When suckler farmer Sean Taunton first started buying kayaks with a view to setting up an activity centre on his farm, he admits that some people thought he “was loopy”.
“They thought my head was gone; a farmer buying kayaks!” he recalls. “They said who’s going to come to Cavan to go kayaking?”
Fast-forward to today, however, and Sean’s Cavan Adventure Centre - nestled within the Lough Oughter waterway system and part of the wider UNESCO Global Geopark - offers a diverse range of adventures in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands; inspired by his passion for canoeing and the waterways surrounding his land.
Originally an Irish draught breeding and suckler farm, the site has been transformed into a vibrant adventure centre offering a wide variety of water and land-based activities including kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, cycling and boat tours. The latest developments in time for the summer season are a biodiversity hub for educational groups and a wellness centre to help people connect with nature.
The old sand ring has been transformed into a car park, the stables into changing facilities and the cattle shed into a covered seating area where people can enjoy a packed lunch. Over the last number of years, Sean has been growing the business while reducing his suckler cattle stock.
After completing secondary school, Sean worked as a builder for two years before moving into farming and contract work. His building knowledge has come in handy, helping him expand and develop the adventure centre site over the years by doing a lot of the work himself.
With his father always involved in horses, Sean spent a lot of his early farming years training horses while farming suckler cattle and doing contracting work for neighbouring farms.
“We had Irish draught horses and bred our own foals and sold them off as two or three-year-olds,” says Sean. He also completed ?horse training courses through Teagasc in Ballyhaise. This resulted in him working long days, seven days a week until he had to take a step back.
Unfortunately, the horse breeding came to a halt for Sean. “I loved the horses, but it got too much. I was putting too much time into the horses and I wasn’t generating enough money or concentrating on my cattle, so I cut back,” he explains.
Having been given some of the site by his father, Sean built the farm up over the years. “I started off with 30 continental sucklers with a mixture of Limousins and Charolais,” he says.
In recent years he has cut it back to a herd of 30 as they are not generating enough income. “My farm didn’t go that well last year, I was under 60 sucklers all the time, and this year I cut back to half. I have too much going on here and a lot of money invested,” says Sean.
“The land is not too bad here, it’s pretty dry, ?the way I am here, I am kind of being edged out of farming. My plan is to work with the whole system and cut back.”
Taking a risk during the boom
In 2004 during the boom times, two pieces of land came up for sale beside Sean’s land. The farm already included 85 acres of woodland and grazing areas, but he wanted to buy the connecting land.
“You have the roadway and the waterway but I needed the land between it to connect it together”, he explains.
He bought one site first and then the other in 2005. Initially, he wanted to buy the second piece over a few years to split out the cost, but unfortunately, it was sold under auction and he had to take a leap of faith into the unknown.
“Then I was under pressure, I had to come up with a plan B of where I was going to generate more money from. That’s really where the water sports came together. I loved the water and always loved boating,” he explains.
With a passion for canoes and kayaks, Sean had a bit of savings held aside that he used to purchase a number of kayaks to start the centre.
“My sister was across the road in the cottage and the initial plan was to rent them out from there, but then I said you need changing facilities. Next thing I buried in and started doing up the old horse sheds as changing facilities,” he explains.
In 2009 the Cavan Adventure Centre was born. Sean started working with Cavan Tourism and the interest steadily grew.
“We’re so lucky that we have the castle, [the water] it’s also inland and very safe. Most groups that come get an introduction session before heading off on their own,” he says.
Expanding the seasonality
In the beginning, most people came during the summer months. “I was employing no one really; I was doing most of it myself,” he says.
Sean, however, saw an opportunity to work with local schools and expand the seasonality into October. But to become a sea kayak leader, and take children on the waterways, you need to have qualifications.
He attended the The British Canoe Union (BCU), training programme in Co Down where he along with three workers trained up as BCU coaches. “It is the same qualification and techniques [as the Irish one] with just a different name,” he says.
The business has been growing every year since, with schools now coming from all over the country. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, with any new venture there have been challenges. Sean told Irish Country Living, “Insurance has been challenging and expensive as the costs increase year on year. We have had the support of Brendan Kenny from ?Ireland’s Association for Adventure Tourism (IAAT) in helping Adventure Centres like ourselves”.
He continued, “The weather has been a major challenge to get things up and running and also just the rising costs in all sectors, which are unavoidable”.
Supporting a community
Other initiatives since have included taking on students completing The Gaisce President’s Award to working with the Cavan Sports partnership and Canoeing Ireland with programmes such as ‘Women on Water’ and ‘Over 50s’.
The Women on Water kayaking initiative was introduced for women and girls 16 years and over. Part funded by Healthy Cavan and Sport Ireland, two four-week programmes filled to a maximum capacity of 60 women have proven to be a huge success. All women completing the programme have obtained a level 1 kayaking award and their confidence in the water has increased immensely.
Over 50s is a cycling programme run over a six-week period that runs into Bike Week. Sean also completed cycling training in Dublin to become a cycling coach and expand the business into another area. He has a pod in the Killykeen Forest Park where people can hire a bike and cycle the new greenway or hire a kayak or paddle board. He also has a mural painted at the front of the centre which was painted by local artist, Margaret McKenna
Sean has developed a support network with the Cavan Tourism and Cavan Sports partnership, helping his business grow and in turn bringing business to the local community.
Cavan Adventure Centre is located within the UNESCO Global Geopark, which provides protection for habitats and wildlife in the area, resulting in it being protected as a special area of conservation.
They have been working with the college in Cavan over the last number of years to assist students with their field studies. Along with this Sean is providing a platform on-site to provide biodiversity education to primary and secondary school students along with anyone else. The newly finished Biodiversity educational hub was funded by LEADER funding. ?In terms of expansion, help was also forthcoming from Failte Ireland. By using the digital funding programme the centre was able to update it’s website and technology.
“Why this building was built is because of where the adventure centre is located, in the middle of the UNESCO Global Geopark on a protected landscape. That’s why we want to go further now and teach kids and younger people about the landscape, and what’s growing and how to protect it,” explains Sean.
They offer biodiversity events at various times of the year, which are open to members of the public.
Along with the main adventure centre and biodiversity hub, Sean has also developed a mindfulness centre. Now offering meditation in woodlands and promoting mindfulness, the site is now offering different activities to connect people with nature including yoga tours, well-being days and packages, organised in the main by Nuala McCann.
Finding the balance
After managing everything himself over the last number of years, Sean has started to find a better balance. “It’s only really the last couple of years I am getting more of a team in behind me, before this I was juggling a lot of it myself and pulling people in [when needed]. It is becoming more of a business,” he says.
Sean has decided to get more help and the plan this year is to hire 24 part-time staff for the water park and other activities for the summer. He has also hired full-time team members.
For anyone looking to diversify into tourism or start their own business Sean gave the following advice: “Firstly you have to have a real passion for it, be hard working and take into account the long hours that you will need to work, you need to be prepared to work really hard, but at the same time it has to be fun.”