Health and harmony grow the good life
The Warners’ Harmony Farm is open to people interested in self-sufficiency, goat-keeping and woodland management
Patrick and Judit Warner and their children Zoli (10) and Niki (17). Photograph: Brian Farrell
Nanny goat (Charm) keeps an eye on Judit and her kid (Pascal). Photograph: Brian Farrell
The Warner children used to get funny looks when they put their pet lambs on leads and brought them for strolls down the lanes around Corrigeenroe in Co Roscommon.
But curiosity turned to envy when Judit Warner started turning up at the school gates to collect her son, Zoli, in her horse and trap, a much more unusual mode of transport than the people-carriers and the school bus waiting for the other pupils of Corrigeenroe primary school.
Patrick and Judit Warner bought their “house on a hill” overlooking Lough Key 10 years ago after deciding that the east of the country was “getting very crowded”.
Now they are opening their doors to anyone interested in learning such useful skills as self-sufficiency, goat-keeping or woodland management.
Or, as Patrick’s brother Dick, the environmentalist and broadcaster, put it at last week’s official opening of Harmony Farm, their 12-acre property, “the whole world can come here and learn how to be a peasant, something I am hugely in favour of”.
Tellingly, one of the courses is about foods that help fight cancer. Judit was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.
“One of the things that got both of us when I was in hospital was that they gave me sweet tea and white bread, after the oncologist had explained the importance of a balanced diet,” she says.
Looking back, she says she would have been more inclined to eat the tray than any of the food she was proffered in hospital.
Both Patrick and Judit work with the National Parks and Wildlife Service based at Ballinafad, Co Sligo.
Judit works part-time, happily combining nature conservation with her farm work. Patrick is on the home stretch before retirement. Or, as his brother put it, he will soon be put out to grass: “something he is taking remarkably literally”.
Cancer, as it always is, was a life-changing experience for them. “We realised that if we wanted to eat the type of food that is good for our health, we would have to produce it ourselves,” says Judit.
With a background in science and ecology, she has strong views on the advantages of raw over pasteurised milk, about why livestock should eat grass and herbs rather than concentrates, and why traditional pre-chemical farming methods are best.
Patrick believes the lifestyle has been as much an emotional response to Judit’s cancer as a conviction prompted by scientific knowledge.
“I remember the first time Judit came home after chemotherapy. She staggered into her garden, just to get the fresh air.
She was being hammered by these horrible chemicals and she found that gardening relaxed her.
It was really therapeutic,” he says.
Zoli was just two when Judit first got cancer. It returned in 2011. She is healthy now but the fatigue has never gone away, nor the conviction that stress and processed food are to be avoided at all costs.
The couple’s first foray into keeping livestock on their 12-acre property seems to have been designed mainly as a diversion to delight their children.
When Patrick got an incubator, he timed the first chicks with such precision that Niki, who is 17, and Zoli, who is 10, got Christmas gifts of little yellow chicks.
The family still speak fondly of Nollaig, one of those hens, who survived to the ripe old age of eight before being killed by a mink.
Niki and Zoli have got used to the apparently cruel aspects of rural life. The two sheepskin rugs on the back of the sitting room couch are called Midnight and Beast, a reminder that they were once twin lambs who frolicked around the house.
Eat the beast
Tucking into lamb’s liver fried with sage and onions has never been a problem, even when they can name the lamb who provided the meal.
After the chicks, the Warners decided to expand into sheep, starting off with four pet lambs, one for each member of the family to care for and to bottlefeed.
Niki started training hers to jump over fences, as well as taking it for walks on a lead.
The Warner sheep have always followed their dog, a friendly Belgian Shepherd dog called Mucky, which probably makes his work a little easier.
When Niki got a pony, Cailín, her brother got two goats, one so comfortable with humans that she can pick your pocket in a flash.
This month the farm has been like a maternity ward with new lambs competing for attention with a kid goat called Pascal.
Judit was born in Transylvania – one cockerel is called Dracula – but Corrigeenroe is very much her home.
The response of her neighbours to her illness reinforced her feeling of belonging, as local people spent months quietly helping out with the chores, even drawing up a roster to drive her to Galway when she required daily treatment.
Since they moved in, the family have planted almost 3,000 trees, and visitors get the feeling that nothing goes to waste.
Dandelions spell lemonade rather than weeds. Patrick says that even the sheep’s horns are useful and can be used to make walking sticks. Judit’s sprawling garden provides much of the family’s food, and she makes jams and sorbets from the fruit they grow.
“We arrived here when I was pregnant with Zoli,” she says.
“Before that we lived in Glendalough . . . It is like being under siege, with one and a half million visitors every year, but this was home immediately.”
Life on a farm was probably always the couple’s destiny even though both were brought up in the city.
Judit says anyone living in Transylvania during Ceausescu’s reign had to find novel ways to survive and even city families would come together to buy a pig or chickens for food.
Her father, a doctor, used to take her up into the mountains as a child to work with farmers. “I was very lucky. He loved the mountains and we went from farm to farm, staying in hay lofts helping to make hay.”
Patrick was brought up in Africa and England but spent many summer holidays as a child in Waterford where he was introduced to haymaking and threshing.
According to Dick, their father had a penchant for growing exotic vegetables such as the asparagus pea: “One of the world’s most disappointing vegetables, which tasted of neither asparagus nor peas.”
The courses, designed for eight people and lasting one or two days, will be practical. “As well as the theory of goat-keeping, we will be milking the goats and making cheese,” says Patrick.
There will also be tips on the best fences to keep out mink, how to deal with scour and what to have in your emergency kit to be prepared for a difficult birth. The students will learn from the family’s experience.
“We bought three extra fields, and a week later the crash happened,” says Patrick.
They had wanted an extra acre for haymaking, but Judit spotted a rare orchid in a nearby woodland and somehow they bought that too. “Of course you should absolutely not act on impulse, we will be teaching our students that,” she says.