Arriving in Northern Ireland on the 14th of May, I was met by Tim and Adam at the Belfast airport. This was the beginning of a trip of a lifetime. I spent the first week staying with Tim in Kilrea. The first night for the tour was spent at another Young Farmer’s place, Johnny, where we had a BBQ, and met the other exchangees. Some short term of only two weeks, others long term like me.
During my first week in the UK I went to a stock feed factory, my first proper English pub, a rope bridge, had ice cream in a seaside village, went to the Balmoral Show, a whiskey distillery and finished off with a stock car race.
The stock feed factory, called Chestnuts, was quite interesting. Due to the cattle in the UK being in sheds most of the year, there is a high demand for stock feed in pellet form and mixed as a meal type feed. Trucks bring product up from Belfast to the factory at Ballymoney where they then mix different products together to create specific feeds, each having different qualities to them. Some feeds are specific to calves whereas some are specific to cows. Others may be suitable for sheep while another is used for fattening bulls. The products used are anything from straight maize to crushed maize, palm husk, all types of grains, and also byproducts from breweries that are otherwise wasted after the brewing process. When an order is placed by a farm a truck will load up on the particular feed mix and deliver it right to the farmers door, but usually they’ll place it straight into a silo.
The rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede is a bridge that connects the mainland of Northern Ireland to a tiny little island that was used by salmon fishermen. The route has been used for over 350 years, but the current bridge was only built in 2008. It spans only about 20m and is about 30m above the sea. Once on the little island you can walk about freely. There is plenty of bird life and amazing cliffs to look at.
I was lucky enough to spend two days at the Royal Balmoral Show. It is a big deal with approximately 120,000 people going through the gates over the four days. Inside the show it has everything you could imagine. Machinery galore, horse events on all day every day, sports events and Young Farmer competitions and also lots and lots of stock. There are also plenty of food stalls and a few bars scattered throughout too. My first day there consisted of looking around at as much as I could, but still didn’t see everything. But I did learn that the Young Farmers take their tug of war very seriously. The tug of war competition went for a couple of hours at the end of the day and I still didn’t get to see the end of it. Luckily, I was able to go back for a second day and finish off what I had started. Looking at all the stock there I realized how different their breeds of sheep are, some almost goat like.
Later in the week my host Tim, along with Adam, took me to the Bushmills Whiskey Distillery. We went on a guided tour and learned about the different whiskeys that they produce. At the end we managed to have a small tasting of the whiskey.
My final day with Tim saw us go to a stockcar meet. Much similar to down here really. Loud, fast and not overly tidy. At the end of the day there was a caravan derby; a multitude of sedans towing caravans crashing into each other until there is only one car still driving around. It was chaos. From there I was taken to my second club in county Amar, where I met up with Elaine, an exhangee who came to Tasmania last year. I was to be staying with her and her brother Geoffrey.
For my second week in Northern Ireland I went to a few farm tours, had my first experience with “grass” (silage), watched a bit of shearing, toured around the big city of Belfast and went to a game show. It was a fairly busy week.
The first farm I went to was a dairy farm run by Ian, his brother and his father. On only 100 acres they run 300 dairy cows. This showed the intensity that farming is run at in Northern Ireland. Most of the farm consisted of sheds to house the cattle in and silos for silage. Their silos are basically 3 big walls that they fill to the top with silage then pull a great big tarp over the whole lot. For the amount of silage that farmers cut, it’s too expensive to bale and wrap. They also lease ground away from the main farm purely to cut grass off to feed their cattle for the year.
Another farm I went to was for fattening beef. All the cattle they were fattening were bulls. The reason being, they grow quicker. All the bulls were sold by 16 months of age. It was very rare to find anyone with steers. The bulls were also housed in a shed. This particular shed could hold up to 300 bulls, with about 10-15 bulls per pen. Every bull was weighed regularly to monitor weight gain. Because they were housed in small pens they also needed their hoofs trimmed often due to not walking around and wearing them down. It was another high intensity farming practice.
