Small and sustainable is very much the farming ethos at the Tannybrake family farm near Ballymena, Co Antrim. James and Marlene Barr, their daughter Ruth and her husband Scott Walker, together manage the 120ac lowland grassland holding and its herd of 21 pedigree Shorthorn cows – thought to be one of the last remaining shorthorn herds in Northern Ireland – along with a small commercial flock of sheep, including some pedigree Kerry hill sheep.

James is the third generation to farm at Tannybrake, working the land since leaving school in 1964. Initially, he grew barley and potatoes but, after his father fell ill in 1985, James took over the farm, focusing on dairying.

Like her father, Ruth grew up “mucking about” on the farm, milking cows and showing sheep at fairs from an early age. A trained engineer, like husband Scott, she was teaching until COVID-19, but has since focused more on the farm and on rearing their two girls, Lily and Rose.


The magnificent pedigree Shorthorns are the farm’s star attraction. In superb condition, they are clearly well used to being handled. Describing them as an “intelligent and mischievous” breed, Ruth effortlessly traces their individual lineage back over many generations.

Each cow has a name – Lottie, Debbie, Lola, Lizzie, Jet and Mattie among them – and a distinct personality to boot.

A more recent arrival is dairy bull Derry, sourced in England two years ago.

This year’s progeny, a colourful mix of roan and white weanlings, sit contentedly on straw bedding in one of a cluster of farm buildings. The previous incumbent was a more traditional dual-purpose bull that produced good beef calves – some finished on-farm under 20 months – but dairying is now the exclusive focus.

Ruth and James with their dog Kip at a pond that James created in 1990.

Longevity is a key attribute of the herd, with one cow reaching the ripe old age of 18 years. Cows are given a second – and even third – chance if they don’t go into calf and awkward anomalies – one cow has five teats – are tolerated. Lime, sawdust and straw keep the cows clean and dry when housed. They are grass-fed, other than 2kg of ration daily when milking.

Making it pay

The cows are milked year-round, twice daily – in a spotless byre dating back to 1944 – each yielding a modest 6,000 litres a year, but with high butterfat (4-5%) and protein content.

A milking parlour may be a future option should the herd grow to an optimal capacity of 30, but “the cows need to pay for it first” says Ruth,reflecting the family’s prudent attitude to farm finance.

It’s tempting to be sentimental – or dismissive – about such a small, traditional system but, make no mistake, this herd pays its way. Indeed, it has fulfilled James’s main ambition as a farmer: to give his three children not only a debt-free college education, but also their first car.

James says people can’t believe he reared a family on 20 cows – that he has done so with negligible subsidies is hugely impressive. The secret recipe at Tannybrake is keeping costs low and, more recently – through the family’s entrepreneurial acumen – by adding value to their milk.

Employees of the month

Thirty minutes away on the magnificent Antrim coast at Glenarm Castle gardens, Tannybrake’s creamy Shorthorn milk is converted into delicious gelatos, sold at The Milk Parlour to delighted customers.

Ruth delivers the milk two to three times a week during summer and even helps make the luxury gelatos – composed of milk, cream and sugar, with added flavours like caramel and strawberry.

Some of the many gelato flavours made from the Tannybrake Shorthorn milk.

The natural, local product rightly commands a premium, with more than double the standard price paid for the Shorthorn milk. This price is agreed in advance for the season and delivery charges are also covered.

It’s clear that the uniqueness of the Shorthorns, and the creaminess of their milk, is valued by the owners of The Milk Parlour: one of the walls is festooned with a series of headshots of the cows titled ‘employees of the month’.

Having such a local supply chain suits producer and consumer, affording flexibility and reducing costs, but depends on mutual trust and respect, as is clearly the case here.


Nature also plays a part on Tannybrake. James created two ponds back in 1990, today living with wildlife, including wildfowl and hives of Irish black bees.

The derelict Larne-Ballymena railway line cuts through the farm, providing a corridor for a new generation of wildlife commuters.

James’s brother Roy built, and installed, over 100 bird boxes on the farm (each one named) and a recent survey found half were occupied – meaning 200 new chicks hatched last year, Ruth estimates.

Soil health is greatly valued. “Grass will grow if you give it time,” says James, and only five to six tonnes of compound fertiliser are applied annually.

Slurry is applied only once a year, in very diluted form – having his own slurry gear means James isn’t dependent on contractors for this environmentally sensitive task.

All about family

Tannybrake Farm appears a joyous place, a wonderful embodiment of the often-overlooked concepts of social sustainability and wellbeing. Sitting around the kitchen table with three generations of the family, taste-testing the deliciously creamy gelatos, James’s wife Marlene reminds us that, ultimately, “it’s all about family”.

It’s inspiring to see how a combination of hard work, astute financial management and an unerring focus on quality has delivered – for nature, for the treasured livestock and for another generation of the Barr and Walker families.

  • “If you take good care of your land and livestock, then they will take care of you,” says Ruth.
  • Ruth and Scott Walker are Farming for Nature ambassadors for Northern Ireland. A short video showing life on Tannybrake farm – described by Ruth as “a little slice of paradise” can be seen here
  • .

  • Name: James Barr and Ruth Walker.
  • Farm type: dairy Shorthorns and sheep.
  • Farm size: 120 acres.
  • Focus: leaving something worthwhile that their children can be proud of.
  • Schemes: none.