A 90-strong herd of water buffalo galloping across picturesque mountain terrain is not a sight you would expect to see in Northern Ireland.
However, if you know where to look, you will find a farming family in the Sperrin mountains who have been breeding the formidable animals since 2011.
Ballyriff Water Buffalo in Magherafelt is the Province’s first and only such farm run by 60-year-old Mickey O’Brien and his son Barry, 32.
Barry said: “We brought in four from Italy to see what temperament they had. Then another 20 after that. We’ve just kept growing our herd. It can be as low as 60 and as high as 90 depending on what way culling and calving works out.
“We’d planned to go into milk as well, but the meat just sort of took off for us.”
He added: “Some of our fields run onto the road, when we first put them out people were slamming on the brakes when they saw them. We’ve had photographers coming to take photos. They’re a popular sight.”
Barry’s father had spotted the animals on a farm while in Cork and got the lowdown on the buffalo meat trade.
Barry said: “We’d been a beef farm before selling direct to the abattoir but I said, ‘let’s bring some in and give it a go’. It worked out well. He’s the herdsman and I look after the meat.”
Earlier this week the O’Brien’s buffalo farm featured on BBC One daytime series The Farmers’ Country Showdown.
Barry said: “There’s a huge demand for the meat. We go to a lot of farmers’ markets and sell direct from the farm. Since we’ve been on TV we’re getting more inquiries from England and Scotland, and then there’s restaurants that order it as well.”
Describing the taste he said: “It’s like a rich beef, there’s a lovely aftertaste. It’s very low in fat and high in protein. It’s a little bit more expensive simply because we haven’t enough of a market here. If we’re culling it’s two to three years before we’re replacing that animal again.
“There’s a good trade around Christmas markets when people want to try something different. We’re trying to make it more mainstream so people can get it more readily.”
Comparing buffalo to other cattle Barry said: “They’re an awful lot stronger, they’re physically bigger. They’d be quite a placid animal normally, but if they’re rose they do whatever they want.
“They’ve a big herd mentality so it’s better to keep them in smaller numbers in paddocks. If they get into a big herd they tend to run quite freely – a hedge wouldn’t stop them.”