There are many people who harbour dreams of living off the land, becoming self-sufficient and growing their own food, and perhaps raising a few chickens. Sure the experts like Diarmuid Gavin and Jamie Oliver tell us anyone can do it. So why is it that when we try we end up with limp lettuce, slushy strawberries and potatoes that look like pebbles? Finding the time to care for and cultivate our own patch is the problem.
For real results, it helps if you can fully immerse yourself into the smallholding lifestyle - the life of a farmer/grower who farms and grows primarily for themselves.
Smallholdings are usually smaller than a farm but considerably bigger than an allotment, and offer owners a means of achieving self-sufficiency for their family's needs. An acre to five can be typical of the amount of land you will need along with outbuildings and a suitably sized home. Pigs, sheep, goats and hens can roam free, while fruit and veg flourish under your watchful eye.
Fran and Alan Trafford moved to Schull in West Cork 17 years ago after too many hectic years in the hotel business and corporate world. Fran came from a self-sufficient farm in Athlone and knew that she wanted to create a miniature version of that for her daughters.
"After living away from Ireland for nearly 30 years, we just knew we wanted to come home with our children," says Fran. "We had an open mind about where we were going to settle but when we found this 220-year-old farmhouse in Schull, we fell in love. It was very basic when we bought it but we didn't change the structure, we just made it good. We didn't demolish anything, we preserved it. We replumbed, rewired, reroofed, refloored and put in all new windows.
"We did all of the work to the house ourselves and landscaped the gardens," says Fran proudly. "My husband had just retired, so he started doing maintenance and we ended up doing the roof together. We got builders in for things we didn't know how to do, but we did nearly everything ourselves.
"One of the best things about it is that we really lived from the garden to the table. We use animals instead of lawnmowers for the grass, we have our own orchard, vegetable garden and hens."
Fran claims that you don't need to have any experience to create your own smallholding, especially in West Cork.
"Gardening here is so easy because the soil is so fertile from the West Cork microclimate," says Fran. "People would ask how I did it all, but to be honest, I didn't have an idea what I was doing. If you stuck a wooden spoon into the ground in this soil, it would grow. I didn't break a nail before I came here. You don't need to be an expert, you learn along the way. My husband was a city businessman and just loves this life now. Anyone can make it work here. My hands used to be my feature, now they're an embarrassment from all the hard work," laughs Fran. "I have to hide them in my pockets."
The farmhouse, Ancaire, is now on the market because the Traffords feel it's time for a younger family to enjoy it. "Unfortunately now we're reaching an age where it's a lot of work for us," says Fran. "We'd love a young family to move in like we did 17 years ago with the orchard, field and stables. The land is really rich, with no fertiliser, we're totally organic. Our hens roam free and it's a lovely natural way to live.
"Our kids had an idyllic childhood. We taught them how to drive in an old banger in the field! They had their ponies and donkeys and goats. But now they're grown up with one daughter in Dubai and the other in London. They would love us to still be living here for their children but they understand that it's time to sell up, and both intend to return to Ireland and buy somewhere like this when the time is right for them. They wouldn't settle anywhere else."
Another family who had a vision for how they wanted to raise their children were Emese Hoka and her husband Eoin Lyons. About 10 years ago they bought a ruin in Claremorris, Co Mayo and turned it into a dream home for their young family.
"The house was just an old wreck really, with trees growing out of it when we bought it," recalls Emese. "We started by shovelling out about 3ft of turf. We lived in a mobile in the grounds for about four years while we worked away on the house. We did all the work ourselves. I did the design and Eoin took on the construction work. I collected ideas for years. I had an image in my head since I was a teenager of the kind of house I wanted to live in and this was my dream come true."
Emese grew up in Hungary where her grandparents were farmers and thinks that's where the romantic notion of living off the land came from.
"I always loved nature and freedom, and knew that was how I wanted to bring my kids up," says Emese.
"We think of the land as our own mini-farm. It actually used to be bigger but we were home-schooling the kids so we downsized a bit. We sold our milking goat last year. We bought it when I finished breastfeeding because I didn't want the kids to have shop-bought milk or formula. We milked for seven years, mostly for the kids' benefit, but it was the most time-consuming part of the farm because the goat needed attention every day."
Emese and Eoin now have 16 sheep, two goats, four peacocks, 20 chickens, and dogs and cats. "It's absolute heaven for our kids Oliver (8), Maya (5) and Elfyn (3)," says Emese. "They come home and get changed and go outside down to the river or into the forest, and pick mushrooms or play in the treehouse. They really just live outside."
The children aren't the only ones who see the benefits of country living. "I love how quiet the house is and you can sit out and just listen to the birds. There are no neighbours but you don't feel isolated because Claremorris is only 15 minutes away. We have a little driveway with stone walls on one side with moss and primroses and a line of trees on the other side. There is a forest behind us and another line of sycamore and chestnut trees that have probably been here since the house was built in 1887."
Emese and Eoin have made the difficult decision to put their house on the market. "After all of our hard work, the house is actually getting a bit too small for us now. We didn't have kids when we bought it. The living space downstairs just doesn't feel big enough for three small, energetic kids. It's so hard to leave. I still don't know how I'll walk away," says Emese sadly.
"The house is like our baby. We raised it from nothing. But it has done everything it can for us and we have done everything we can for it. I hope it gets someone who is willing to put the work in and take it further. I think there is magic in this place so I only want it to go to someone who loves it like we do."
Wherever they move to though, it will need to be big enough for their extended family. "We don't mind where we move to as long as it has a bit of land so that we can take the animals with us," laughs Emese.
Ancaire in Kilbronogue, Schull, West Cork is on the market with an asking price of €795,000 through agents James Lyons O'Keeffe (028) 28122.
Feamore in Claremorris, Co Mayo is for sale with a guide price of €215,000. You can contact the owners at 087 7807151 for more information.