Another host, Sarah, took us touring around the mountains of Northern Ireland. We also went to a place called Silent Valley where we walked up to a huge dam. When they want to release water, it is released out of valves much the same as a drain in a bath. Huge volumes of water can be drained out very quickly. From there we went to another seaside town where we went to an arcade and bombed around in dodgem cars. Was a nice way to end the day.
I managed to go to Belfast for a day. Myself and a couple of other exchangees went to the Titanic Museum. This is built on the wharf where the Titanic, and sister ship Brittanic were built. It was a fascinating museum with lots and lots of information. There was also a very cool chair lift type setup that took you on a mini tour through a section of the museum. It started on the top story and went down a story, around and back up to where you started. Along the way a narrator told you of how the ship was built and the horrible conditions people had to work in. There was a room dedicated to the last few hours of the Titanic before it sank. In there was the dialogue of the mayday calls from the Titanic to other ships nearby. It was kind of unnerving to be reading them and imagining the fear that would have swept over the ship at the time.
I spent a morning with George who works for a silage contractor. He does everything from mowing to raking to picking up silage. He also fills the silos with the grass they pick up, using a telehandler type machine with a rake on the front. The morning I was with him he had to go around a few different farms rowing up the grass ready for it to be lifted by another machine and taken to the silos.
I also managed to spend a day with a shearer called Clifford. He had spent many years of his life shearing in Australia. Their set ups are a little different to what we have here in Australia. They don’t have designated sheds for shearing due to a few factors. Sheep flocks over there are not big. The biggest flocks for one farmer would be 200-300 sheep. But most are less than 100. So shearers do all their shearing on trailers, or temporary set ups in sheds. The wool that comes off the sheep is worth very little. A farmer will pay a shearer anywhere from one pound to one pound fifty, but will be lucky to get 60-80 pence a fleece. The sheep are purely bred for meat. Muels and Texals are the most common breeds. Short legs, solid bulked up frames.
Collin was kind enough to take me to the Scarva game fair. It was a show based all around hunting, fishing and any other outdoor activity that people take part in in the UK. I was quite amazed at the falconry display, where the trained birds of prey would fly around at their trainer’s command, and animal like objects as he threw them.
At the end of the week I went to my first “BBQ”, which is basically just a big social event in a shed for the Young Farmers. There is a food van, but no actual BBQ. There is a band and a DJ and a bar with very cheap drinks. It took about an hour and half on a bus to get to the BBQ, where on the way I got to meet a lot of new people. In the shed there were literally hundreds of Young Farmers all having a very joyful time. That brought an end to my second week in Northern Ireland.
For my third and final week in Northern Ireland I stayed with Emma and her family. Emma came to Tasmania about 3 years ago on exchange. Her brother, Ryan, works at the Chestnuts stock feed factory as a truck driver. I spent a day with him in the truck driving down to Belfast and back, twice. The sheds at the wharf are where feed is stored when it comes off the ships. The sheds are insanely big. Hundreds of metres long. The Ballymena Show was also on the following weekend, which the Young Farmers run. After work I went with Ryan to deliver tickets to past Young Farmer members and sponsors.
I went for a walk with Emma and Johnny up a hill called Slemish. It is a volcanic core that overlooks a town called Carnstroan. Slemish is where Saint Patrick was enslaved as a child and was forced to watch over flocks of sheep. There was a great view from the top. Because Northern Ireland is so flat, you can see for miles and miles across the land.
I also went to a natural landmark called the Giants Causeway. The rocks have been carved out much the same as the tessellated pavement has been carved out at Port Arthur in Tasmania, but on a much larger scale. It was teeming down with rain but it didn’t detract from my walk or the views from the tops of the cliff.
For my final weekend in Northern Ireland I went to the Ballymena Show. A small-scale show with a few thousand people coming along for the day. Lots of Texal sheep and a big soccer match for the Young Farmer clubs in the area.
That wrapped up my first leg of my exchange and set the pace for a very full agenda for the rest of the trip.
