Wicklow man on swaping intensive dairy farming in Meath for an organic livestock holding in Wicklow

 

Ernest Mackey and his son Lionel on the family farm in Co Wicklow
Ernest Mackey and his son Lionel on the family farm in Co Wicklow

Siobhán English

'We were running an intensive dairy farm at the time and I needed a change," says Ernest Mackey about his move in the late 1970s from Meath to run a beef and sheep farm in west Wicklow.

Many heads turned at the time, perhaps surprised at his choice of re-location, but looking back now, Ernest admits it was the best move of his life.

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Since moving to the Garden County, where he farms near the villages of Knockanarrigan and Donard, he not only developed an organic farm, but also the Mackey equestrian brand which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

That business is now under new ownership, having recently been sold to Monaghan-based Agrihealth, but Ernest and his son Lionel continue to run a thriving beef enterprise with their premier herd of Aubrac cattle.

"The opening of Tara Mines had seen three of our staff leave overnight," Ernest said of the difficulties they experienced towards the end of his time in Meath. "My father had died some years earlier. We were milking 120 cows, with a daily quota of 200 gallons and it had become too much."

Together with his wife Jean, his mother Phoebe, and children Samantha, Rosalind, Alexandra and Lionel, they made the move to Wicklow in 1979 to start a new life.

"We just fell in love with Ballinclea House," Ernest commented. "It was already a beef and sheep farm on 340 acres so we developed it from there. At one stage we had more land rented for 80 sucklers and some 500 ewes."

It was in 1996 when Ernest made the switch to organic farming. By then Mackey Equestrian was being run by his daughter Samantha.

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"I was working as a rep for another company when I saw an opening for a distributor of equestrian goods. It is how Mackey Equestrian first got off the ground," he said. That was in 1989 and Samantha came on board shortly afterwards.

It was the first wholesale company in Ireland to import such household names as Loveson, Stubbs and Charles Owen.

Within a few years Samantha and her father were attending trade shows worldwide and supplying to major equestrian outlets across the 26 counties.

Initially the pair worked together, but, as demand grew, other family members joined the force, with Lionel, Rosalind and Alex, who now lives in Scotland, all involved in various aspects over the years. Up to 20 locals were also employed at one point.

Lionel joined as purchasing manager in 1999, while Rosalind returned home in 2001 after a stint in Greece.

She now lives on the family farm with her husband, award-winning landscape designer Anthony Johns, and is involved in various projects using horses for therapy with adults and children.

While Ernest developed the organic farm in the mid-1990s he took a step back from the family business. He first grew potatoes for Country Crest, but that had its drawbacks, especially in bad weather.

"I really felt organic was the way to go but we were farming Charolais cattle at the time and they too were difficult. Most were double-muscle and we often had trouble calving. I was advised to try other British breeds, but I took an instant liking to the Aubracs when I first saw them on the farm of Kim and Mireille McCall in 1998."

Mireille McCall is credited as being the first person to import the breed into Ireland from her native France.

Ernest saw that the breed had many attributes that would work well on the farm, and over the next two years imported a further 31 heifers from France.

"They are so docile, and easy to work with, and they are good finishers as they have a high conversion ratio. They just ticked a lot of boxes."

Forestry

Today they keep a manageable herd of 24, with the resident bull Calverstown Koala another to have been bred by the McCalls in Co Kildare.

Some 50 acres of the farm is now planted in forestry, which reaps an annual income in premiums, with further acreage leased to a local organic farmer who supplies oats to Flahavans.

Lionel and Ernest regularly switch from autumn to spring calving, but believe autumn calving suits better when it comes to selling stock.

"We keep 10pc of the heifer calves as replacements and the rest are sold off as weanlings, but farmers want the bulls a bit older. With autumn calving it means we only have them for one full winter," Lionel said.

Among the current herd is Ballinclea Babette, winner of the RDS Champion of Champion Award in 2015 for 'Top Maternal Cow' and dam of Ballinclea Iveco who was the first Aubrac bull to be used by AI in Ireland.

Through their attention to detail, Ernest and Lionel have built up an excellent reputation for good stock, and each year sell a number of bulls to both new and established enthusiasts of the breed.

"I can safely say I can handle 80pc of our cows at any time," Ernest said of their good nature which appeals to their customers who continue to return to Ballinclea House year after year.

Although the equestrian business is now sold, and life is somewhat more relaxed, both Lionel and Rosalind will work in an advisory capacity for three years, while Samantha has other plans afoot.

"We were first approached by Agrihealth in 1996 but decided against it," Samantha said.

"When Lionel suffered a health scare in 2016 priorities changed. He was MD at the time and had to look after himself."

"Last year we all sat down and agreed it was time to sell up. We felt it was time for the business to move on and grow, and for the family to do the same," concluded Samantha, who this week prepares for a new life in France.

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