© Reuters. Emily Trice relaxes as she connects with donkeys Milly and Max, during a visit to Future Roots in Sherborne
By Jonathan Shenfield and Ben Makori
LONDON (Reuters) – Care farms nestled in the British countryside are providing a lifeline for people struggling with mental health during the pandemic, allowing them to swap therapy sessions on Zoom for the joys of fresh air, mucking out cow sheds and cuddling donkeys.
With vital public services for vulnerable people shut down or reduced to video calls because of social distancing measures, care farms have been able to stay open as activities take place in wide open spaces.
At Future Roots in the southern county of Dorset, 14-year-old Liam Holt has found that spending time outdoors working with animals and other people has had a transformational effect on his state of mind.
“It’s made a huge impact for me,” he said.
“I had a lot of stress issues, high stress levels, quickfire snaps, anger, just a lot of anger and that, and lockdown did not help me … I had no control over it. The person that was helping me, I couldn’t see her face-to-face.”
On a sunny, blustery November day when Reuters reporters visited the farm, children in muddy boots were busy cleaning a cow shed, feeding chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits, stroking cows and donkeys, even driving tractors.
Future Roots has been functioning as a care farm since 2006. Children and young people can be referred there by their schools for animal-assisted therapy and training in agriculture and cookery skills.
“I’d even be dead or in prison if it wasn’t for this place, because in no way I would have been able to cope in society if I hadn’t come here,” said Abi Edmed, 25, who used to come as a child and is now a trainee nurse. She still comes to help out, as a friend.
Edmed said she endured a lot of trauma as a child, resulting in her becoming aggressive. She said the care farm had helped her to process her trauma.
“It was actually just being able to wander off, go chat to a cow, (I’m) very known for doing that,” she said, smiling. “The cow can’t tell my secrets.”
‘THEY CAN’T TAKE IT’
Julie Plumley, a Dorset farmer’s daughter and professional social worker who founded the care farm, said Future Roots has helped young people for whom social distancing was devastating.
“The young people here can’t take it. They couldn’t take Zoom therapy sessions because they need a relationship with people, and that’s really hard on a computer,” she said.
For Emily Trice, 15, the farm has been a safe haven from struggles at home and at school. “The best bit is seeing how everybody is enjoying it and having fun with all the animals,” she said.
At another care farm, Pathways in the eastern county of Suffolk, founder Geoff Stevens was on a mission against loneliness.
“Isolation is gripping people. They’re stuck away in their house,” he said. “You bring them out here and they start mixing with 5, 10, 12 people, they’ve got relationships going, they’ve got conversations going, they’re using their grey matter.”
Sally Payne, 31, was filling troughs with feed for llamas, grooming donkeys and clearing out animal pens, alongside her mother Susan. Both smiled and laughed as they worked.
“I have autism and anxiety and depression, so I like coming here because it gives me structure, which is good for the autism, and fresh air and exercise that is good for the mental health,” said Payne.
Susan Payne said the care farm was a bulwark against loneliness for her too.
“It has given me a sort of back-up team, you know. You can feel very alone when you’re dealing with a child with difficulties.”