Driving across the west Offaly landscape within which Declan Quinlan’s farm is located, is a bit like being back in geography class in school: callows, eskers, peatlands and cutaway bogs are interspersed with farmland and forestry.
Wind turbines feature in a skyline that also includes the Slieve Bloom, Silvermines and distant Galtee mountains.
Though very rich in habitats and heritage, this land doesn’t lend itself easily to modern farming. Nonetheless, through a combination of hard graft and innovation, Declan and his wife, Anne, have reared their family in this beautiful place.
Declan’s farming journey began, like many others, sadly and suddenly, with the passing of his father.
Aged 19, Declan took on the farm, then a mixed unit with 15 dairy cows and tillage, on 100 rough acres. Over the years, ‘constantly battling’ quotas and levies, Declan built the herd to 50 cows, but by the late ‘90s he had enough of what he described as ‘soul-destroying work’, finding it impossible to plan ahead with any degree of confidence or control.
Instead, Declan decided to diversify, sold his quota, took an off-farm job, invested in deer farming, and planted sections of his land with mixed forestry. While the farmed deer and forestry premia are by now long gone, and ash dieback has sadly devastated one six-acre plantation, Declan doesn’t regret trying these ventures.
He really enjoys his maturing woodlands, particularly a 20-acre, oak-dominated section which is thriving, a fine legacy for future generations. The thinnings are used for firewood – ‘heating you up three times – cutting it down, chopping it up and burning it’.
Another venture began around 20 years ago, when Declan and Ann decided to repurpose their farmyard into boarding kennels and runs for dogs. What started small is today a successful business, particularly during summer, with many pet owners away on holidays. Much of the land is now let-out to neighbours, cut for haylage or used for Declan’s real passion - rearing and training leisure horses.
With up to 30 horses kept at one stage, Declan keeps smaller numbers today, breaking them (‘I break them and they break me’) and schooling them, using scenic woodland rides across the farm.
Around 20 acres of Declan’s farm is an esker. Eskers are ridges of gravel – resembling giant embankments for train lines – deposited underneath glaciers thousands of years ago. Declan’s esker splits into two ridges before re-joining, forming two steep slopes enclosing a valley. While many of Ireland’s eskers have been depleted through mining for gravel, Declan’s remains intact and is full of wildlife.
Local botanist and author John Feehan is a regular visitor with study groups. Their giddy excitement when they find rare plants, like the green-winged orchid, confirm to Declan that these increasingly rare, intact, esker habitats are indeed something to be treasured.
Without ongoing management, however, the esker grasslands become inundated with gorse and blackthorn – a natural process known as ecological succession. While scrub may provide a valuable habitat in its own right, the rarity of the species-rich esker grassland, which it succeeds, means that it needs controlling. Over 12 years ago, Declan set about clearing back this scrub using chainsaws and strimmers. Today, he wonders what frame of mind must have he been in to take on such painstaking work. The field became his personal gym, the outcome – aching joints and an expansive esker landscape dotted with stunning veteran whitethorn trees, a joy to behold when flowering in May. The hard work – which also revealed a rich cultural heritage of potato ridges and old walls – is ongoing, with targeted sheep and horse grazing, and strimming needed to keep regrowth at bay.
The national significance of the esker was recognised by its designation under Rapemills Special Area of Conservation (SAC). This initially unlocked funding through REPS, though less so as agri-environment schemes evolved. Declan joined the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme in 2021 – the SAC designation ensuring priority access. Under a bespoke management plan prepared by ecologist James Owens (paid for by the NPWS), Declan now receives an annual payment to manage the site.
While Declan found some of the initial plan recommendations restrictive, he has been able to negotiate changes, a welcome instance of farmer’s knowledge feeding back into an adaptable farm plan.
Chatting with Declan, you sense his pride in his work and the interest that his esker grasslands generate. But succession of a different sort increasingly concerns him. What happens once he can’t do this work any more? His daughters, Caroline and Emma, now live in England and Dublin, but many young people wouldn’t even consider doing this kind of work.
Declan’s conversations with other farmers often dwell on whether the next generation will farm these challenging landscapes, or will they be sold to pension funds and planted? Farmers today are, he feels, under shocking pressure. He, for one, is glad to be out of the fray and he can see many more farmers exiting in the near future.
Declan has been creative, courageous and generous in his use of his farm; always open to trying new ideas, from deer to trees to horses to study groups. Perhaps his example hints at a possible future for farming in these places – a multifunctional model, whereby farmers are paid for food production, but also to manage rare habitats, sequester carbon and generate renewable energy.
News of the new €14bn Infrastructure, Climate and Nature fund may offer hope of a reliable future income stream, so that Declan’s hard work – and that of many other farmers at the coalface of conservation – may continue to bear fruit, just like the magnificent whitethorn trees on his esker.
Did you know, a breeding pair of barn owls can eat as many as 2,000 rats and mice in a year? Little wonder they are known as ‘the farmer’s friend’. Help attract barn owls by erecting a nest box – doing so now will allow owls time to ‘suss it out’ before nesting in it (typically April-August). Avoid using any rodenticides if you want to support barn owls and other wildlife – use live traps or snap traps instead.
The NPWS Farm Plan Scheme aims to deliver bespoke solutions at farm level, focussing on sites of environmental priority, such as SACs, SPAs and NHAs, but also sites where species of conservation concern occur. Each farm plan is unique, tailored to the needs of nature on the individual farm and field. The process of designing a farm plan includes the farmer, an approved agri-environmental planner and the NPWS. Since 2006, circa 1,000 farm plans have been put in place. Currently 350 plans are ‘live’, with more coming on stream following a call for applications last May. More information at https://www.npws.ie/