Why are we doing this?
As part of a wish to live more simply, reduce our environmental impact, and as a reaction to the threat of a changing climate, and over reliance on fossil fuels, we are establishing an off grid smallholding using permaculture and organic principles. Our aim is to be able to provide working, practical solutions that people can learn about, and take away to use in their own lives.
We welcome and are host to volunteers from all over the world, who come to learn more about our way of life, and experience the beauty of Northern Ireland. For most, it is their first experience of our country and we aim to make it a positive one.
Within five years we aim to substantially meet our energy, food, water and waste requirements from our smallholding, and to provide a healthy and ecologically sound environment in which visitors can learn from our experiences and see how it is possible to live in a more sustainable manner without compromising their standard of living. We will provide opportunities to learn more about vegetable and fruit growing.
We offer our self catering cottage and off grid horse box alongside short practical courses in a variety of ecological themes, as well as offering an ‘off grid experience’ to those seeking to live more simply, or more self reliantly. Rising food and energy prices, along with recent revelations about the complexity of the modern food chain mean that interest in home food production, and living ‘The Good Life’ are at an all time high. Although we realise that for many people, taking this to the level that we have is not practical, there are many aspects that they will be able to take away and adapt to fit into their lifestyles.
In the UK, the average person uses resources that are equivalent to us needing five planet earths to support them. Our overall aim is to reduce our ecological footprint to a point where we use only a sustainable proportion of those resources.
Home grown, organic food
We grow much of our own vegetables, and are planting an orchard which will provide all our fruit needs. We also keep hens, principally for eggs, but also for occasional meat. We are active members of GIY (Grow It Yourself) Ireland, and as part of a local network are able to barter and obtain all the vegetables we need, as well as a proportion of our meat. We shop locally wherever possible.
Managing and enjoying our woodland
Cooking, central heating and domestic hot water, are fuelled using wood, produced from our own woodland, which is coppiced to ensure that we have a constant supply of timber. In addition to the existing woodland, we have planted an additional 800 trees over the last winter. We also have solar hot water heating to boost the supply, and provide domestic hot water in the summer when lighting a woodburner is less desirable.
We generate all our own power on site and take responsibility for all our waste
We’ve come to realise that ‘off-grid’ is more than just the act of not using mains electricity or water – it’s an attitude, and there are as many variations out there as there are people. For us it’s about independence and resilience. The most visible aspect is solar pv. What started as a couple of 80W panels has grown into a collection of some 48, totalling 4kW, mounted on roofs and ground frames, and controlled by an increasingly complex set of equipment. We’ve recently had the mains supply pole removed from the farm entirely.
We were fortunate to be given 3kw of these 80w panels, which are 9 years old, but still performing as they should. This is maybe a sign that a market for second hand panels will evolve as people replace smaller ones with fewer large panels. We’re hugely grateful to St.George’s Church in Belfast for them.
When we first thought of living off grid, it was primarily through necessity – a combination of wanting less bills to come in, and of living at that time, in a converted horsebox. Mains electricity, water and waste weren’t an option, and so a couple of solar panels and a little wind turbine provided power, we collected rainwater from the barn roof, and used the composting loo on the farm. It was a basic system that met our needs, and was also great to learn with, without costing a fortune or risking too much.
We’re learning about and building systems that will hopefully see us through many years to come – and then hopefully we won’t have to worry about what is being added to our water supply by a company we can’t hold accountable, and we won’t have to fret over the rising cost of electricity as old power stations are retired, and a combination of poor policy and changing climate take their toll.
As much as anything, being off grid is about taking responsibility – for your power, heating, lighting, water, and waste. The latter involved building composting loos, of which I am very fond, if one can be fond of a loo.
The techy bit
For those that have an interest in such things, we run panels in series strings of 100 – 120 volts, to 3 Victron MPPT charge controllers that look after the batteries, which are 1000ah of traction batteries at 24 volts. From the batteries, two Victron Multiplus 3000/70 inverter/chargers connected in parallel to provide 6kw of power, convert 24v DC to 240V AC and feed the buildings through regular circuits, which are split into lighting and power. The Victron can also switch in a generator if the batteries are getting low – it is a clever bit of kit indeed. We have Philip Gordon at Leisure Batteries Ireland to thank for his help and advice. The system is monitored by a battery monitor, and a Colour Control GX that communicates with all the system components, and the outside world via the internet.
A Bornay Inclin 3000 wind turbine provides power via an Aurora 3600 grid tie inverter that is AC coupled into the AC output of our Multiplus inverters, which are creating a micro-grid within our buildings. An AC current sensor provides data about the output of the Aurora to the Multis, which also control a series of electric heaters in the cottage to manage excess power and protect the batteries from overcharging.
Horses are such a part of our lives that we couldn’t be without them. Our current lads both arrived via Hollys Horse Rescue, who do amazing work dealing with unwanted, abandoned and otherwise destitute horses. Mel here was a racehorse, having run 24 times, until he fractured a knee and needed to be retired. Presumably the owner didn’t want to be responsible for a horse that couldn’t run, and so he wound up at Hollys. Now back in riding work, he is a complete gentleman, and we potter around the lanes here. There is no better way to travel.
Rain hasn’t had such a privileged upbringing. By the age of three he’s spent much of his time shut in a shed, the muck caked on him so thickly that it had to be cut off in places. He was thin, wormy, and had terrible lice. After a year of being looked after, he’s twice the horse (literally) and a picture of health. An amazingly clever little horse, he can easily undo most door catches and clips and is a fast learner. We ride him, and he also works in harness to haul things around the farm.
From a permaculture perspective it can be hard to justify having horses for pleasure, but aside from their benefits are many. Psychologically, spending time with horses is incredibly therapeutic. The horses also produce prolific quantities of manure, which all goes onto our vegetable beds, and is amazing stuff.
If you would like to support the work that Hollys do, please give them a donation via their website – http://www.hollyshorsehaven.com/donate-hollys
At Lackan Cottage Farm, our hens are truly free range. Kept in small flocks of 8-10, each with a rooster to keep an eye on them, they are free to roam within large netted areas on our paddocks, and moved around every few days so that they always have access to fresh grazing, and manure the paddocks as they go. Small flock sizes mean that there is no bullying or pecking within the flock, and we are able to monitor their health individually. They are fed a diet of GM free layers pellets and corn in the colder months.
The hens are a mixture of rescued ex-battery hens from Nut House Hen Rescue, that we have had for 2 years now, also some rare breed hens, and more recently our own home bred hens, sat by Fluffers, our resident broody bantam.