountainsides in the distance, sticking out like puffy white clouds against the green background. They are tremendously nimble and light footed, seemingly gliding across almost sheer mountain sides and perched atop precarious cliff faces. It’s quite evident that they are long ago descended from wild mountain goats when you see them return to nature in this manner. And if you’re after something truly wild, there are actual mountain goats in certain parts of Ireland, especially in places like the Burren, where hikers often see concentrations of them unlike anywhere else in the country.
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Why are there sheep everywhere in Ireland?
Well, it’s simple really, as I pointed out in the last point, some of the sheep in Ireland simply cannot be contained! I’ve seen them squeeze themselves through the tiniest of openings in fences, hedgerows and other entanglements separating various fields. Even stone walls, ditches and dykes are no match for the most determined Scottish Blackface sheep as they find weak points at which to cross walls or leap across irrigation channels at their narrowest sections. As a result, not only are the patchwork fields of the West of Ireland covered in sheep, but it seems like every square inch of land outside of these enclosures is likewise home to these rambling animals. So, whether you’re walking or driving, make sure to keep an eye out for them! They are the true owners of the land and the roads, and if they’re feeling a bit tired or have found a delicious tuft of grass, they sometimes just won’t budge despite your own protestations that they clear the way.
Was there really an ‘Irish Sheep War’?
You may have heard of the ludicrous ‘Emu War’ in Western Australia in the year 1932, in which the military was deployed to bring supposed hordes of emus under control, but have you ever heard of the ‘Gweedore Sheep War’ of Donegal in northwestern Ireland? Fortunately in this case it wasn’t the Army battling against poor, defenceless sheep, but instead Irish farmers battling it out with the English over a dispute concerning sheep grazing. It was the year 1856 and Scottish shepherds had begun bringing over the Scottish Blackface breed of sheep and grazing all over Donegal. In December of that year, a group of nearly fifty Irish tenant farmers conducted an assault on the house of one such Scottish shepherd and demanded he depart Ireland immediately. Thereafter followed a period of sporadic raids in which the sheep of foreign farmers were killed or otherwise ‘disappeared’ , a period in Irish history that became known as the ‘Gweedore Sheep War’ after the region in which these events took place. The situation became such that the English forces increased their police presence, forced new taxes on the locals and made many arrests. After less than two years, in the middle of 1958 the now seemingly preposterous (but at the time no doubt quite serious) ‘sheep war’ came to its conclusion. The local Irish farmers were kicked off their lands and the English and Scottish landlords prevailed thanks to the power of the state.
Why do sheep make so much noise at night?
I used to wonder this myself, but once I found out the answer it made perfect sense. Whenever it’s lambing season, generally February to March in the west of Ireland, I always here all the sheep ‘baa-ing’ all night in the fields surrounding us. Well, it turns out that this is simply the poor little lambs and the ewes (their mothers) calling out to each other in the dark of night to reunite when separated by accident or moved to a new field. And it makes perfect sense, as now that I think about it, it’s really only ever in the spring time that you hear the nervous new mothers and their lambs making noise all night. As the lambs grow up, this phase gradually dies out and the fields fall mostly calm and silent again later in the year.
Why do farmers paint their sheep in Ireland?
I’ve always known that farmers in Ireland paint their sheep in order to keep track of which sheep belong to which farmer and/or to which field. It makes perfect sense once you’ve seen how readily they can squeeze through wire fences or hop across collapsed gaps in stone walls, mixing themselves into pastures of other sheep. Sheep in Ireland, and especially in regions along the west coast where they more often mingle in other paddocks, are often marked with a dollop or a quick spray of brightly coloured paint on their backsides. This leaves quite an indelible splotch on their wool, providing quick recognition of a farmer’s flock. Many farmers (especially in County Mayo, I’ve noticed) even paint their sheep with the colours of their county’s Gaelic football team. You can also spot bales of hay wrapped up in plastic in the same county colours. Once again this is particularly true in Mayo.
However, one thing I didn’t know until recently is that sheep in Ireland are at times painted for an entirely different reason – to help with breeding. A permeable bag containing paint is hung underneath the neck of a ram released into a field of ewes for mating. As the ram mounts a ewe, the bag of paint leaves a mark on the back of the ewe, signalling later to the farmer which females are ready to be moved to another field.
How do you tell the difference between ewes and rams in Ireland?
If the end of the last section was a bit too much information, then be prepared for more intimate sheep details in this final point! I used to think the simple way to tell apart male and female sheep (rams and ewes) was to check if they had horns or not. However, many breeds of sheep see both male and female possessing quite pronounced horns, especially the most common breed in Ireland, the Scottish Blackface. And some rams don’t even have prominent horns at all, whereas I’ve seen older ewes with huge, circular curving horns that have grown over many years. So, what’s the best way to tell the difference and make sure you don’t cross a field full of butting rams? Keep an eye out for whether the sheep in question have testicles or not. And failing that, watch out for how they urinate. Ewes tend to squat slightly and urinate from the back, whereas male rams do not squat at all and urinate from the middle underside of their bodies, about halfway between their front and back legs.
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One quick bonus tip for you concerning the tendencies of sheep in Ireland. As a hiker I’ve noticed that the sheep here form some pretty amazing tracks in the hills and mountains of the west coast. If I’m looking for a quick and easy route along a steep slope or up a mountain, I often leave it to the sheep to do the literal groundwork for me beforehand. For it’s the sheep of Ireland that know the slopes best as they find the easiest way up or across, carving out their own little tracks. From up high, hikers in Ireland can look down and across the landscape and often spot these zig-zagging tracks cut out of the green grass. Just be careful though, as they can be quite narrow and you might need to walk one foot after the other. Still easier going than walking on a steep section of wet grass which has not been flattened by the hooves of countless sheep.