Form Northern Ireland I flew to Cardiff in Wales. I only spent a week here but it was a fun week and I saw many new sights.
My new host Matt took me to Cardiff Castle. This was my first ever experience with a castle and it didn’t disappoint. It was massive and to think a family lived in it not all that long ago is baffling. It had changed a fair bit over the years. The gardens once had walls throughout, but they were knocked down and now the centre of the grounds is a great big open oval. The outer walls are incredibly thick and were used as air raid shelters during World War Two.
I had a good tour of a farm that a Young Farmer called Dave lives on. He and his dad run the farm, mostly sheep and cattle. Outside of working on the farm Dave shears on nearby farms when the season is on.
Dave’s sister Kate took myself and my host Matt to an old coal mine called “Big Pit”. This was a cool tour as we got to go down a mine shaft into the old working mine. This was also my first experience of a mine and how they work.
After this we went to a museum in Wales called St Fagans. It is almost like a small village where they have taken houses, cottages and other building from sights around Wales and brought them to the museum. They would dismantle the structure and number every brick, beam, pillar or anything else, and then erect it exactly how it was, back at the museum. Everything from school houses, mining houses, farm buildings, to old lolly shops. There were also traditional “rare breed” sheep. There is a fascination for rare breed sheep in the UK. Over the years people have bred sheep for specific characteristics. Mostly for meat producing in the UK. Because of this, many traditional breeds have been left behind, due to them having a poor economic value. but there are clubs set up and also government grants and incentives for people who continue breeding rare breeds.
I spent a day with my hosts next door neighbour, Will. He runs the family farm with his dad. They run breed sheep and also fatten lambs. The day I was there they needed to weigh lambs to send to market. While sheep growers down here would yard their sheep and run them through a race and over some scales, in Wales things aren’t on the same scale. So, for the couple of hundred sheep, we herded them all into a shed and then penful by penful we sorted through what looked to be the right size. And if we were uncertain, you’d pick the lamb up and hang it on a set of analogue scales, much like the ones you’d weigh your fruit on at the super market.
At the end of the week I went for a walk with another host, Tom, out to a natural spectacle called Worms Head. When the tide is high it is a small island but when the tide recedes, it exposes solid rock and you are able to walk to the island. The Island is only about 30 acres in size but the walk from the car park, out to the end and back took a couple of hours. The island is very steep in spots and jagged rock formations have been carved by the water and the weather. While there we even managed to spot a couple of very tubby but contented looking seals.
After my week in Wales I flew to Edinburgh where I was reunited with the other exchangees to start my next three weeks.
We spent the first few days in a hostel in Edinburgh. Over these days we went to a berry farm, a steak barn/butchery, a coast guard base and then the Transport Museum in Glasgow.
The berry farm we went to grew strawberries, blackberries and juneberries. There was approximately 1000 acres of berries in total and there were about 400 employees during the peak harvest time. The harvest goes for 7 weeks and in that time each plant is picked every 3 days.
After this we went to a place called Balgove Steak Barn. This is a butchery and a restaurant on the property, which is also a working farm. Everything that is sold in the butcher shop or in the restaurant is grown on the property. We were fortunate enough to watch a master butcher by the name of James, demonstrate his skills on a round of beef. His butchering techniques are in a traditional style and there is very little meat waste. He runs butchery classes for people including high profile celebrities. The butchery produces over two thousand steaks a week for both the restaurant and to sell to the public. Along with beef they also produce and sell lamb, and buy in game animals like deer, duck and pheasant. We had tea at the Steak Barn and the steak was magnificent.
The Transport Museum was huge and had every type of transportation crammed in there, including a ship outside in the river. Walking around the museum it goes through the ages of transport, starting at pushbikes and penny farthings, to motorbikes, a wall of cars three high and even trains and trams. They even have the two motorbikes Ewan McGregor used in the TV series “Long Way Round “and “Long Way Down”.
