Wednesday 23 October 2019

Nature calls at Will's unique farm

WILL WARHAM is a farmer, but take note – do not expect talk about the standard issues of agriculture whenever you call up his boreen in Oylegate.

During three hours in his company there is no mention whatever of the mart or of milk quotas. The phrase 'single farm payment' does not cross his lips. Not once.

But then here is a man not cut from the standard rural cloth. Now into his seventies, his first experience of life on the land was in the lush green meadows of (wait for it!) Ballyfermot. Yes, back in the Thirties and Forties, the site of one of the Dublin's largest housing complexes provided peaceful pasture for milch cows.

The Warham family rented a house on a 96dairy-acre farm in Ballyer and little Will's imagination was captured. He studied agriculture in Britain. Though he then worked as a cameraman with the fledgling national broadcasting service in the Sixties for a few years, he was destined to return to the land.

Working for RTÉ on a documentary about looming Irish membership of the Common Market (now the EU, younger readers), he decided that the future was in farming. He paid £147 (€185) an acre for a 300-acre spread at Crefogue in Glenbrien and made the switch from broadcaster to beef production. He has been in Co. Wexford ever since.

These days he has, to use the modern idiom, down-sized to occupy a modest 60-acre holding in the townland of Jamestown in Oylegate. Given that half of the property comprises marshy river reed beds, it is completely, wretchedly, irreversibly uneconomic as a commercial farm. So Will Warham has bravely re-styled the place under the title Jamestown Environmental Reserve and thrown his gate open to ornithologists and to school parties.

Visitors are offered a glimpse of a world that is largely invisible from the public roadway as the farm provides a window on to the secret life of the Slaney. And it appears that the landholder is more interested in the trees and the wildlife than the crop of winter corn that has been sown in one of his fields as Will indulges his passion for what was known in his youth as natural history.

So, children lucky enough to be brought here for some extra-curricular lessons will learn about barn owls rather than barley cultivation, with classes held in a real barn. While there are none of the endangered species on the premises at the moment, Will has experience of rearing owl chicks for release into the wild.

The man who used to run hundreds of bullocks in Crefogue is now down to just three sturdy specimens, seen grazing in one of the lower fields. They are outnumbered by the red deer, of which he has a eight breeding hinds and a sturdy macho stag. The fad for producing venison has largely died out in these parts but Will continues to send his beasts to a specialist abattoir in Northern Ireland.

The red deer have the merit of being a native Irish breed and his regard for indigenous stock extends to his taste in trees. He comes down firmly on the side of the argument which insists that beech is an import, a point on which he is not open to dissuasion. Instead of beech, he prefers to cultivate scots pine, holly, wild cherry and willow as well as a seldom mentioned species called spindle, whose red berries may be seen winking in the dappled light of the Jamestown woodland.

While the spindle is discreet, the willow is the real star turn, not least because it has been chosen for a leading role in the development of a radical sewage disposal system. Will points to a small stand of the tree, elsewhere better known for basketwork and cricket bats. These Oylegate specimens are already capable of growing three metres in one season. Once they begin tapping in earnest into the nitrogen flushed from the two loos erected nearby, goodness only knows what heights they will achieve.

Will also has a soft spot for oak trees and reckons that they are nurseries of bio-diversity, capable of supporting at least 200 different species. He pauses beside one mature oak and points to the wild violet growing around the base of the tree. Together, the oak and the violet provide complete board and lodgings to sustain a population of the rare spider web fritillary butterfly. Not many people know that.

The farm's riverside location is exploited to the full with a boardwalk through the rustling reeds. Treading these boards is like being in the midst of the Florida Everglades – without the alligators. The owner points to droppings on the timber and wonders aloud whether it is from the backside of fox, otter or mink.

Two hides have been constructed amid the reed and willow flats, both very popular with bird watchers keen to track the presence of curlews, gulls, swans, redshanks, godwits, egrets and herons, to name but a few. This stretch of the Slaney is Duck City: even the goosander duck has been logged on occasion.

The riverbank also supports a floating population of fridges and bottles. Will Warham manages to make even the rubbish sound interesting. He also confesses that he has eaten squirrel and the traps put out to trap these fluffy tailed American imports are checked every day.

Natural history brought to life.

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