Eating the scenery: a new way for farmers to profit from their land
The farmer and rambler can be friends – and the relationship can put food on the table
‘Y out can’t eat scenery,” Donal Corkery likes to say, although he has a sharp eye for the great beauty of his native place, the glaciated valley of Gleninchaquin, on the Beara peninsula, in Co Kerry, with its succession of lakes and waterfalls. And yet, in a sense, that is just what he and his wife, Peggy, do these days; it is the magic of this glorious scenery that puts much of the food on their table.
Like many farmers, the Corkerys used to get a little irritated about hikers casually strolling about on their land. “There were always a few people coming in to look at the waterfall, rambling into meadows, as if it was a public place, leaving gates open,” he says. “I was trying to make a living out of a couple of hundred sheep at the time.”
Instead of building a bigger fence or locking more gates, however, the Corkerys did some lateral thinking and opened their doors to the world, for a small charge, beginning 20 years ago this month.
They knew that the waterfall above their home, which most ramblers came to see, is spectacular in spate but quite often runs dry. “But I then thought, if I put a trail in that takes them up higher, they could see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world,” Donal Corkery says.
He applied to the EU Leader rural-development programme and got funding, and a project manager, for designing and carving out the first trail.
Today there are six trails, with steps and boardwalks where necessary. Most of the rest have been paid for out of the profits from the modest entrance fee: €5 for adults or €3 for students, with no charge for children.
He also participates in the Native Woodlands Scheme, and is restoring about 30 hectares of oak forest on the slopes above the farmhouse. That’s a long-term project, but one day these trees will add a new environmental dimension for visitors, inspired by the ancient mossy woods of Uragh, which still survive a few kilometres down the valley.
The Corkerys were required to conduct an ecological survey to qualify for Native Woodlands Scheme funding. That work by Dr Therese Higgins, now available on their website, offers visitors with keen environmental interests a wealth of information about the plants and animals they may expect to find on the land.
Guides can be hired if booked in advance, but Corkery is exceptionally well equipped to answer visitors’ questions himself. He has an infectious love for the cornucopia of wild flowers to be found at Gleninchaquin, from the Virgin Mary blue of the tiny milkwort to the shimmering yellow shafts of goldenrod.
“Those are my bees,” he says proudly when we note them humming around the goldenrod. He is not sentimental, but he does see nature up close and personal. “That is the work of our friend the hare,” he comments wryly as we come across a seedling tree snapped off by powerful little teeth.
Many visitors, he notices, are content to wander the trails without guidance, and some are just fascinated by farm animals. “They often find sheep very interesting,” he says, and one has the impression that he does too.
Today, with much of his income coming from tourism and forestry, he says he keeps the sheep mainly because people like to see them, and “because their grazing keeps the place tidy”.
Corkery is a font of sensible observations on practical agriculture. He likes the idea of organic farming but observes that in practice “doing things the natural way will put a hump in your back very quick”.
He recalls a Teagasc adviser who suggested he clear some steep hillside of heather for additional grazing. Corkery concluded that the scheme might end only in erosion. “You can improve nature sometimes,” he says, “but you should not try to improve on nature too much.”
This was the first farm in the area to embark on active ecotourism, but Corkery reckons that there are “quite a few others here and there now”. He says that the Irish Farmers’ Association is looking at this kind of diversification but that “it’s hard to adapt when you are trained up for a lifetime to be a farmer”.
He would like to see the ongoing conflict between landowners and ramblers resolved, and praises the work of groups like Wicklow Uplands Council and Mountain Meitheal in creatively addressing this issue.
The Corkerys estimate that between 9,000 and 10,000 people call to their warmly welcoming visitors’ centre each year, but some other farms open to nature-loving visitors are finding things harder.
Will Warham, a Co Wexford farmer, caters for visitors “from eight to 80” on his Jamestown Nature Reserve. But he has focused mainly on primary schools. After an encouraging initial response, he says, numbers have fallen off. “Programmes bringing natural history into the classroom are working well in the county,” he says, “but I believe that the best classroom is the outdoors”.
He thinks that teachers are not sufficiently aware of its benefits. He quotes Richard Louv’s book, Last Child Left in the Woods, which launched the influential No Child Left Inside movement in the US. Its supporters argue that the true disease of contemporary childhood is not attention-deficit disorder but nature-deficit disorder.
Warham offers a species-rich boardwalk trail down to reed beds on the Slaney, and he took the trouble to build an alternative walk through woodland when students told him that they did not like taking the same route back to base. The spirit of adventure and discovery is alive and well, if we would only nurture it.
With more and more people taking holidays at home in Ireland, the option of a nature walk on a farm is an enriching one, and exercising it might also contribute to bridging our unfortunate national gap between town and country.