I saw a lot of dairies while in the UK. And Scotland continued to produce. Robot milkers are a growing trend in the UK. Each robot being able to milk a herd of 60 cows. And for these small dairies that have 100-300 head of cows, the robots are a handy investment and relieve the farmers or workers of having to do the two milkings a day. And it also means the cows can be milked three times a day if they’re producing. But the robots won’t allow a cow to be milked within a certain time of her last milking. There are also robotic feeders. Basically, a big feed bin that is filled by another robot. It then wheels along a set path feeding out the desired amount of feed. This again reduces human labour.
We went to a wind farm in Whitelee. This is the biggest wind farm in the UK, producing enough electricity to power over 300,000 homes. It’s set on over 5300 hectares and has 215 wind turbines. We were able to walk up to one of them and get an idea of the sheer size of one turbine. The Whitelee Wind Farm was also a bit of a wilderness area for people to explore as they wished. There were paths and walks all over the property and you could even mountain bike around it if you pleased.
We went to an island called the Isle of Great Cumbrae. Here we hired some bikes and rode around the island. There wasn’t a great deal to see except water on your right and land on your left. But it was a pleasant ride and got us active for a day.
We went to a chicken farm called the West Park Chicken Farm. All the chickens are housed in a big shed. There are 16,000 chicken in the one shed. They produce about 15,000 eggs a day. They were classed as “free range” chicken as they are able to leave the shed and wander around outside within the fenced area.
Bio-digesters are another big energy producer in the UK. Simply put, they’re a giant cow stomach. Grass, grain and other food like products go into the digester, over time the bacteria break down the contents and gas are produced. This gas is then piped to a burner where it’s burned and runs the generators that then create electricity. We saw quite a few of these as we toured farms too. Farmers are able to create their own electricity and can also put any excess back into the grid. On top of this they get grants from the government to run these big energy makers.
The highlight of my time in Scotland was probably the Royal Highland Show. This is a massive show, like the Royal Hobart and Agfest put together and then given steroids. We went Wednesday through to Sunday and I still doubt I saw everything to see. People come from all over the UK to go to the Highland. Nearly 200,000 people attend the show over the few days it’s on. And the shearing competition is huge. People from all over the world go to compete. Mel Morris, a wool handler and trainer from here in Tasmania was even there competing for Australia.
I had a good look around Stirling, which is the area that the movie Braveheart is based on. I went to the Stirling Castle which is where Robert The Bruce lived, and then to the Wallace monument which was erected in recognition of William Wallace and all he did to break England’s control of Scotland.
Overall my three weeks in Scotland was quite a fun one and involved quite a bit of traveling around.
My final two weeks were spent in England. Coming toward the end of my tour it was a welcome change when my agenda was a little bit more laid back. I spent a few days with Howard, who came to Tasmania on exchange 6 or so years ago. I spent the days with him following him around on his farm. They have a diverse farm. Sheep and beef, dairy and also breed pheasants for driven hunts on his property, another important and welcome income in the UK for many farmers.
I went to a couple more shows while in England, both much similar to Agfest. But both also with a big emphasis on stock and the showing of stock.
All in all, my exchange was a trip of a lifetime and would be something I would do again in a heartbeat. It is something I would recommend to any person in Rural Youth and promise that you would get so much out of it and meet so many new people. To be able to see how things are done in the UK is an eye opener. As a whole, big farms aren’t that big in size, but they make up for it in the intensity they run stock. The government has many different grants for nearly anything you can think of. From running a specific breed of animal, to replanting hedges, to burning wood to make electricity. The opportunity for me to go away for nine weeks would not have been possible without Rural Youth and the National Federation of Young Farmers Club putting this programme together, and to Tas Country for their sponsorship, helping me fly to the other side of the world and back. And what a long flight it is! I also must give a huge thanks to all my hosts that looked after me while I was traveling around. Every single one of you were incredibly accommodating and went above and beyond to make sure I had an enjoyable time. So, thanks to all Young Farmers who I met along the way for making this an exchange that I’ll never forget.