John Craven: Vital farm visit project for disabled people under threat

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An inspiring project that helps people with special needs – from children with learning difficulties to care home patients with dementia – to hear, see, smell, taste and touch the wonders of our countryside will soon need help itself. Aptly titled Let Nature Feed Your Senses (www.letnaturefeedyoursenses.org), it was set up thanks to nearly £1m of Lottery money, which is now coming to an end.

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In the past four years, around 12,000 of its guests have been taken round 75 farms and nature reserves right across England on visits that are tailored to their specific requirements and which make full use of all five senses.

As we know, there are few places more sensory-rich than a farm, so the results are impressive. An independent assessment by the University of Essex concludes that most leave “with an inheritance of enhanced well-being, a confidence and desire to access nature more frequently, and a better understanding of nature and the food we eat.”

Jo North, who runs a dairy farm near Chichester, West Sussex, says: “We try to bring each of the senses into play on every visit. The first thing people notice is the smell – of cows, slurry and silage – and not everyone likes it! We’ve got lots to see and hear – the tractors, the animals eating – and guests can touch the cows and taste the milk. Sometimes fear can be a real issue – fear of the cows, fear of the smell, fear of the new. So it’s nice just trying to get everyone to enjoy themselves.”

Jo recalls one young autistic boy who refused to leave the barn.

“He spent most of the whole visit singing to himself and playing with the grain using a couple of tins. His carer just couldn’t believe how much he had calmed down.” Another autistic boy on a different farm visit was heard to say the word “cow”, even though he never talks.

Suzanne, who suffers anxiety problems, wrote to the farmer who hosted her group: “When I first saw you I was very scared and would hardly look at you, let alone talk. But you are amazing and I plucked up courage to speak, even though it usually takes two or three weeks before I can say even a timid ‘hello’. On your farm I felt relaxed for the first time in years.”

New experience for farmers

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The project is a joint venture between two charities, Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) and The Sensory Trust, and joint co-ordinator James Taylor told me: “It’s a new experience for farmers as well, so we run training sessions on how to deal with special needs and they’ve taken to it with such enthusiasm. Some have even gone to the trouble of collecting items from early last century – old farm tools, photographs, tea sets, even a mangle – so that elderly people with dementia can recall their childhood as they look around.”
Now, having built a firm foundation with the Lottery grant, the project is about to start a campaign to attract funds and support from businesses, clubs and organisations, and to urge more farmers and wildlife groups to join in. If ever there was a simple yet effective way of opening up our countryside to the disadvantaged and disabled, to people who otherwise have no easy access to farms, this is it – and it’s too good to be put at risk.