On his Cape Clear Island goat farm, Ed Harper and his ‘kids’ encapsulates the community spirit of island life. Perched on a hilltop, the uneven terrain would prove a challenge to most, but blind since childhood, Ed (66), has never allowed his disability to faze him. He realised his dream of becoming a goat farmer in 1979 when he moved with his wife from the UK and settled on 27 acres on Cape Clear. For years, Ed has shared his home and his knowledge of goat husbandry with the many volunteers and WOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) who have travelled from all over the world to experience the wonders of goat farming on Cape Clear. Mary O’Brien meets a man with more vision than most.
Ed sells icecream and cheese on the farm made from goat’s milk and (in the right season) goat sausages are also available. Tours and milking viewings at Cléire Goats take place early in the day, as the goats are hand milked in the mornings. During the summer months, Ed’s doorbell rings consistently, as tourists line up to sample his icecream.
Ed’s practical courses in goat husbandry are designed for people with little or no experience of the goat to gain a basic understanding of the animal, its handling and management.
“I really enjoy having the company of mainly young and enthusiastic people from all over the world,” says Ed. “And the practical help is more and more vital as I get older. In the last five years, my health has deteriorated somewhat; I have a bad ankle and back. I also need somebody to read labels for me, things like that.”
The farm has downsized over the years.
“At peak, we had 33 milkers and two males with 50 or 60 goats including kids at this time of year. Today, there are 13 milkers, one breeding male and 16 kids, one of which will become the new breeding male.”
And Cleire Goats has seen other changes too.
“You used to be able to guarantee that kids would be born between February 1 and April 1, with one or two stragglers after that. There would be one set of kids a year and mating season started in September or October. That’s what it says in the books because goats are seasonal breeders. Then in 2000 it all changed.”
Ed has strong opinions on why this change happened.
“I don’t care what the books say; it’s due to climate change, because there is no other factor that could be affecting feral goats consistently every year.
“If you look at the science behind it — goats are seasonal breeders because of the increasing night length in the autumn. In the dark, they produce melatonin. When the melatonin increases to a certain level, this triggers another hormone that results in ovulation. So however much the males want to mate in the summer, they wouldn’t succeed. I used to be able to run two male goats with the herd in the summer from May to August and there would be no hassle between the males. Now I’ve had to separate the old male from the herd because the first goat came into season this week. It’s just completely wrong. She will kid in October, the worst time of the year to have a kid.”
An eternal optimist, Ed believes that there are also many advantages to being a farmer who is blind. He can tend the goats at night without difficulty and knows them individually by touch. “Of course technology could make life easier for me but I can’t afford much of what’s available,” he says. “I did get an iphone recently though, which is driving me crazy!”
There are many facets to this island goat farmer. A socialist all his life, Ed was involved in the formation of the West Cork branch of the People Before Profit Alliance, standing in the County Council election for West Cork in 2014. “The point is not winning, but to get the ideas over,” he says of his defeat. “I’d love to see a socialist revolution before I die. I want to see the world changed — more equality, fairness for everybody. I love talking to people about what matters to me or to them. People are only apathetic because they don’t have any power.”
In his younger years a Sociology lecturer in a College of Further Education in the UK, with his move to Cape Clear, Ed swapped the teaching of human social relationships for the teaching of goat husbandry and has never regretted it. He also raised his two sons on the island, who he says, “Grew up with the practical education of island life. Neither of them completed secondary school but a degree doesn’t guarantee your happiness or usefulness even. One works in Dublin now and is very happy there and unlikely ever to come back to the island. The other, Duncan, has always loved the sea and works on the island ferry service.”
Far from living an isolated life on an island, Ed — an affable, as well as highly knowledgeable and interesting character — is rarely without company or visitors. And of course, there’s Izzy, Ed’s loyal German Shepherd guide dog, who is never far from his side.
Whatever he’s doing, you’ll most likely hear Ed before you see him; a lover of traditional Irish music, he loves a good singing session and when he’s not singing to his goats, he’ll regularly travel to the mainland (or even the UK) to join in on gatherings with other traditional singers.