The Open Farm Experience

Heather Simpson joins the masses and the odd Alpaca on an open farm

Visitors stare open-mouthed at a field outside Newtownards. They are bewildered by two strange looking animals. Geoffrey the White Alpaca and Rudolph the Red Deer stare back wondering what all the fuss is about. The animals are just two of the 30 different varieties of rare and endangered breeds found at the Ark Open Farm.

Anyone who has visited an open farm will see the conventional farm-yard animals. But visitors to the Ark Open Farm come and see everything from Nigerian Pygmy goats to Vietnamese Pot Bellied pigs. The Donaldson family started the first rare breed farm in Northern Ireland in August 1990.

Proprietor Lorraine Donaldson explains: ‘We specialise in rare and endangered species of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, many of which are no longer seen in Ireland today. Our main aim is to preserve these old breeds of animals from becoming extinct and at the same time increase awareness and educate the public.

‘In 1998 we got Alpacas which are native to South America and are usually raised for their fine wool. They resemble llamas, who are smaller. The alpacas are very tame and can be hand fed and petted by visitors to the farm. We have three alpacas called Geoffrey, Beans and Calypso, and they have proved a hit with the visitors.’

The Donaldsons run a 40-acre beef farm but diversified in 1990 because the farm wasn’t sustainable. Fifteen years on, the business has proved a success. ‘It took ten years to get well established but now we are making a good living. We receive about 25,000 visitors a year. Everyone from locals to people from the states has come to the farm,’ explains Donaldson.

However, it was a love of animals that drew the family to the idea of running an open farm. ‘We were both brought up on a farm and my husband Stewart was given his first calf by his mother when he was twelve, so it’s a way of life for us.’

The farm offers a range of activities for children. Donaldson explains: ‘With the assistance of grant aid from the Rural Down Partnership Leader Program, it has been possible for us to extend our existing outdoor play area to include play items suitable for all ages and abilities. We have also extended our indoor facilities and provide an excellent new educational and activity centre.

‘The Ark Open Farm is open all year round for school visits. We endeavour to meet talking and listening curriculum requirements and provide information that links into the science element of the curriculum.’

Though the Ark Open farm is the only rare breed farm in Northern Ireland, the concept of open farms has been around for sometime. Open farms have traditionally sought to marry sustainable farming of the environment and making the best use of their holdings as a wholly diversified business enterprise.

The McBride family pioneered the concept in 1986 when they opened Watertop Open Farm. Nestled in the heart of the Glens of Antrim, between Ballycastle and Cushendall, the family-run business has succeeded in becoming one of North Antrim’s hidden gems.

Three generations of the McBride family run the firm, which marries upland beef and cattle farming with tourist activities. Brothers Patsy and Terry McBride run the 426-hectare holding and in the summer months they open to the public. A host of activities await the visitor. They know only too well how important it is to be among the visitors, explaining and demonstrating the activities of the farm.

In 1969, McBride’s father started pony trekking on the farm in a bid to supplement their farm income. Although primarily a working farm, the brothers widened its attractions in 1986 to incorporate tours on the paddywaggon, sheep shearing demonstrations and a six-mile historical trail. Visitors can enjoy boating and fishing on the farm’s ‘vanishing lake’ or visit the farm museum.

McBride first became interested in the concept in 1981 during his travels to New Zealand, on a young farmers exchange. However, he decided to take the idea forward in 1985 when he was a Nutfield scholar, specialising in diversification.

He explains: ‘My first visit to Scotland was to a place called Bargren. I had never seen the concept of open farms before, but I was very impressed. I saw a trend in both Europe and Britain towards open farming and it persuaded me to go further.’

But falling farm incomes contributed to the family’s decision to diversify to open farming. ‘Both my brother and I wanted to farm but we needed extra income. We have about 700 sheep and 50 cows. Divide that by three families and it’s not much for one household.’

When McBride returned home he found the reaction was not positive. At the time there were no open farms in Northern Ireland and people were cynical of the concept. However, he went on to implement his plans and the business has grown exponentially. In 1969,  the farm attracted 1,000 visitors a year and in 2005 the farm welcomed 7,000 people.

McBride said visitors are attracted to the farm because it specialises in entertainment for the whole family. ‘I have never found any other farm that would entertain the family as much as we do. Attractions such as the Causeway Coast are impressive, but visitors tend to visit it once in lifetime.

‘We realised that visitors must have a reason to come back. About 60 per cent of our customers are repeat visitors. When they come back they like to see what other activities we have to offer.

‘The farm provides pony trekking, fishing and boating in our lake. We put on sheep shearing demonstrations three to four times a day and show the techniques of various farming activities. A big part of the farm would be the tour of the farm on the paddywagon. It is very unusual if you want something different. It’s a converted army truck and it provides an experience that the children will never forget.’

The farm provides two small sites for caravans and tents. McBride explains: ‘People often use it as a place to stay for the night. We found if people come here we have enough to entertain the family. Then in the evening we put on a big fire and there’s a great atmosphere with lots of craic.’

But McBride admits there are some drawbacks running the farm. ‘When we started there weren’t so many rules and regulations. But now because we are a working farm we have to take into account health and safety. A farm is not a safe place to be in but we try to keep the working side of the farm as far away from the visitors as possible.

‘We are a claims conscious country and our insurance is almost crippling. But it wouldn’t matter if you ran a worm farm or a deer farm, the pitfalls are always the same.’

McBride explains the only way to run a successful business is through positive thinking. ‘Often we think negatively instead of positively. If you have a good idea and if you believe in taking a calculated risk just go for it.’

But he says the mark of any good business is leaving it for future generations. ‘I have a belief that I have to make it possible for the farm to continue. The farm will have failed if it wasn’t possible for someone else to come and take it over.’

McBride is lucky to have a wide family support network. His 85-year-old father still offers assistance to tourists and his mother bakes for the farm café. Three of his children help out on the farm during the summer months.

However, when the gates close to tourists at the end of August,  McBride is happy to return to upland farming. ‘I enjoy the outdoor life but when it comes to August 31 I am quite glad to go back to farming. The business is very intensive so it makes you appreciate farming.’

By Heather Simpson
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation