No happy endings in nature
County Antrim, Northern Ireland
By Cathal McNaughton
When the snow started falling on Thursday afternoon nobody in the Glens of Antrim could have predicted the devastating impact it would have on the farming community. Sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow fall combined with strong easterly winds produced 30 foot snowdrifts.
The rolling hillsides, where just a week previously daffodils had swayed in the breeze in the watery spring sunshine, now lay covered in an unseasonable layer of deep snow. But below the beautiful winter wonderland landscape the tragic reality of nature lay hidden – thousands of sheep buried with their farmers unable to reach them.
Many of the ewes were ready to lamb and were buried alive as the snow blew into drifts several feet high. When I met with family friend Keith McQullan and his farm manager Donald O’Reilly at his hill farm in Aughafatten in Glenarm Glen on Tuesday morning they were unusually quiet. Keith owns several hundred sheep across the remote north Antrim hills – only accessible by quad or by tractor – where he has farmed all his life.
They had just managed to reach the area where they had last seen their sheep four days earlier. But where there had been flocks of 30 and 40, only a few remained. Those left were in a pitiful state with frozen limbs, stiff with the cold and barely strong enough to bleat. Many had lost their lambs as soon as they were born – others had left their babies to die in the snow as they battled for their own survival.
Keith and Donald were going back up the mountain to search the drifts for any sheep that were buried so I jumped onto the tractor and joined them. Snaking our way through giant drifts, the worst in living memory, we reached the search point. They walked backwards and forwards along these massive frozen waves, stopping whenever they sank into the snow. They explained that the snow would be softer in areas where there may be sheep trapped underneath due to the heat they would give off. Unless of course they were dead – which now seemed inevitable.
Miraculously they managed to locate and dig out some sheep that had survived but nature doesn’t do happy endings. All were to die later that day and early the next morning.
On the tractor on the way back to the farmhouse Keith explained that he had another farm with several hundred sheep which he still hadn’t been able to reach. What was he going to be faced with when he made it there? He said: “Last week we had livestock all ready to lamb – this week we have nothing but deadstock.”
As the tractor chugged its way down the Glen side nobody spoke as the snow began to fall again.