Farming Since the Famine 1847-2015
9th October 2016

In 1996 the CSO released a publication called "Farming Since the Famine, 1847-1996". There are a number of datasets which cover livestock numbers and crop coverage during that period and using annual figures from the CSO archives I have updated some of the graphs produced then to include the years 1997-2015. When the final figures for this year are released there will be 170 years worth of data for some of the datasets.

The report covers the numerous sampling methods that were used from 1847 to 1996 to collect the data, from the RIC and the Gardai to 50% and 100% agricultural surveys. Since 2010 the data has been taken from Single Payment Scheme data from the Department of Agriculture. Therefore at times there are significant "discontinuities" as the report describes them between 1 year’s figures and the next. For example in 1907 a change in the way the poultry figure was enumerated saw a 28% increase in the population over the previous year. The general reason for collecting this data is short term reports and at the moment the figures are compared to those of the previous 2 years. The figures and graphs below should only be taken as approximations and are not exact.

The Great Famine of 1845-1852 and the massive social change it brought about was one of the main reasons for Sir Thomas Larcom starting this project for the Board of Works. In 1959 Austin Bourke estimated that over 820,000 hectares of land in Ireland was devoted to growing potatoes in 1845. The following year this fell to 650,000 and the first return by the Board of Works shows just 89,000 hectares in 1847. While the earlier figures are estimates made over 100 years after the fact they show the heavy dependence of the Irish population on the crop, which would continue for some time after the Famine, and the need by the administration to get an idea of how the situation now stood. Britain itself would not start recording similar figures until 1867 making this dataset one of the longest running in the world.

The report contains a number of black and white graphs which I have reproduced below, updating some of them with new data and also looking at some data on yield and production figures collected over the last 15 or so years.

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The holdings graph, indexed by the year 1855, shows that while there was a slight growth in the number of farms up to 1860 since then small farms have continued to decline.There is a slight leveling off after the 1881 Land Act but the decrease in smaller farms begins again in 1910. In modern times this represents consolidation of farms as herd numbers become bigger and machinery allows larger areas to be planted and also the spread of urban areas and the building of houses.

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Barley has overtaken wheat and oats as the most grown cereal crop in Ireland since 1847 though in general there has been a downward trend in total crops grown. For oats and wheat there are noticeable spikes in production due to Compulsory Tillage Orders in 1918 towards the end of the First World War and in the early 1940s during The Emergency. In 1852 there were 672,000 hectares of oats planted while in 2015 the figure was 23,400.

It took a while for the potato crop to recover from the blight but by 1859 it reached a post famine peak of 374,000 hectares. Since then it has followed the downward trend and in 2015 there were only 8,500 hectares of potatoes planted in the State. Turnips dropped from a peak of 124,000 hectares in 1851 to 900 hectares in 2014 and 1,100 in 2015. Once used as animal feed they have now been replaced by meal and nuts and turnip growth for human consumption has been hit by the fact that nobody likes them.

Sugar beet production started in the 1920s and was severely hit in 2006 with the closure of the last sugar factory at Mallow. The figures before 2006 are for sugar beet alone while from 2006 on this figure includes fodder beet. Until EU reforms in 2006 sugar beet had been a major industry resulting in over 1.8 million tonnes (plus 600,000 tonnes of fodder beet) grown in 2004. There have been calls to reopen the sugar factories and there are hopes this will happen soon with the CAP reforms which abolished sugar quotas.

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As is plain to see there have been two major discontinuities in the enumeration of land under hay and pasture which the report makes mention of. In the first graph the blue line shows the total amount of all crops, fruit and horticulture planted. From a max of 1,420,000 hectares in 1851 this figure has fallen to 359,700. At over a million hectares or 10,000 square kilometers this is almost 15% of the land in the Republic of Ireland that is no longer used for this purpose.

The report states that it is not clear if rough grazing land is included in the figures from 1847-1996 but this has a separate entry in the yearly reports from 1997. This makes it difficult to figure out how much land has ceased to be worked since the 1872 peak of 5,250,000 hectares (74% of the State’s area) but I think it makes sense to say this figure includes rough grazing which would put the current figure at 4,429,000 (63% of the State’s area) showing a drop of 821,000 hectares since 1872.

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While searching through the yearly archives for the post 1996 data I also found yield and production figures which I have included. The yield of wheat per hectare fluctuates so much I initially thought there was a mistake. The yield graphs should give some idea of the plight of tillage farmers as of course these figures aren’t known until AFTER the harvest has been taken up and can make it difficult to calculate revenues before hand.

