Farming at the heart of Shanes Castle Estate

27 Jan , 2017  

Perhaps best known these days as one of the settings for the hit TV series Game of Thrones, Shanes Castle is a working Estate consisting of about 800 acres of farmland and 1,000 acres of woodland on the north-east shores of Lough Neagh between Randalstown and Antrim town. A farming enterprise first and foremost, the 14th century Castle embraced 21st century green technology in 2011 when it updated its original hydro system which generates enough power to provide clean electricity to about 300 households in the area.

Built in 1345, Shanes Castle – which derives its name from Shane O’Neill (John the Proud) – is the family seat of the O’Neill’s of Clandeboy. The Castle itself is in ruins due to a fire in 1816 that wiped out everything except the family papers. Legend attributes the cause of the fire to the Banshee. Normally, a room was kept empty for her use but on this occasion, a large house party took up every room. She was so angry at finding her room occupied that she set the Castle on fire. The story also goes that a jackdaw’s nest caught fire at the top of the chimney, unused for many years, eventually crashing down into the room.

Nowadays, the Estate is run as a mixed enterprise by Shane O’Neill. Well known for their environmental initiatives, the O’Neill family have a 200-head dairy herd and about 1,000 ewes. The Holstein Friesian cows are milked in a 28-unit Herringbone parlour which was built about 20 years ago, with the milk being supplied to United Dairies. A successful lambing season means there are around 2,600 Suffolk Texel cross sheep on the farm at present.

The woodland has a history of continuous planting over the last three centuries, providing a sustainable source of timber production, income and employment opportunities in the local area. It is also a haven for wildlife and is home to many species, including a heronry of 40 breeding pairs on the lake front.

Last year, Shanes Castle won the RDS (Royal Dublin Society) Silver Medal in the Multipurpose Forestry Category which recognises the economic and environmental benefits that good forestry brings. The judges noted that Lord O’Neill has a passionate interest in both his trees and their associate woodland, providing access to walkers, bee keeping huts and preserving many of the unique features of the woodland, including numerous ancient trees, some of which have been in existence since at least 1600.

Coincidentally, the O’Neill’s relationship with the RDS stretches back 220 years to 1796 when the Lord Viscount O’Neill was elected as a member of the Society.

Also on the Estate is a paintball enterprise which is operated at the Randalstown end by Escarmouche. In addition, Shanes Castle is licenced to have weddings held in the Castle area and plays host to the Irish Game Fair and Fine Food Festival every summer. As well as being Ireland’s premier fair and country sports events, the Irish Game Fair and Fine Food Festival is a great day out for the whole family. It also stages an annual May Day Steam Rally.

Five years ago, hydro-electrical power was reintroduced to the Estate after more than a 50-year absence. The original hydro turbine was installed on the River Main, which runs through the grounds, in 1905 to provide power for the main house and the various farm buildings. This ran until the mid-1950s when mains electricity was introduced.

In 2000, the latest generation of O’Neill’s started looking at bringing it back to the Estate to provide green energy and also to power the nearby dairy parlour. After receiving planning permission, they decided to install a 210KW system using an Archimedes Screw Type turbine. The Screw Type turbine, which is the largest of its kind to be installed in Ireland, was chosen for its simplicity and fish-friendly attributes. It was supplied by Mann Power Consulting in Yorkshire and installed in conjunction with the Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford-based company Eco Evolution.

The hydro generates enough power to provide electricity to about 300 households and therefore saves about 900 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by generating clean, green electricity.

“The hydro project was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland,” Shane O’Neill explains.

“We’re always looking at other revenue streams outside of farming, and never more so than the present time with farming being in the precarious place that it is. The hydro has been a huge success for us. It’s four times the size of the original turbine and all the power it generates goes into the local electrical grid.

“It costs a lot of money to maintain an estate of this size and we realised a long time ago that we couldn’t survive on farming alone. The paintball enterprise is going well and we’re exploring other potential revenue streams such as weddings. We have 10 houses on the Estate which are mostly let out to staff. Shanes Castle has been here for hundreds of years and it’s our responsibility to safeguard its future and ensure it’s still here and operating as a viable business for years to come,” adds Shane, who is married to Celia and is father to Con, Hugo and Rory.

Shane Castle Estates Co Ltd

The Estate Office,
Randalstown Road,
Co. Antrim BT41 4NE
Telephone: 028 94428216
Email: [email protected]
Web: www.shanescastle.com

Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 4 No 7, September 2016