'Diversifying will create jobs for beef farmers and keep people in rural Ireland'

Cathal and Bronagh O'Rourke of Burren Farm Experience with their children Alice, Isla and Annabelle at home on the farm near Boston, Co Clare. Photograph by Eamon Ward
Cathal and Bronagh O'Rourke of Burren Farm Experience with their children Alice, Isla and Annabelle at home on the farm near Boston, Co Clare. Photograph by Eamon Ward

My Week Claire Fox talks to Bronagh O'Rourke

Bronagh O Rourke is only just getting used to being called a farmer.

The Cavan native and her husband Cathal run a 200-strong whitehead beef herd in the heart of the Burren in Tubber, north Clare, but life on the land is a world away from Bronagh's initial career path.

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"My father had a farm but then the cattle got TB so he ran a pub in Cavan town then and that's where I grew up. I then did a degree in Wolverhampton University in the UK in Sport and Health Rehabilitation in 1999 and later worked in pharmaceutical sales," says Bronagh.

Some time later Bronagh met her husband Cathal at the Galway Races. Cathal also works off farm as part of the Clare Marts team in Ennis, Co Clare.

Up until last year Cathal was running the beef farm with his father John, but when his father died, Bronagh became more involved in the farm. The couple also have three young children, Annabelle (8), Isla (5) and Alice (2).

Determined to develop new skills that could be used on the farm, Bronagh undertook a tourist guide course and it was only upon completing the course that she realised the tourism potential of the family farm.

"When Cathal first showed me the farm I was blown away. It's such a beautiful place. I didn't do the course with an eye to doing anything on the farm but when I completed it I really saw the potential in our farm and potential to leave a legacy behind for our three children," says Bronagh.

With this in mind Bronagh established the Burren Farm Experience brand this year in an effort to educate the thousands of tourists that visit the region on the unique farming practices of the Burren and the diverse biodiversity.

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"Our farm is in the Burren National Park and we're the only working farm in the area open for tours. We give our visitors a ride on the trailer of a tractor which has comfy seats and bring them all the way through our almost 500 acre farm. We teach them how we rear our cattle and how we look after them" says Bronagh.

"There are shorter and longer tour options but we can bring tourists to take a five or eight kilometre hike to the amazing Lough Bunny which is stunning."

While the business is very much in its early days, Bronagh hopes in the near future that they can convert the old farmhouse in to a tea room or accommodation for visitors.

"We've had visitors from Hawaii and the UK, so we're trying to catch as many as we can and hope it'll grow even more"

Bronagh says the diversification is the way forward given the current crisis in beef farming.

"The Irish beef trade isn't very strong at the moment, so diversifying would help keep people in rural Ireland and create jobs.

"Even if my children don't have an interest in the business, if they see us do this, they may have an idea of their own when they get older that will keep the farm alive."

Animal welfare

Bronagh and Cathal are members of the ground-breaking BurrenLife project which rewards farmers for making positive contributions to the environment.

Bronagh says being part of the programme is very important to the pair as animal welfare is something they feel strongly about.

"Animal welfare is key to our farm. I'd love if farmers in the Burren grouped together and could set up a Burren Veal or Burren Beef brand as I hate to see them being sent off as live exports and possibly not being looked after. We should promote what we have."

As part of BurrenLife Cathal and Bronagh out winter the animals and have been able to reclaim over 70 acres of land due to better management of the hazel.

Dr Brendan Dunford, who coordinates the project funded by the European Innovation Projects (EIP) fund says the project highlights how suckler farming is key to saving the Burren from land abandonment.

"Suckler farming is key to our survival. Dairy cows just wouldn't survive up here. If we didn't have suckler cows grazing our land the unique flowers and plants would stop growing," says Dr Dunford.

While Bronagh is only beginning to view herself as a farmer, she was recently announced as one of the top three finalists of the Corrib Oil Women in Farming Awards and will attend the final of the event which takes place at this year's National Ploughing Championships.

"I'm absolutely chuffed about this and was something I didn't expect as for so long I have seen Cathal as the farmer in this. It means a lot."

Burren Farm Experience is holding a 'Five Generations of Farming' series farm walks on August 17 and 18. For more information and bookings contact bronaghorourke1@gmail.com

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