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Forests helping to re-connect with nature

Now more than ever, individuals and society are questioning “the meaning of life” and seeking answers. A new native woodland in Roscommon offers a re-connection with nature. Noel Kennedy, Teagasc Forestry Advisor takes us to Seán Butler's recent plantation at Hillside Holistic Farm

In the quiet, gently rolling limestone fields of south Roscommon, Hillside Holistic Farm offers a helping hand to people looking for those answers and guidance towards wellbeing and fulfilment. Since 2004, the farm has been run by Sean and Helen Butler as an organic beef farm and holistic centre with wellbeing and empowerment at the heart of everything they do.

Describing it as “a unique family farm with a holistic approach to farming and life”, the synergy between the farm and recently planted native woodland and the holistic healing and life mentoring is palpable. 

Choosing a different path

Describing himself as an energy healer and organic farmer with a mission “to help people to find peace with themselves”, Sean is the 5th generation of the Butler family to work the land. Helen, on the other hand, is not from a farming background and says “she brings a different type of thinking”.

Concerned by increasing animal health issues and dependence on medicines in conventional intensive farming, the Butlers looked for a different, more natural approach and in 2001 began a two year conversion to an organic system that created a less stressful environment for the animals and produced excellent meat products.

Unexpectedly, the move to organics also brought welcome health and lifestyle benefits for Sean and Helen. Wishing to share these positive health and lifestyle benefits with others, during this time they also developed their interests in alternative therapies. They have never looked back.

Today, Hillside Holistic Farm is a working organic farm and a recognised hub for holistic healing, youth and project mentoring and social farming. With a dedicated therapy room which can be used by groups and therapists, the farm itself provides a calming backdrop and unique opportunity to re-connect with nature.

Native woodland

Sean has long harboured a desire to plant a broadleaf forest to complement the farm environment and offer additional therapeutic benefits. I had met him several years ago to look into this in more detail.

In Sean’s mind, planting trees “would allow him to work with the land and not against it”. In addition to the many positives for biodiversity and water quality, he and Helen also noted the growing evidence showing the wider wellbeing benefits of spending time with trees.

In 2019, the Butler’s decided to dedicate 11 hectares, approximately a third of the farm, to planting a new native woodland that reflected in their eyes a natural, positive and practical change. To accommodate the new trees, they made the difficult decision to get out of sheep and concentrate on the suckler herd.

Liaising with a registered forester from Western Forestry Co-Op, a Native Woodland Establishment (NWS) grant application was submitted in autumn 2019.

Following a lengthy process of operational and environmental assessment and public consultation, a grant approval was issued by DAFM in early 2021 with planting completed in March – an ideal time for tree planting – and appropriately during National Tree Week!

NWS supports the planting of native trees with the selection of species guided by soil type and vegetation indicator species. Pre-planting preparation follows close-to-nature principles, resulting in minimal soil and environmental disturbance.

The Butler’s new native woodland has three main species – pedunculate oak, downy birch and hazel – all supporting a rich biodiversity as they grow. Other minor species include wild cherry, hawthorn, holly and Scots pine – an iconic native conifer.

The woodland was planted and will be maintained by the Western Forestry Co-Op until the trees are established, normally after four to five years, in return for the Afforestation grant. The annual forestry premium will yield €7,500 for 15 years which will, according to Sean, more than compensates for the loss of sheep income particularly when factoring in the income tax exemption available for the forestry premiums.

The young trees have got off to a good start with healthy new growth – but so also has the grass. Sean has been already working with his forestry company to carry out grasscleaning and ensure the grass does not hold back the trees. All grass control is manual and no herbicides will be used during tree establishment which, for the Butlers, is a really positive feature of the native woodland scheme.

Forest bathing

Already an integral part of the farm, the Butlers see many opportunities for the new woodland in the years ahead, not least the therapeutic potential for energy healing and facilitating social farming initiatives with vulnerable groups.

Of particular interest is the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” which allows people to take time out, slow down and connect with nature. The Japanese have long recognised the benefits of interacting with trees with research now supporting the many physiological and psychological benefits.

Hillside Holistic Farm also facilitates social farming which Sean says “has given us the opportunity to share the benefits of farm life with others.” He is excited that the growing woodland will add to the social farming experience providing opportunities to work or just get a feel for the outdoors bringing a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing.

The future

As we slowly, and with some trepidation, recover from the impacts of the pandemic, the unique skills, services and facilities offered by Hillside Holistic Farm maybe sought after as never before – and the native woodland will play its part in the years, decades and centuries ahead.

As they grow older, the oak, birch, hazel, cherry and other assorted native trees will provide new homes for many flowers, insects and animals, bring a riot of autumnal colour, store away carbon in the soil and timber, while giving shade and shelter to stock grazing in neighbouring fields.

But maybe their greatest contribution will be fostering the human connection with the natural world for those who choose to “bathe” in the forest and experience peace, tranquillity and self-fulfilment. 

Trees truly are amazing

More information on Hillside Holistic Farm here and on Native Woodland Establishment here

Find out more about Organic farming here

The Teagasc Forestry Department issues an article on a Forestry topic every Friday here on Teagasc Daily 

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