It’s difficult to find a more idyllic and wholesome place in the world than rural Northern Ireland. And Glenshane Country Farm in the rolling Sperrin Hills just might be the most beautiful spot of all. Not only that, Jamese McCloy, a sheep farmer with farming in his DNA, is diversifying the world of sustainable farming and tourism by welcoming Contiki travellers into his home and sharing his tips and skills.
On our Contiki Ireland trip you can meet Jamese and see his gorgeous sheepdogs – Moss, Jess and Tess – at work, as well as have a go at sheep shearing! Here, we ask him about the incredible heritage of Glenshane Country Farm, what sheep dog training is really like and why it’s all about the craic when visitors come to stay…
Hi Jamese, how would you describe what you do for a living?
“For me, working on a farm is a way of life. It’s something that goes beyond just being a business. It’s all about putting my blood, sweat and tears into something that I love to do and trying to honour the hard work of the generations of family before me and what they did to the farmland. Obviously, there’s the farming element of working the sheep every day and the daily farming duties, but this is something that’s embedded in me. I’m a real home bird – when I go to the end of the lane, I wonder what time I’ll be home!”
What’s the Contiki sheep dog experience like at Glenshane Country Farm?
“I’d describe it as a unique visitor attraction where people around the world can enjoy a private immersion experience at the farm. At the core of everything, we want to create the warmest welcome in Ireland and help travellers to create lasting memories!
“I love sharing what we do and teaching visitors a little about our sheep dog heritage and sheep shearing, too. I love seeing the emotions on visitors’ faces and hearing the laughter. I also gain so many memories of my own – receiving good reviews really fuels my passion for farm tourism even more. I love to see the Contiki coach pulling into the farm – it gives me such a feeling of accomplishment and I know that today is going to be a fun day.”
So, why did you decide to become a sheep farmer?
“I grew up watching and helping my father and grandfather and neighbours. If you went back 300 years, there’s someone within my bloodline who would have been doing what we’re doing now. It’s such a close community here – we help each other. To me, working on a farm has always been a normal environment. I’d work on our farm before school some days; evenings and weekends; there were always jobs that had to be done, I rarely saw it as a chore – driving the tractors and quads and working alongside the grown ups, I was just keen to learn.
“Now, I try really hard to put my own stamp on things and that’s where tourism diversification came into play. Sustainability is important to us here and we need to move forward in the right way – with as little carbon footprint as possible. There’s only so much you can do in your own little area, but it still has a big impact. Looking after our heritage but moving with the times and innovating is important to me. I want to leave the farm in a strong state so it’s easy for my family to continue it on and put their own stamp on it.”
What does running a sustainable farm really mean?
“To me it’s about continuing in a responsible way. Inviting visitors and opening up to tourism is a sustainable way of doing that. There’s no massive energy cost to what I’m doing, this is me just inviting people to my farm, sharing what I do and having a bit of craic. Then, the money that I gather from those experiences, I put back into the farm – back into the landscape to plant hedges and tidy the farm. I’ll reinvest it all back into this place, for future generations after me.”
Okay, introduce us to your sheep dogs!
“Well, I train them myself. It’s so rewarding to have a little Border Collie pup and bring it to a level where it’s a confident working sheep dog, doing what it loves.
“We have the dog’s photos, birth certificates and pedigrees up on the wall for travellers to see them first. There’s Moss – he comes from a long line of workers. He’s a six-year-old, typical male – you have to tell him twice to get anything done! He’s also mad about the hens and ducks!
“Then there’s Tess, our 4-year-old fantastic worker. As soon as I let them out of the pen, you’ll see Moss running round my feet like a lazy boy and you’ll see Tess jump through the gate, run into the field and stand just waiting for the first command! When the dogs run round the corner, there’s so much anticipation!
“Jess is our youngest dog in training and she’s really shy. But once she gets a bit of distance, her tail’s down, ears are up and she’s away working! It’s not a polished performance, it’s just me and them doing what we do. That creates the craic.”
What new skills can travellers learn?
“I want visitors to leave understanding what we do and why – then, if they sheep herding ever again, they can apply what they’ve learnt! I always ask volunteers to help with commanding the dogs, showing them how I work the sheep like a clock face, for example: ‘away’ sends the dogs anti-clockwise around the sheep.
“I always give them a wee opportunity to challenge themselves. I find some people love that and the craic is always deadly!”
What’s the surrounding area of Glenshane like?
“Our surroundings are amazing! On a summer’s morning, when the sun rises from behind Slemish Mountain (where Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, worked as a shepherd 1,500 years ago) it is stunning. And on a winter’s day, the cold fog rolls along the valley and down towards us. We can literally see the lands being covered gradually in a crisp white frost. In the distance, you can see the top of the closest surrounding mountains and watch as the white moves down the mountain. There’s nothing and nowhere like it.”
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