Ag in my Land is a series that celebrates farming globally, providing an insight in to what life is like on-farm around the world.
Hew Grierson and partner Frin Ross farm merino sheep, angus cattle and breed Border Collies at Blue Beach farm on the west coast of East Falkland.
Frin works as a Habitats Officer for Falklands Conservation and currently works with the community to restore eroded and degraded land with native plants.
An important part of Frin’s work is to share learning and advice between farmers and has created a small wildlife area at Blue Beach Farm, to encourage native plants and small birds.
A brief history:
Originally, cattle and other livestock were left on the islands by passing ships or from those passing before or after stopping off at the infamous Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. These wild cattle thrived and large herds developed. Gaucho style cattle farming methods were initially introduced as settlement of the islands started at the beginning of the 19th century. Cheviot sheep were introduced in 1851 by the Falkland Islands Company to produce wool, with numbers peaking at 807,000 sheep at the end of the 19th century. In 1982 a large proportion of farm animals were killed for food by the occupying Argentinian forces, though the following year an extraordinary “Noah’s Ark” of donated animals was sent by UK farmers, and their progeny are still traceable today.
How big is your farm?
We run 5,000 sheep and 180 Angus cattle across 6,961 hectares.
How many farms are on the island?
There are 81 in total - 36 on East Falkland, 34 on West Falkland and 11 on outer Islands.
Prior to 1982, 90 per cent of the land was owned by absentee landlords yet by 2003, 95 per cent was owned and farmed by those living and working in the Islands. This led to large numbers of new smaller farms and the need to create new names, so we see one is named Brookfield after the farm in the Archers and another Sheffield, to commemorate HMS Sheffield that was sunk in 1982.
Please could you describe the scenery?
Blue Beach Farm is on the edge of San Carlos Waters, with rolling hillsides and sandy beaches. It’s also constantly windy in the Falklands so we don’t have any trees. The soil is peaty and ground cover is low, growing a lot of diddle-dee heath - diddle-dee looks a bit like heather but it has red berries which can be used to make jam. There are some taller tussac grasslands and reseeded areas close to the sea too.
San Carlos settlement is home to six people - two of these work with Hew on the farm. Goose Green is half an hour away and Stanley is two hours by car. The roads are pretty good these days, but they are clay tracks rather than tarmac. All farms are “off-grid”, providing their own electricity and water and Blue Beach uses its own wind turbine.
In terms of the farming community here on the Falklands, we’re very self-sufficient and have a robust sense of humour!
Are there any traditions celebrated in your community?
The Falkland’s rural festivities tend to last for a period of days, dating back to the time before roads when farmers would spend several days getting to events on horse back or by off-roading with a trusty land rover. Dog trials become ’two-nighters’ and we have an annual Sports Week with horse racing, shearing and peat cutting.
There are farming events that mark the Falklands calendar too, such as the sheep shearing competition at Christmas in Stanely. The Rural Business Association also holds an Agricultural Show and Dance at Goose Green in the Autumn and Farmers Week events.
What are the biggest problems facing the ag industry?
The challenges to overcome are the logistics of transporting fresh produce long distances, as opposed to lower value frozen product. There is also the threat of potential new tariffs on UK agricultural goods post Brexit, should the UK fail to strike a free-trade deal with the EU. This would apply equally to farm produce originating in the Falkland Islands and particularly affect our wool sales to countries like Bulgaria and Italy.
What is the biggest difference between British farming and farming in the Falklands?
Farming in the Falklands is more akin to ranching than British Farming. Our land is low in nutritional value and farms practice rotational grazing or farm big areas with low densities of livestock. Working at these scales means we can’t pamper our animals too much – instead we work hard to breed strong stock which are well suited to our environment.
What about Government support?
As the second largest income sector after fishing, the Falkland Islands Government has a proactive and supportive dedicated policies and Department of Agriculture to support farming. Farmers do not receive support in the same way as EU Single Farm Payments, but they do have access to research and development and grants on offer to invest in their businesses.
Since 1982, a network of over 1,000km of roads has been constructed around the islands to assist in farm development and connectivity. Support has also been given to developing renewable energy such as wind and solar.
There is now an emphasis on research and development, overseen by the department of agriculture’s research centre which has reversed decades of underinvestment and led to improvements in animal genetics and pasture management. A National Sheep Stud Flock and National Beef Herd have also been created to improve both the quality of sheep wool and the meat. Improved pastures and genetics facilitated the import of Polwarth sheep from Australia in 1992, resulting in a more valuable product, and lower wool micron levels, averaging 24.5. An on-going programme of artificial insemination and embryo transfers has sped up the improvement in wool and meat qualities.
We have also been using AI with Australian merino genetics from Centre Plus, and New Zealand Angus Cattle genetics from Waigroup to improve our sheep and cattle since 2004.
A similar cattle genetics programme is replacing traditional dairy breeds using Hereford and Angus embryos and semen to improve beef quality. Livestock are processed through the Islands EU approved abattoir, which offers improved processing and revenue opportunities to supply quality meat for both the domestic and export market.
What do you love most about your job?
Hew: Working with livestock, using my dogs and turning out a good product - fine, white wool and strong cattle with excellent tasting meat.
Frin: There is great satisfaction when eroded areas turn green again following tussac grass plant-outs, and it’s fabulous to see people’s excitement at this.