Forest bathing: Seeing the wood for the trees on diversification

A west Cork farmer – one of four farmers involved in West Cork Farm Tours – has an offering with a difference as a qualified forest bathing guide.

Avril Allshire-Howe and her husband, Willie Allshire, own 58ac in Rosscarbery.

“It’s busy, with the oldest Irish herd of free range outdoor pigs, established in 1997; an on-farm award-winning processing unit, with over 40 awards won since 2004; and a firewood business. 50ac is under trees, including 8ac of agroforestry,” she said.

Avril, a mentor with Network Ireland, the women in business organisation, grew up on a mixed farm while Willie is from a business background but was keen to own land in west Cork.

“We won the Southern Star West Cork farming award for enterprise and innovation in 2016 and, at the awards lunch, I became involved in a conversation about encouraging people to visit real farms to speak with the families about daily life and to see it in all its glory, warts and all. From that, we gathered with other farmers and launched West Cork Farm Tours in 2018,” Avril said.

“Currently, we are four farms: Denis and Collette O’Donovan, dairy; John Joe and Andrew O’Sullivan, dairy; Michael and Marguerite Crowley, dairy; and our farm in Caherbeg. West Cork Farms Tours has won a number of awards,” Avril said.

Shinrin-Yoku

“In our first year of operation with West Cork Farm Tours, I became increasingly aware of the number of people visiting the farm who were anything but relaxed when they arrived but after two hours walking the farm with me, were very different when leaving. You could actually see them relax as we walked,” she said.

When I was growing up, we had plenty of trees on our farm and some of my happiest memories were playing around, in and under the trees and so I decided to research trees and health. I organised an on-farm assessment to see if it would be suitable to bring people for an experience and gathered a number of other people in the area who have diverse professional backgrounds.

“That led me to Shinrin-Yoku – Japanese forest bathing – and to Shirley Gleeson, a member of the European Institute of Forest Therapy. She visited our farm and we had a long discussion about forest bathing,” said Avril.

“I’m not a therapist of any kind but wanted to guide people through the trees and experience the benefits to be gained from them. I spoke with many people about forest bathing and eventually nine of us were trained with the help of SECAD in autumn 2019. We had planned to launch in March 2020 but that had to be deferred due to Covid-19,” she said.

Sensory connection with nature

“The benefits of walking among trees and opening one’s senses to them cannot be underestimated and there is a lot of work going on internationally in this area. In Ireland, we are well behind the curve compared to many countries across Europe and worldwide, where one is encouraged to walk through the trees with guides helping one to open the senses, slow down and relax,” said Avril.

“Forest bathing is a wellness practice to relax, relieve stress and invite joy and pleasure through sensory connection with nature,” she said.

“The woodlands are varied and include both private – as in my case – and public woodland. Taking current Covid-19 restrictions into account, we will only accept a maximum of eight people on any experience at present. While every member will work on their own guiding a group, we have all been trained by Shirley Gleeson.

“We have all had to submit to practice experiences and submitted assessments and all of us are insured. The experience is not a hike nor a nature walk nor does it require anyone to strip. Forest bathing allows a person to open the senses to the benefits to be gained while amongst trees. Much of the experience is silent and it’s slow. There is no rushing about, no deadlines,” Avril said.

“I believe anyone who enjoys a gentle walk in nature will enjoy this. It’s a guided process to opening your senses. Naturally it’s woodland so there are no pavements, but if one is appropriately attired including appropriate footwear, there’s nothing to stop a person of any age enjoying the experience. It can take place in all weathers so that’s not a restriction,” Avril said.

“Of the guides in forest bathing west Cork, I’m the only farmer while other guides include: an architect; hotelier; life coaches; mindfulness trainer; and nurse,” commented Avril.

“As certified forest bathing guides, we are in the final stages of organising our website and will be taking bookings from July 20. The experience costs €30/person and details are on Facebook,” she said.

Life on farm is busy

Meanwhile, life on the farm is busy for Avril and Willie.

“When the Covid-19 restrictions came into place, we were in the throes of gearing up our artisan meat processing business, Caherbeg Free Range Pork Ltd, and second brand, Rosscarbery Recipes, to service restaurants and hotels so overnight, we had a full cold room and nowhere for the products,” she said.

“Our sons, William and Maurice, who have taken over the day-to-day management of this business, had to figure out what to do and turned their minds to creating special offers to post on the Rosscarbery Recipes Facebook page, offering customers a choice of collecting from the unit or home deliveries,” said Avril.

“We travelled all over the county to deliver as well as sending orders by courier to other parts of the country. It was hectic.

“Now that restrictions are being lifted, the home orders have reduced considerably although there is a cohort who want to remain on home delivery for the foreseeable future but restaurants and hotels are reopening so the daily routine is changing all over again,” she concluded.

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