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The CAFRE Hill Farm – integrating environmental and livestock management since 1963

September 8, 2021

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise’s Hill Farm is situated in the district of Glenwherry in the Antrim Hills between Ballymena and Larne. Partially situated within the Antrim Hills Special Protection Area (SPA) for Hen Harrier and Merlin, the Hill Farm Centre extends to almost 1,000 hectares and has 100 suckler cows and 1,100 breeding ewes.

In Northern Ireland’s Centenary Year, CAFRE staff have been reflecting on the farm’s history. In 1963 the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, or the ‘Ministry’ as it was known then, bought the Hill Farm from the Antrim Estates Company for £39,100. The farm was acquired for demonstration and training purposes.

Over the years, the Northern Ireland agriculture industry has evolved and environmental policies have changed, but one constant has been the Hill Farm’s role in supporting students, farmers and upland land managers develop innovative practices.

Historical maps show that the field and hill pattern has remained similar over the years, however in the early 20th century the moorland landscape was very open with very few drains marked. From 1950, through to 1980, forestation blocks and open drainage systems were installed throughout the moorland. This changed dramatically in 2019 when 60 hectares of forestry was felled. Now for the first time since the 1980’s the upper moor looks totally open.

In 2009, the focus of the Hill Farm broadened to emphasise environmental management and wildlife regeneration. At this time the Glenwherry Hill Regeneration Partnership Project was launched. This project involves CAFRE collaborating in a partnership with the Irish Grouse Conservation Trust, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Advisory representatives from the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG), the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Queens University Belfast (QUB) and the Agri-Food Biosciences Institute (AFBI) also contribute to the management board.

This project through predator control and habitat management has been successful in achieving some of the highest population densities in Ireland for red grouse and Irish hare and in seeing a steady increase in breeding waders and a continued foraging presence of hen harrier. There has been a notable return of curlew and lapwing which have successfully bred and fledged young.  Remarkably this has all been achieved, whilst simultaneously maintaining a viable upland farming enterprise with no impact on beef and sheep performance.

In 2020 the emphasis widened to focus on all the Hill Farm ecosystem services. These include not only food production and biodiversity, but also flood alleviation, carbon storage, carbon sequestration and water quality.  The peatland is a catchment for the nearby Killylane Reservoir which serves 60,000 people from Larne to Ballymena. Water quality and carbon storage are being maximised by a 60 hectare ‘Forest-to-Bog’ project and open moor rewetting works.

Crucial to the farms environmental management is the integration of livestock.

The original herd was established in 1965 with the purchase of 50 Blue-Grey cows, the offspring from a Shorthorn bull and a Galloway cow.

Since 2002, the CAFRE Hill Farm herd has three breeds in the genetic pool, Shorthorn, Aberdeen Angus and Limousin. This herd was established based on science indicating that the three breeds would deliver the maximum genetic boost possible to performance, primarily through better fertility and survival.

About half of the 1100 ewes are Blackface. The Blackface is a rather unique sheep, able to survive and rear lambs in a hill environment where other breeds may be challenged. Their foraging habits have evolved in line with the environment and their existence ensures the habitat is well managed.

In 2016 a state of the art sheep house was built at the hill farm, and since then there has been additional investment in breeding programmes and data recording packages, the integration of innovative health management protocols and labour utilisation technologies. 

Each year the farm welcomes hundreds of visitors.  Whether you’re a student or farmer,  there is something at the Hill Farm to interest you.

Catch up with CAFRE’s Bryan Irvine and Dr Steven Johnston here as they discuss how sustainable environmental and livestock management integrate.