Farm Ireland
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Sunday 16 December 2018

Turning an old piggery into a potential income earner

William Hunter outside the old piggery on his farm at Ballylooby, Cahir, Co Tipperary. Photograph Liam Burke
William Hunter outside the old piggery on his farm at Ballylooby, Cahir, Co Tipperary. Photograph Liam Burke
Architect Hugh Wallace believes that many run-down farm outbuildings can be renovated and used to generate income

Alex Meehan

Built in the 19th century, the old piggery on William Hunter's farm in Ballylooby, Co Tipperary, is typical of many thousands of similar farm buildings laying semi-derelict around Ireland.

Situated in a stone-built courtyard, the piggery was once a productive part of the working farm but up until 2016 it had a roof that was leaking and its days were numbered.

William Hunter in the old piggery on his farm at Ballylooby, Cahir, Co Tipperary. Photograph Liam Burke
William Hunter in the old piggery on his farm at Ballylooby, Cahir, Co Tipperary. Photograph Liam Burke

However, a government grant for €9,500 from the Heritage Council in 2016 enabled Mr Hunter to replace the roof, add guttering and repair the walls, setting in motion a sequence of improvements that's still ongoing.

"It was essentially an old stone building that was falling into disrepair, and while it was still standing, it couldn't really be used for anything. It originally served as a piggery but it's long since ceased being used for much," says Mr Hunter's son Eamonn. The Hunters' farm is now mostly engaged in tillage, growing oats and barley, plus 28 acres of oak and ash woodland. The Heritage Council grant came as part of the GLAS Traditional Farm Buildings Grant Scheme.

The old piggery on William Hunters farm at Ballylooby, Cahir, Co Tipperary with its new roof. Photograph Liam Burke.
The old piggery on William Hunters farm at Ballylooby, Cahir, Co Tipperary with its new roof. Photograph Liam Burke.

"It had been on our to-do list for a long time but any farmer knows there's always a backlog of things that need paying for on any farm, so it took a grant to get the renovations off the ground," says Eamonn.

"You have to apply for works and submit costings to consolidate essential parts of the building."

While there were some repairs done to the walls of the structure, the bulk of the money was spent on rebuilding the roof and gutters. The timber structure needed to be renewed and the slate cladding of the roof needed a lot of work. However, not only were the Hunters left with a dry, usable building suitable for storage and as a workshop, the project also started a process of repairing other structures in the courtyard.

"The whole courtyard is looking better and we're hoping in time to develop some self-catering accommodation in one of the larger buildings in the complex, to help contribute an income to the farm," says Eamonn.

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"We don't keep pigs any more and the way the farm earns a living has changed over time, so it's time to look at further change.

"The main value of these buildings is in the character they give to the site. We'd like to diversify more to maximise that, and we see tourism as a strong aspect of the future development of the farm."

Read also: Department confirms return of grant aid scheme for restoring traditional farm buildings

'Thousands of farm buildings are ripe for restoration'

Dotted all around Ireland are ramshackle and run-down farm buildings that could be restored and repurposed to offer landowners a second income. That's the message from architect and restoration expert Hugh Wallace.

"The reality is that not many people are building new working farmhouses and outbuildings. But there are thousands of older buildings like that all around the country, and many of them are ripe for restoration," he says.

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Architect Hugh Wallace believes that many run-down farm outbuildings can be renovated and used to generate income

"If you drive around the byroads of Ireland, pretty much in any county, there are farm buildings, amazing quadrangles of working buildings, and those lovely two-storey barns built to allow for hay storage upstairs and cattle downstairs."

Mr Wallace is best known as a judge on RTé's Home of the Year and a presenter on The Restoration Programme, and it's in the capacity of a restoration expert that he attended this year's Ploughing Championships, conducting a question-and-answer session around how to repurpose farm houses and buildings.

He also shared some tips on how to retain the heritage and integrity of period buildings while also looking at how the revived structure can help boost farming income.

"There's a huge number of these buildings at the end of somebody's garden or in a neglected farmyard. They're just rotting because they've passed their sell-by date in terms of having a function on the farm," he says.

"A lot of the time, you can see that there's a bungalow from the 1970s or 80s built beside the old farm building, but that the older building has been left to rot and the cattle have moved in."

Mr Wallace believes that there are a number of things that could be done with these buildings.

"There's a whole opportunity to generate income for farmers, either by offering a means for visitors to take part in the life of the farm, or via short-term lets," he says.

"They can also be used as studios for yoga and wellness activities - it's often hard to find spaces for community activities in rural areas. I also know of one family with a quadrangle of farm buildings that they did up over 12 years - they spread the cost out over time - and they now have an income from their properties of over €60,000 a year."

Economy

Mr Wallace says urban dwellers want experiences, and that includes being closer to agriculture.

"They want to walk around the fields, and meet and feed cows and lambs. Not many people know what that's like any more, other than farmers," he says.

According to Mr Wallace, many of these disused or run-down buildings have genuine architectural value, as they reflect the fact that for most of its history, Ireland has been an agrarian economy.

"It wasn't until the 1930s and 40s that we moved towards a more urban society, continuing on into the 50s and 60s. Around the cities there are listed buildings and conservation areas, but the farmlands and buildings of Ireland haven't had the same protection, and as a result there are a lot of buildings out there just rotting into the ground," he says.

"This needs to be an exercise in balance. These buildings need to be made fit for today's way of living as well as preserving the past.

"Within that, any one of these buildings will have elements that are worthy of restoring or showing off. It could be a staircase or original beams in the roof - it's a matter of retaining some of those elements."

Repurposing and restoring older buildings has a secondary benefit in addition to generating income for their owners, according to Mr Wallace: it can help to attract people away from the cities.

"We need to repopulate the countryside, and these farm buildings are an ideal way to do that," he says.

"In my opinion, buildings from pre-1910 should be preserved if they have architectural qualities. People should be able to do them up just like they can in urban areas under the Living Cities initiative.

"We should have a rural living initiative so that people can claim the money they spend on these buildings against income tax."

Currently the Department of Agriculture offers grants in the form of the Traditional Farm Buildings Scheme, administered by the Heritage Council.

Under the scheme, grants are available to carry out approved conservation works to traditional farm buildings and associated landscape structures such as historic yard surfaces, walls, gate pillars and gates.

The principal objective of this scheme is to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and which are of significant heritage value, are conserved for agricultural use.

The grants available range between €4,000 and €25,000 and can cover up to 75pc of the cost of the works.

"From a planning point of view, renovating an existing building is much less complicated than building something from scratch on a greenfield site," says Mr Wallace.

"As long as a good bit of the roof is still on, then you can do maintenance work with very little hassle.

"These buildings when they're finished will be slightly rough and grainy in some areas - they won't be like a new build - and that means they'll have character. People really like that."

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