UFU women in agriculture profile – Esther Skelly Smith

Friday, 18 December, 2020

Place you call home: Shanaghan Farm, Katesbridge, Co Down. Katesbridge is halfway between Banbridge and Castlewellan. We are located on a site of special scientific interest due to the unique granite which is found there. We are blessed to have magnificent views of the Mourne Mountains.

Occupation: Equine veterinary surgeon and owner of Shanaghan Veterinary Services. Part-time sheep farmer and producer of Shanaghan Horses. My husband Timothy also works on the farm and has diversified and established SVS Equine an evidenced based equine solutions business (www.svsequine.co.uk).

Farming commodity: On the farm we have sheep, horses and one rescue donkey. Our main farming enterprise is over 200 ewes which comprises of 100 commercial ewes crossed with a Beltex terminal sire, and three smaller pedigree flocks (Clun Forest, Charolais, Blue faced Leicesters).  We are one of the largest breeders of pedigree Clun Forest Sheep in Ireland and we absolutely love their characteristics which include longevity, hardiness and ease of care.  We also use Clun Mules in our commercial flock.

How did you become involved in farming?
My grandfather, Hubert Hadden, was a fantastic stockman with a real interest in the welfare of each and every animal on his farm, he was always keen to learn about new techniques and better ways of working. He was one of 13 children and a younger son, therefore he started farming in a small way. However, he became a very successful farmer eventually owning a number of farms in Scotland before he retired and returned to Northern Ireland. He was my inspiration to become both a vet and farmer, he enjoyed helping during our lambing every year until he passed away in 2018 at the age of 82.

Earliest farming memory:
When I was a toddler my parents had a bull beef enterprise. I often remember patting the heads of the young bulls as they were feeding and helping to feed the little calves with milk replacer in small blue buckets. 

What personal characteristics did you develop from agriculture?
From an early age I developed a real passion and care for the welfare of animals big and small. I always had an active interest in animals, this is best illustrated by the fact that I could remember dogs’ names better than the names of their owners.  My passion for animal welfare was the key driver for me becoming a veterinary surgeon and is the main reason I set up Shanaghan Veterinary Services, Ireland’s first equine integrated veterinary referral practice.
Farming also taught me resilience as it is most definitely not always smooth sailing. In addition, farming has taught me many business skills and the importance of teamwork which I have been able to transfer to other aspects of my life.

Life lesson you learnt from farming:
Farming has taught me that this life has a fundamental purpose. I feel passionately that we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation and improve the standards of care for his creatures and their wellbeing. I think one cannot be a farmer without understanding the concept of “One Health” whereby the wellbeing of humans, animals and environment are all connected, coexist and are co-dependent.

What do you enjoy most about the farming lifestyle?
I particularly enjoy the springtime which is full of new life, promise and hope. Here on the farm we lamb and foal in April. It is a magical time of the year, usually the weather is improving, and it really is delightful to see so many newborn animals taking their first steps, skipping in the fields and growing.

Describe a farmer in three words: Compassionate, committed and caring

What would you like the public to know about NI farming?
I would love the public to know more about the source of their food, how exactly its produced and the high standards we have in Northern Ireland. The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, this is something we should be genuinely proud of.

If you could give farmers/farming families/ farming community one piece of advice what would it be?

I feel as a farming community we need to be very conscious of the topic of “One Health”. The One Health Commission’s definition is “One Health is the collaborative effort of multiple professionals, together with related disciplines and institutions — working locally, nationally, and globally — towards optimal health and wellbeing for people, domestic animals, wildlife, plants, and our environment.” We as farmers need to make a concerted effort to ensure we understand our role in the concept of One Health.  Often, we think that these concepts are someone else’s job.

On a more practical level I would say that farming can be isolating and a lonely occupation. It is important for people to build in ways to stay connected with the wider community, taking care of yourself and others. Taking time for self-care is vitally important.

What would you say to others who are considering a career in the agri industry?

Whatever your passionate about in life do that, only get involved in the agri industry if it’s your true passion. We all have very long working lives and it’s important to enjoy what you do. There are many wonderful and interesting opportunities in the agricultural industry as a whole.  We have fantastic educational tools through CAFRE to study and continue our lifelong learning and development. I would encourage people to make the most of these opportunities on your doorstep, for example I am currently involved in the UFU Next Generation Forum.

What are your hopes for the future of Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry?
Northern Ireland has a wonderful resource in its land and green pastures. I would hope that we could develop the concepts regenerative agriculture, promote pasture fed livestock and the benefits of this type of agriculture for the health and wellbeing of our population. I would hope that agriculture will become more sustainable, diverse and in keeping with the concept of “One Health”. I would also like to see more women in agriculture and more young people taking the lead in developing the industry.  We as farmers are only temporary stewards of this wonderful part of the world and it is important that we leave it in as good a condition as possible for generations to follow.