Sheep herding, care farming and Temple Grandin – Oxfordshire style

By Alive & Well

Marj reports from London:

There I was, herding sheep. In the rain. In Oxfordshire. For reals. For a city girl, it was quite the culture shock let me tell you.

Camilla and Roly Puzey

But herein lies the beauty of the farm stay – reconnecting with nature and the food we eat, and realising just how closeted your lifestyle really is.

It all happened when I was in the UK visiting some friends in Little Wittenham, about an hour or so west of London. Camilla and Roly Puzey (right) both come from farming families but this is the first property they’ve run themselves, and in lots of ways they’re still learning the ropes. So they were extremely tolerant of my lack of skills in the paddock, bless them.

Looking after the places we love

Land is so expensive in these parts that unless you inherit it, or win Tatts, it’s tough to get on the farming ladder. So Camilla and Roly rent their 200 acres from a conservation organisation called Earth Trust.

Earth Trust runs a number of properties with a view to restoring their natural environment and “looking after the places we love by changing the way we live.” Little Wittenham is a conservation farm comprising equal parts woodland, nature reserve and farmland – which is where the Puzeys come in. And their approach to farming is just as fresh – it’s all about:

  • building their flock of sheep, which now numbers around 300
  • raising them with care – making sure they have lots of room to roam and grass to graze on (Roly: “I feel happy when they’re in a paddock with lots of grass”), and avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary (and no hormones at all thank you very much)
  • managing the lamb production process right through to the retail end, offering direct sales through their website, at farmers markets and on the farm itself
  • hosting farm visits and events, and offering ‘Be a Shepherd for a Day’ experiences for individuals, couples and families.

So far, so great … but wait, there’s more

My ears really pricked up when Roly started talking about “care farming.” Apparently it’s a growing movement over here (and a well-established one in nearby Holland), and it’s something he has become passionate about.

Care farming is “the therapeutic use of farming practices,” where vulnerable people in the community – including kids with special needs – are brought to farms to take part in supervised, structured activities designed to provide health, social or educational benefits. Or in other words, to get their hands dirty by working with animals, helping out with crops, tending to vegetation or managing woodland.

At Little Wittenham, the folks Roly hosts are autistic children from a nearby special school – and the impact can be, quite literally, life-changing.

“Their teachers tell me that some of these kids don’t talk. But when they come to the farm and start spending time with the lambs, they light up and the words tumble out.”

It reminded me of Dr Temple Grandin and the extraordinary, life-affirming relationship she developed with animals as a teenager – a relationship that led her to become one of the world’s most effective animal science and welfare advocates. As she said: “We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”

It was a joy to see this philosophy in action at Little Wittenham. Thanks Camilla and Roly!

More information:

Do your kids have a special relationship with the animals in their lives? How are they learning about nature and food production? Love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.