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Visiting a Traditional Irish Sheep Farm

Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.

When people think of Ireland, and what they might see on a visit, there are a few images that come to mind.  The grassy green pastures, the rugged coastlines, the quaint villages…  some of the things in our exploration of the Irish Countryside.  For me, the most predominate picture I had in mind was the traditional Irish Sheep Farm.  Sometimes expectations are based on stereotypes, or times past, and they are something we would never really see on a visit to a country.  But on the Emerald Isle, traditional sheep farms do still exist.  The Kissane Sheep Farm is an example that still operates much as it has for decades.

The Kissane Sheep Farm has been owned and operated on their plot of land along the N71, between Killarney National Park and Kenmare for nearly 200 years.  It is a beautiful area at the head of the Iveragh Peninsula, an almost ideal place to call home, and a lovely location for a traditional Irish sheep farm.

Just how gorgeous is this location?  Well it is just past the Ladies View, and encompasses Molls Gap, along the Ring of Kerry, two of the Ireland’s most famed lookout points on one of its most popular tourist routes.  We visited in early spring, before the full greening had completed, but the view was still stunning.


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
The view from the deck of the Kissane Farm, in early spring, before the full greening.


Over the decades of their tenure on this land, times and economies have changed.  The market for wool and lanolin are not what they once were.  Sheep farming is no longer a viable way to make a living or support a family.  Going out of the box was required to maintain their home and their lifestyle.  The one industry that is available in the area along the Ring of Kerry, in abundance, is tourism.  A lot of visitors pass by, every day.  

The Kissane sheep farm already had some of the main things that visitors come to Ireland to experience:  a traditional way of life and stunning scenery.  Finding a way to share these two things with visitors, wasn’t too hard for the Kissanes.  Opening their farm up to tourists has enabled them to share a special part of their homeland with visitors, and to continue in their traditional lifestyle.  

From spring to fall, the Kissanes open their farm at scheduled times for tours, and sheep dog demonstrations.  It is important to point out that the farm is still fully functioning, meaning they still perform all of the work and chores associated with farm life and caring for the sheep, on a daily basis.  The farm is not open outside of the scheduled times.   Be sure to check the calendar on their website to get the correct times.  I learned about the farm through Rick Steve’s Ireland Guide.  I planned a stop on our Ireland itinerary, to surprise my son, who is quite an animal lover.  


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
Travis and the lamb – it wasn’t love at first sight.


The far gates are opened about 15 minutes before the scheduled times.  Visitors begin in the barn, where they pay their admission fee, and there is a small selection of gift items available.  As the visitors gather together in the barn, the farm workers interact with them, explaining what life is like on a traditional Irish sheep farm.  They also teach about the rare breed of mountain sheep that they raise.  In the fall, they demonstrate shearing.  In the spring, the spring the baby lambs abound. 

Our visit was in the spring, so there were a lot of baby lambs!   While we listened and learned, we were allowed to become acquainted with the lambs, which was a big hit with many guests, especially the children. Some lambs required bottle feeding, and guidance for the proper way to hold both the lamb and the bottle, was given.  Others lambs just seemed to enjoy the warmth and some affection.  They really are as soft and cuddly as they look!  We were very happy we visited in the spring and were able to see the babies.


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
Then it did become love.


After the barn time, the group was escorted to a viewing platform, where a sheep dog demonstration would be performed.  A couple dozen sheep were spread out in the valley.  The farmer introduced us to the border collies that tend the farm.  He told us each of their names, then sent all but one trotting back to the house.  This last collie showed us how he responded to commands, whether they were words, hand symbols, or whistles.  He was extremely intelligent, and well-trained.  He was also little, smaller than many of the ewes, so we wondered how he would be able to guide the dozens of sheep on the land below us.

As the dog was sent out into the fields, the farmer gave us more information.  We learned that sheep are following animals, and about herd behavior.  If one larger sheep breaks into a run, the others will follow.  The collie seemed to know this instinctually, and used it to his advantage, as he prepared to gather the sheep. 


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
Some of the sheep seem to know the dog is coming, as the look up from their grazing.


The farmer used a unique set whistles to command the dog.  They were barely distinguishable for our human ears, but the dog responded to each one with confidence.  Soon the sheep were convening into a group, and those who had been grazing from the further places in the valley were brought into the fold.  


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
The sheep gradually move together.


Through a series of different commands from the farmer, and responses from the collie, the sheep are gradually led across the farm.  The dog spurred the sheep into action at each step, than laid watchfully waiting for it to occur.  If a sheep wandered from the group, he quickly reigned it in.  It also appeared that he led them along the safest path for quick movement.


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
The sheep make their way across the rocky ground, as the dog waits patiently along the stream.


Finally, the entire herd came rushing up the hill towards us, and then passed through the gate to the barnyard.  Although the sheep have natural tendencies that enable them to be herded in such a way, it also required a lot of skill the dog’s part.  We were impressed by his abilities.  Collies have been bred in a farming environment for centuries, and part of the abilities are intrinsic now, but still the training must be intricate and extensive.  Shoot, I know people who have difficulty training their dogs to have simple in-house manners, 

For those who are curious, the dogs and sheep used for performances are rotated, so that it is relatively congruent with their regular life on the farm.  No particular group of sheep, or single dog, is burdened with an excess of demonstrations.


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
Finally the herd begins rushing up the hill, with the dog following.


We were impressed by the show, and enjoyed all aspects of our visit.  We felt we learned a lot, and had an understanding of what traditional Irish sheep farm life was like.  We were also pleased that our visit contributes a small bit to the maintenance of this tradition and lifestyle. 

The Kissanes also have an “Adopt a Sheep” program, which enables visitors, or those who cannot make the trip, to adopt a sheep.  The program includes being able to name the sheep, and a certificate of adoption.  It also includes free visits to the farm demonstrations in the future, and being able to meet the new family member during a visit.


Traditional Irish Sheep Farm, Kissane Sheep Farm.
A single lamb seems lost along the fence line.


If your imaginings of Ireland also include a traditional Irish sheep farm, as mine did, you should certainly consider a visit to the Kissane Sheep Farm.  Not only will you learn and understand a way of life that has flourished for centuries, you will also have fun.  It is a great stop to break up the drive along the Ring of Kerry, on the way to the Skellig Ring, or any visit to the Iveragh Peninsula.  Amidst a day of breathtaking scenery, and several stops, cuddling the lambs, was the highlight of the day.   A visit to the farm is truly a joyful experience! 

If you want more ideas of awesome places to visit in Ireland, check out our not so perfect Ireland Itinerary.
If you want to know more about the traditional sites you might see, check out our Exploration of the Ireland Countryside.
If you want more of the stunning scenery on the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig Ring, or the Iveragh Peninsula, check out our gallery of amazing photos, Around the Iveragh Peninsula.


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