Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Grassroots adventures... along the Wild Atlantic Way

The opening of the Wild Atlantic Way is creating new opportunities for agri-tourism

Farmer and sheepdog trainer Martin Feeney on Stredagh beach, Grange, Co Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Farmer and sheepdog trainer Martin Feeney on Stredagh beach, Grange, Co Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

Siobhán English

The launch of the Wild Atlantic Way in 2014 opened up so many doors for both the long-established, and fledgling tourism enterprises. From the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in Co Cork, some 500 visitor attractions are dotted along the world's longest touring route covering over 2,500 kilometres.

Among the dozens of farming-themed attractions are riding holidays in Connemara with Connemara Equestrian Escapes, and Wilma's Killorglin Farmhouse Cheese in Kerry.

Another venture that is quickly catching the eye of those in search of something completely different is Martin Feeney's Atlantic Sheepdogs in Sligo.

Operated by the long-time sheepdog enthusiast and his father Eugene, and rated among the 'Avonmore Top 10 Family Adventures in Ireland' the business offers visitors from across the globe the rare opportunity to see Irish farming at the grassroots in one of the most spectacular locations, at Streedagh Beach under the shadow of Mount Benbulben.

"It all came about by accident really," Martin says of the idea to incorporate tours with the day-to-day running of a busy sheep farm.

"Back in 2012 a friend of ours, Niamh McSharry, was working at the local tourist office and called me one day to see if I could facilitate some Danish tourists who wanted to visit an Irish sheep farm. I agreed, and that was the start of it to be honest.

" We took a few groups here and there for a while after that but once the Wild Atlantic Way was launched we felt it was time to get the business up and running properly."

So impressed was the tour operator at the time, that he has since returned with many more groups who have been fascinated with Martin's collection of rare breeds, such as Zwartble and Teeswater, and the loyal dogs who keep them in check every day of the year.

Also Read

Martin also works closely with CIE and several Dutch and French tour companies.

Not surprisingly farming has always been a way of life for Martin, and his love for sheepdogs goes right back to his childhood.

He ran his first dog in trials at the age of nine, and soon followed in his father's footsteps. Both have since had much success on both the national and international circuits.

"I remember competing in my first national competition when I was just 11 and won the international young handlers' competition for under-21s the same year," Martin remembers.

From there he progressed to the Irish national senior team at the tender age of 13.

"We've had sheepdogs here all our lives. We try to breed our own but sometimes buy in one or two also.

"We have six here at the moment and our two main dogs who are father and son - Jack and Bob - have been very successful for us, with Jack fifth in the nationals in 2015 and a semi-finalist in the World Championships in 2014."

A typical day at Feeney's 30-hectare farm starts like any other day as they tend to their 180-ewe flock.

However, once the tour bus arrives Martin and Eugene quickly get into 'host mode' and entertain the guests with their stories and history and geography lessons on the area.

"Most people won't know the story of the three ships belonging to the Spanish Armada that were wrecked on Streedagh Beach in 1588."

Once the orientation is complete, it is then off to the beach where the guests can enjoy watching the dogs working in one of the most scenic locations in Sligo.

"It really is a beautiful part of the world, and the guests love being able to walk down onto the beach with Benbulben as the backdrop."

With farming being a full-time occupation for Martin and Eugene, you would wonder how they get time to run tours during the busier months of the year, but they now have it down to a fine art and the tourists simply row in whenever they arrive.

"Our first group arrived on February 20 just weeks before the lambing season.

"We lamb outside in March so those who visited us then were able to see that too.

"We have had regular tours since and many more are booked in between now and early December.

Depending on the time of the year they will get to see plenty behind the scenes, including shearing and wool demonstrations.

And for Martin it looks like 2017 will be an even busier year with the impending arrival in September of his first baby with wife Trish.

"It is very much a family-run business but my sister Marian and Mum Eileen are also great to help out when needed," Martin concluded.

Indo Farming