The World Steak Challenge has been hosted in Dublin, Ireland for the past two competitions (2019 & 2021). And just like in 2019 the following day Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) organised a study tour. The tour is an opportunity to learn more about food and drinks produced in Ireland and I was really looking forward to it.
First stop on our study was The Dowth Hall estate, which occupies a large part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne. The estate was purchased in 2013 by Dr Owen Brennan and Professor Alice Stanton, owners of agri-technology company Devenish Nutrition to support and develop their research projects. Devenish farm at Dowth Hall Estate is what is called a lighthouse farm, an exemplar of sustainable production. Similar lighthouse farms have been set up in contrasting environments, climates and cultures, starting in Ireland, Brazil, Finland and Indonesia
One Health: From Soil to Society
Our visit began just outside the hall where we were greeted by experts from Devenish who gave us a very interesting overview of the Devenish’s projects which range from deer management, ecology, archelogy and farming systems . One of the things that struck me first and foremost about Devenish is how their scientists are working with nature in order to develop their solutions. Their strategy of “One Health: From Soil to Society” considers the environment, animal health and wellbeing and human health. They invite groups to raise awareness of their work, government representatives to try and encourage policy change, and those in the farming industry to whom they demonstrate not only improved social and environmental sustainability but economical sustainability.
One of their projects, HEARTLAND, is focused on the improvement of soil quality. When Devenish took over the farm in 2014, the site had fallen into a dilapidated state and the PH of the soil was 5.5, as opposed to the optimum which is 6.3 – 6.5. Devenish has since improved the PH to 6.5 which has then enabled them to take measures to build up the carbon stocks on the farm. Measures include establishing a multiple species sward which includes various grasses, legumes and herbs. In addition to this increasing overall grass yield, the multispecies combination improves livestock performance as animals not only grow quicker but also require fewer vaccinations.
Additional benefits of the multispecies sward includes being able to use 60% less nitrogen ( fertilizer). We were shown evidence of the improvement in the soil quality as shown in the pictures below with the multispecies sward soil being a darker colour and looser texture. This is in part because it attracts more earthworms whose extensive channelling and burrowing aerates the soil and improves soil drainage. The number of earthworms have increased by 300% and 600% for the deep burrowing species by switching to multispecies swards.
In the first year alone Devenish were able to reduce carbon emissions by 30 % and there Agri-Renewal programme supports farmers to able to do likewise and work towards carbon neutrality.
On the farm we also saw a pair of grey partridge which would have been abundant on Ireland in the 1930s -1940s when farms were smaller. As farms grew bigger and sward mono culture and pesticides were introduced the grey partridge numbers were so severely depleted, in 1990 it was estimated that there were less than 20 birds left in Ireland.
Devenish are proud to be part of a reintroduction programme back by the NRGC (the national association for regional game councils). In August 2020 they took on 26 juvenile birds with the birds being gradually released, with 4 birds kept back as ‘call birds’ so the birds could establish Dowth Hall as their home. Devenish has now begun their own breeding programme and in 2021 were able to bring nearly 100 partridges into the world! They have been shown to thrive in the multispecies sward in which their pens are located as the multispecies sward isn’t grazed right to the ground and the soil is full of insect life.
When taking on Dowth Hall, Devenish also inherited a wild herd of 175 red deer on the farm. When Devenish created their research plots out of all the swards that the deer could have chosen to graze on they selected the multispecies, so of course they needed to fence off these area. However, the red deer are a part of Ireland’s heritage and are it’s largest land mammal so Devenish commissioned a study to gather all the information they could on the deer.
Their goal is to establish a healthy sustainable herd of deer in the valley and are pleased to say they’re well on their way with this! To help achieve this Devenish has worked with the head of the veterinary college of the University of Dublin to attach tracking collars to 10 of the deer to monitor how the deer interact with the land to travel and feed. Devenish also did a vegetation impact assessment on the land and are looking to re-establish the vegetation as the deer have eaten everything to the ground!
In addition to being a research centre for Devenish, Dowth Hall is also home to a c. 5000-year-old passage tomb. During the renovation works on the mansion and the surrounding estate, an archaeologist was employed to monitor for any potential archaeology. The fact that the mansion is located at the highest point of the estate and that there is a large henge located nearby was significant. The archaeologists discovered an ancient burial chamber, that would have been about 40m in diameter and 8-9m high, considered to be one of the great passage tombs. Passage tombs are middle Neolithic burial monuments and can be divided into three main parts; the passage made from upright stones and roofed, at the end of the passage a stone chamber which is covered in stone / soil, surrounded by a stone kerb. Among the discoveries, were greywacke kerbstones (the stone of choice for passage tombs the closest source being 25km away), one of which was covered in spectacular megalithic art. Approximately 30% of all Europe’s megalithic art is located in tombs in the Boyne valley. Notably, this current excavation is being done with much more care than the one attempted in 1849, in which a group of enthusiasts from the Royal Irish Academy had the bright idea of excavating it with dynamite!
Last but not least, we were shown around Dowth Hall itself a mansion built in 1765 for the sixth Viscount Netterville. The manor is currently undergoing extensive restoration but as you can see from the photo has some impressive examples of rococo stucco work.
Just a short drive away to our lunch stop sits two historic properties, side by side and surrounded by four acres, Dowth Castle and Netterville Manor.
The Castle was built as the manorial seat of the Anglo-Norman Netterville family in the 13th century. The Manor is a much newer addition that was built in 1877 as an alms house for widows and orphans, by the Netterville trust to the design of architect George Ashlin, who also built Tulira Castle in Galway and Annemount in Cork. Little remains of the castle, but the stunning original vaulted ceiling in the adjoining chapel dates from 1400’s and is well worth a look.
A big thanks to my wife Sophie for spending countless hours relisterning to film and sound recordings we took that day, and then writing this article. Look out for Part 2 which is about our tour and tasting at the church of whiskey.
Foodie Roadtrip to Ireland © Sophie Ashton 2021 part 1