Nestled away in the Derg Valley in Co Tyrone, Springwell is a sheep farm with a difference. It develops sheep dairy products. This is a niche market in Northern Ireland’s farming world and it is one that is finding a growing market in both the north and south of the island.
Linda Gourley, who runs the 70 acre farm with her family, explained that it was always her late husband’s dream to expand the farm beyond traditional practices. Mervyn Gourley felt that the consumer demand for alternatives to cow’s milk and produce in Northern Ireland was steadily increasing but that there wasn’t an outlet in the province to meet the demand.
Following a grant from West Tyrone Rural Ltd in 1996, Linda and Mervyn established their new business making a range of products from sheep’s milk including yoghurt, cheese and, of course, the milk itself.
Tragedy was to strike this young business just four years later when Mervyn was killed in a farming accident. This sad event left Linda Gourley to mull over the future of both her children and Springwell farm – which had been in Mervyn’s family for over three generations.
Three years later, with diversification becoming increasingly important for the farming community, Gourley decided that the best course of action for her family and herself was to persist with Mervyn’s dream. Gourley went to Scotland to learn to make cheese from the milk of sheep and to develop her business skills further. The farm now has a flock of 150 ewes, which provides the milk for her products. She also keeps another 100 sheep for meat farming.
Pasteurised milk is used for cheese along with vegetarian rennet and a starter culture. ‘Milking sheep is just like milking goats. Sheep do produce less milk than cows and the process from milk to cheese involves hard work, but it’s worth it.’
Her sheep are machine milked and the milk transferred to the nearby Erganagh Dairies in Castlederg for processing. The cheese tastes deliciously rich and comes in three varieties: with chives or red pepper or plain. However, the family have plans to add to these varieties.
Sheep’s cheese has many health benefits, according to Gourley. It is a valuable source of nutrients and is much higher in total solids than a typical cow or goat cheese alternative. It contains up to twice as much calcium and phosphorus, as well as a range of other minerals, all of which are essential to a healthy lifestyle.
Has Gourley, the only producer in Northern Ireland providing more than meat, encountered any problems in marketing and selling her product?
‘When I first developed it there were the initial teething problems. It was difficult to get outlets to take the risk and sell my products, mainly because this was a new market in Northern Ireland. I have had to make the consumer here aware of the niche cheese and sheep produce I had developed.’
This has been no mean feat and has meant she and her family have travelled to food markets all over the island to market her cheese.
‘Luckily the produce has always been really well received. Sheep’s milk is a fabulous alternative to cow’s milk for the increasing number of people with allergies and health problems such as asthma.’
The growing farmers' market culture throughout Northern Ireland has enabled Linda to take her produce, with the help of her family, to a number of different venues, reaching a wider audience. It was at a local farmers' market where I first encountered Linda and her cheese. Responses at the market to Gourley's cheese were encouraging:
‘I always like to try something new and sheep’s milk, well that’s a new one to me, I don’t think I will stop drinking regular milk, but it’s nice to have an alternative.’
‘My son has acute asthma and cannot have any produce made from cow’s milk and he refuses to touch anything with soy. So when I cajoled him into trying Linda’s Springwell sheep’s products, it was great to see his positive response.’
In 2005 Gourley was awarded the West Tyrone Rural Business Bonus Award and the Enterprising Woman Award.
She attributes the success of her venture to the maintenance of the highest standards and quality control. These measures have helped ensure that she has built up a loyal band of customers, a consumer base that is growing.
Gourley has many ideas to increase the range of products from ice-cream to fudge, more flavours for her cheeses and maybe even a milkshake or two. However, these new developments are something she wants to develop slowly, so as to maintain the high and successful standards she has set for herself.
Sheep's milk fudge? Watch this space...