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Turnip and sugar beet yield and production are no longer included in the yearly releases but are included to show just how much sugar beet was grown up to 2006. This figure does not include fodder beet which would put the 2004 figure at close to 2.4 million tonnes, almost more than everything else put together.

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The CSO report contains a graph showing what percentage of each counties total crops was made up of potatoes in 1859. It is difficult to see the difference between the top two colors and I can’t make out what the bins are so I remade the graph but also included the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. The counties in dark red on the west of Ireland are still heavily dependent on potatoes by 1859; 41% of all crops grown in Kerry and 45.5% of all crops grown in Leitrim are potatoes. Wexford is lowest at 16% and Meath, Louth and Kildare are all under 20%. This could be a result of the mountainous land of the west coast being less suited to growing many crops.

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Over the last century and a half there has been a boom in the livestock population. Cattle increased linearly from 2 million at the end of the famine to 5 million in the 1960s and added a further 2 million within 10 years before the figure leveled off. The provisional figures for June 2016 puts the total cattle population at 7.2 million. Last year 1.6 million were slaughtered.

The sheep number has fluctuated through a number of peaks, reaching almost 9 million in the late 80’s before coming to its figure for last year of 5.1 million.

The CSO report includes graphs showing the percentage change in livestock population per country from 1851-1995 as county data is not available for 1996. I have expanded the graph for cattle to 2015 as the CSO provides county figures for them but not for sheep or pigs and I have expanded all graphs from 4 to 6 bins. Dublin and Leitrim have seen negative cattle population growth, Dublin falling by 46% and Leitrim falling by 16%. Donegal has seen the smallest growth at 26% but both of these countries have large increases in sheep numbers. In Leitrim the figure has grown by 1537% and in Donegal by 786%. Areas that have seen the largest cattle growth has had the smallest sheep growth. Also interesting is that the countries with the highest dependence on potatoes in 1859 have had the lowest increases in cattle numbers while the areas least dependent have had the highest. This could again be put down to the land with cattle doing better in flatter terrain while sheep are more suited to hilly and mountainous land.

While the pig numbers have remained much lower than that cattle or sheep their population jumps have been no less dramatic, doubling from 500,000 to 1 million between 1847 and 1854 they now stand at 1.5 million. However in 1944 the population reached a low of 381,000. The CSO report shows a graph that I have been unable to reproduce as the percentage change with 4 or even 10 buckets results in a pure white plot with two dark red counties. I instead made two graphs, one showing the percentage of the Statewide population distributed throughout each county in 1851 and in 1995. In 1851 Cork and Tipperary are the 2 big counties, contain 25% of the total population between them. Since then there has been a huge shift with Cavan increasing from 28,000 to 320,000, over 1,100%. Along with Cork these two countries make up almost 40% of the Statewide population.

The livestock graph also shows the large decline in the population of equine animals and goats. With the introduction of tractors horses are no longer used as beasts of burden for plowing and other farm work and the fall off in population could also be a reason for the fall in the amount of oats grown. There has been an upswing in recent years with a number of horses and donkeys being bred and sold during the Celtic Tiger. The annual figures since 1997 state that only horses used for farming purposes are included. There is also an extensive period when figures for goats and mules were not available.

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Of recent the poultry figure has been discontinued though it may be included in a different report. The CSO report mentions that there was a change in the way poultry were enumerated in 1907 and this led to a dramatic rise in the total figure.

The cattle number is further broken up into dairy, other, bulls etc and I found it interesting that the bull population is so low and falling. This number is made up of bulls used for breeding purposes only. Many farmers use Artificial Insemination as keeping a bull can be costly or dangerous and by using AI they can keep a mixed herd. At an AWS convention in Cork recently I met a member of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation who said this was due to better bulls being bred when I commented on the drop. The provisional figures for 2016 shows a further fall to 25,000, 0.3% of the total population, or 1.07% of the total male cattle population of 2.3 million.

Finally I was surprised to see the category of "Farmed Deer" show up in the recent annual figures. The Irish Deer Farmers Association was formed in 1985 after deer farming began in Ireland in 1982. A fall in the price of venison in the late 90’s seems to have led many farmers to leave the industry and the CSO hasn’t included Farmed Deer in its most recent results.