Progressive Donegal sheep farmer Dwayne makes history

11 Mar , 2024  

In August, Letterkenny-based pedigree sheep farmer Dwayne Shiels wrote a unique chapter for himself in the history books when becoming the first person from Donegal to be named as Young Farmer of the Year. Dwayne also has the distinction of being only the second-ever sheep farmer to claim the coveted prize, bridging a gap back to 2000.

On Tuesday night, August 22nd, 2023, at a special awards ceremony in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Sligo, Dwayne Shiels – a pedigree sheep farmer from close to Letterkenny and also a lecturer in agricultural sciences at Atlantic Technological University – became the first Donegal man to claim the prestigious FBD Young Farmer of the Year title.

Marking the 25th anniversary of these major industry awards, it was certainly a night to remember for the young Donegal sheep farmer who also took home the Land Mobility award. “I’m shocked that I won, to be honest, and it’s only really starting to sink in now,” Dwayne told Irish Tractor & Agri when we interrupted his busy schedule a few weeks later. Was winning the Young Farmer of the Year award something he always dreamed of?

“Not at all. I hadn’t really thought about it. After I was nominated, I was surprised to even get an email saying I had been shortlisted for the last 50. Then, there were interviews for the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the final itself and I was pleasantly surprised that I kept progressing. It wasn’t something I expected at all.”

True to form, there was little or no time to wallow in the glory of his landmark achievement. In agriculture, there’s no rest for the wicked and Dwayne was up at the craic of dawn the following morning and back into the thick of things. “I had to get on the boat and go to Scotland to buy a ram the next morning,” he recounts. “I was straight back working with sheep and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what I’ve done all my life, pretty much since I could walk.”

Alongside his brother Gerard, the 2023 Young Farmer of the Year, who completed a PhD on lamb mortality with Teagasc, breeds no fewer than nine different breeds of pedigree sheep – namely Texel, Milford, Suffolk, Charolais, Dutch Spotted, Bluefaced Leister, Lanark, Sufftex and hybrids – under the Woodland Pedigrees banner in Woodtown, Ramelton, County Donegal.

In July of each year, Woodtown Pedigrees host the Luscious Ladies production sale – a virtual timed auction ran in conjunction with MartEye and Tullow Livestock Sales. The inaugural sale took place in 2022 and a very successful second sale of top females was held on Friday, July 21st this year – just a month before Dwayne was named FBD Young Farmer of the Year.

In early August, Dwayne recorded a new breed record price for a Dutch Spotted ram lamb in Ireland, when Woodtown Gangnam Style was sold to the UK at the breed association’s premier sale in Carrick-on-Shannon for a record-breaking €6,700. Meanwhile, on the show circuit, Dwayne and Gerard had 56 different sheep pick up rosettes last summer.

An an energetic, hard-working, visionary and progressive pedigree sheep farmer, Dwayne is also an Agricultural Science graduate from UCD and has been chairman (and a founding member) of Milford Sheep Breeders Society since August, 2017.

Inheriting his love of sheep and farming from working alongside his late grandfather, Dwayne started leasing land himself in 2016 and has now built his holding up to some 110 acres, the majority of which is still leased.

He keeps 350 pedigree ewes all year around but generally has between 500 and 520 between August and March/April. Rearing, breeding, showing and selling the sheep keeps him busy, with a great deal of time and expertise invested into AI and embryo transfers.

“Things are going very well at the moment,” the affable Donegal man confirms. “Aside from setting the new Irish record for the Dutch Spotted ram, general sales of both rams and females have been very good recently and our own sale of 100 pedigree females in July of 2022 and 2023 also went extremely well. We certainly can’t complain.”

Although the FBD Young Farmer of the Year award is by its very nature an individual accolade, Dwayne Shiels is quick to share the credit and concedes that he would have had no chance of taking home the prize – or indeed of operating a successful pedigree sheep enterprise – without the encouragement, support and help of his family:

“My younger brother, Gerard, is a big help, as are my mam and dad and my sister. My mother looks after the bookwork for me and everyone else helps out in any way they can. They are a massive help and I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without them. Dad’s retired now but if sheep need to be fed or moved he will be the first one to offer to help.

“Gerard is studying Ag Science in Letterkenny, where I lecture,” Dwayne concludes. “He’s mad keen and his help is greatly appreciated. None of this would be possible without them all helping so much in the background.

“It may be my name on the paperwork and me who invests the money but I wouldn’t be able to keep stock, chair societies, study for a PhD and keep everything going without the support of my family. It wouldn’t happen, simple as that, so I’m forever indebted to them.”

First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 11 No 6, December 2023/January 2024