Julie Plumley knows first-hand how open space and being around animals can help someone’s sense of wellbeing. The qualified social worker grew up on a farm, and recalls how it offered its own kind of therapy. “The farm always used to put me right,” she laughs. “If I’d had a row I had four or five fields to stomp across and my dad always needed me to help him, so I always felt like I had purpose.”
Plumley, along with her husband and son, now runs Ryelands Farm in Dorset, a working farm on 12 hectares (30 acres) of land with a range of livestock used for animal-assisted therapy. “We work with young people challenged the most in life,” she says. “They are the least likely to engage with services. Nearly all of them are excluded from school, some are excluded from learning centres, in care or on the edge of care.”
There are approximately 250 care farms currently operating in the UK, according to Social Farms & Gardens (a new organisation created as a result of the merger between the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and Care Farming UK). Most are either commercial farm businesses, charities, community interest companies (CICs) or charitable companies limited by guarantee. Care Farming UK puts the average number of clients attending a care farm at 35 per week (pdf).
Plumley’s team have a range of qualifications and backgrounds, including teaching, special educational needs and occupational therapy. They use a resilience model to deliver their work, looking for gaps in the way young people are coping with adversity. For example, if someone doesn’t react well in a particular situation (such as a disagreement), they would work on ways to deal with those feelings. Plumley believes that a sense of purpose, which she recalls feeling as a child helping out on the farm, is key to helping young people. “These kids need to be needed and farming gives them that,” says Plumley.
She works with around 20 schools across Dorset and Somerset. “Many of those who come to us come because they want to see the animals. Once they get here they feel safe and free.” Most come for one day a week for around four hours, but the farm also runs full programmes for 20 hours, funded by schools (currently 70% of the farm’s funding comes from schools, with the rest from fundraising).
Children tend to come for a six-week period but if they stay for a year, she says, “we see massive changes in school, outside of school and their whole presence.”
And they’ll do everything. “When they’re here, they’re farmers,” says Plumley. “We have 25 cows at the moment, three about to give birth. We do everything from the start to the end of life. We’re a high animal welfare farm and we make sure they learn all about the meat and the process. We also have donkeys, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, guinea pigs and 25 sheep.”
It appears to be working. Research has found that young people attending care farms display a significant reduction in self-reported mental health risks and behavioural regulation difficulties.
Jake Curtis is director of programmes and operations for Jamie’s Farm, which delivers a five-day residential experience and follow-up programme, combining what it describes as “farming, family and therapy” at three rural farms in Bath, Hereford and Monmouth, and a city farm (in London’s Waterloo).
“We work with mainstream schools and their most vulnerable pupils,” says Curtis, who studied history at the University of Cambridge before training as a teacher (around half of Jamie’s Farm staff are teachers and the other half are from a range of therapy backgrounds). “There’s something for them to do the moment they wake up. We take their mobile phones away, we give them the right diet and we make sure the environment is conducive to having a real, meaningful experience, not just a fun day with some animals.”
The farms run equine therapy sessions, one-to-one sessions where children build a positive relationship with a horse. Curtis says: “This allows them to see how their behaviour can be mirrored. Animals are very quick to respond to whatever language you’re putting out there. If you’re very anxious they will pick up on that and this helps the practitioners pick up on it too.” One of the things people talk about after they’ve been on a residential is the calm and peace they experienced, says Curtis.
One anonymous service user (now an aspiring Oxbridge applicant) who says she had become “disconnected” from the world, adds: “Each person who goes into the farm is remembered for what they contributed to the experience, so although I had left Jamie’s Farm I still felt a part of it.”
When 23-year-old Caitlin Mayhew was deciding what to do with her life at the age of 16, she knew she wanted to work with animals and people with special educational needs. However, she says: “At the time I just thought social care was all social work and I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to do both.” Now she helps run Hall Farm in north-east Lincolnshire, with her stepfather, Mark Coulman. She’s done training with Cevas (Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme) through Leaf Education, a charity which supports farmers and education/therapists to work together.
The farm has a range of animals, including pigs and chickens, but it’s the alpacas that prove most popular. Mayhew laughs: “Everyone loves them. Alpacas recognise humans, so they always remember if someone’s been kind to them, and it’s really amazing watching them form a bond with the kids.”
Service users at Hall Farm all come via word-of-mouth, says Mayhew. “Some have learning difficulties, some anxiety. Everyone’s different.” And the effect the animals have is palpable, she says. “There’s one adult with autism and severe anxiety. She loves animals but she’s so anxious she couldn’t even walk her dog. A few weeks into being here I asked her what she’d done at the weekend and she said she’d been out to the pub with her friends. Now when we have open days she’s the one talking to visitors about the animals. It’s really wonderful to see how she’s come out of her shell.”