HOW MANY children across the UK have the chance to live on a working farm for a week, learning in the great outdoors and enjoying the beautiful countryside?
For some children that is a daily privilege but not necessarily for children from inner cities.
So, children’s author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare founded Farms for City Children (FFCC) at Nethercott House in Devon in 1976 to offer urban children from all over the country a unique opportunity to live and work together for a week at a time on a real farm in the heart of the countryside.
In 1986, FFCC acquired Lower Treginnis in Pembrokeshire on a long lease from the National Trust. After a highly successful fundraising campaign, the buildings were converted and re-structured by FFCC and in May 1989 Lower Treginnis opened for its first schools. The project won many awards for its sensitive restoration of the original farm buildings to provide a purpose-built, child-oriented space.
In 1993, a further property was secured on a 99 year lease – Wick Court in Gloucestershire, and across the three farms the charity now welcomes over 3,000 pupils and 400 teachers every year.
To see for themselves how much the children enjoy being out on farm and what the project has to offer, representatives from the Farmers’ Union of Wales joined a group of school children from London at Lower Treginnis farm, St Davids.
The farmstead dates back to 1284, and is the most westerly farm in Wales. Here Farms for City Children works in partnership with organic farmer and FUW members Rob and Eleri Davies, who keep around 900 sheep.
The award-winning buildings were converted and re-structured by FFCC to provide for up to 40 children and their teachers. Here the children help look after poultry, horses, donkeys, milking goats and a breeding herd of pigs. The farm now welcomes over 1000 pupils every year and is booked up for 32 weeks a year.
In charge of running the project in Pembrokeshire is School Farm Manager Dan Jones, who in 2009 started his teaching career in Swansea. He wanted what most teachers want – to help each child achieve their personal best, help them excel and feel fantastic about themselves. Disillusioned with the education system Dan decided to quit general education just five years later.
He explains: “The current education system makes it increasingly difficult for teachers to inspire children to learn. There is a huge workload teachers have to deal with, statistics and data inputting are a priority and that can have a real negative impact on teachers but also the children. It was more about reaching targets and getting my performance related pay and the children were no longer seen as children but as a level.
“So I quit and moved to the most westerly part of Wales – Lower Treginnis farm. The Pembrokeshire coast is now my classroom and the sheep, pigs, horses, goats and vegetables are my resources.”
The farm was not new to Dan. Every spring he would head west for a week of muck and magic with a group of Year 6 pupils and fell in love with the place.
“I would beg to be one of the team who accompanied the children and when a few years later the manager’s position at Treginnis was advertised I knew this is what I wanted to do. I was eventually appointed and am now doing my dream job. My wife, a city slicker at heart, supported my decision and we both handed in our notices and left for Treginnis. To say I am thankful to her for supporting me is an understatement,” Dan said.
Every Friday a coach load of children, aged 9-11, are welcomed to the farm and for many this is their first time away from home. FFCC aims to encourage learning, to raise self-esteem, and to enrich young lives by providing a safe and welcoming setting where children and their teachers together get involved in the working life of a real farm with real farmers.
“Treginnis is not a petting zoo, and we ask them to do real farm work. They are up at the crack of dawn milking goats, feeding pigs and poultry or looking after newborn lambs. The children are completely unplugged from the virtual world and instead can enjoy a game of chess, play cards, read a book or a kick about on the playing field.
“Three times a day the children sit at the dining table with their peers and teachers and eat together. For some that is a new experience but one that they relish. In only a week, you can see a change in the children. They are more confident, have more self-esteem and a real understanding of hard work and perseverance. These experiences and memories stay with them right the way through into their adult lives.
“It is an intense, ‘learning through doing’ experience of a different life – for children who may not know where their food comes from and have limited opportunities to explore the outside world,” explains Dan.
Alun Edwards, the FUW’s Education and Training Committee Chairman who joined the farm visit, said: “This is a fantastic project that helps children understand farming, the countryside and food production and it was great to see how teamwork helps to develop them socially and emotionally.
“The children are immersed and completely involved in a way of life that is so very different to their normal week, helping them to learn also about healthy eating and using practical, hands-on learning outside the classroom really helps with enhancing the requirements of the national curriculum.
“For some of these children it is an opportunity of a lifetime and they may never experience anything like this again. Looking at how the project here celebrates success and building self-worth through work and the completion of tasks, experiences like these should be on the national curriculum.”
Big Farmland Bird Count returns
JIM EGAN has sent out a rallying cry for people to pick up their binoculars and go bird-spotting for the Big Farmland Bird Count (BFBC) which returns on Friday, February 8.
The passionate organiser of the count, organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), is urging farmers, land managers, gamekeepers and all wildlife enthusiasts to spend 30 minutes recording what species they see on their patch of land from February 8th to the 17th.
Your support will help identify the farmland birds that are flourishing due to good conservation methods and ones in need of most support.
“It would be fantastic to see even more farmers to take part in the count this year,” said Jim.
“Counting birds on farms is a great way to recognise what species are there as well as being an opportunity to take time out and see the benefits of work such as wild seed mix and supplementary feeding.
“Taking part and submitting results enables us at GWCT to shout about the important conservation work many farmers are doing.
“We want landowners to be proud of their efforts. We will make sure that the public and policymakers hear about what can be achieved on Britain’s farms. The BFBC is a very positive way to showcase what can be achieved.”
Backing this vital citizen-science project, running for the sixth successive year, is the NFU, which is this year’s sponsor.
President Minette Batters is vowing her support to the count by going bird-watching on her farm in Downton, Wiltshire.
She will be joined on day one with GWCT biodiversity advisor Pete Thompson, an advocate of the count, both of whom will be ready with their binoculars, notepads and sharpened pencils, recording what they see.
“I am delighted to be taking part in this year’s GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count which the NFU is pleased to be sponsoring for the very first time,” she said.
“It’s becoming an important national event where thousands of farmers and growers around the country are able to take stock of and importantly, take pride in what they find on their land.
“The NFU supports initiatives like the Big Farmland Bird Count as without sound management of the environment, enhancement of habitats, protection of wildlife and support for pollinators and soils, we do not have farming businesses.
“So, I would encourage all farmers to take part, and also remember to submit your records to the GWCT, so we can pull together a vital national snapshot of the state of the nation when it comes to farmland birds.”
A record-breaking 1,000 people took part in last year’s count, recording 121 species across 950,000 acres.
A total of 25 red-listed species were recorded, with five appearing in the 25 most commonly seen species list. These include fieldfares, starlings, house sparrows, song thrushes and yellowhammers. The most plentiful of these were fieldfares and starlings, which were seen on nearly 40% of the farms taking part.
At the end of the count, the results will be analysed by the Trust. All participants will receive a report on the national results once they have been collated.
New Flock and Herd Health Officers
HYBU Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) has appointed two new Flock and Herd Health Officers to its ambitious five-year Red Meat Development Programme, designed to equip Wales’s lamb and beef industry for a changing future.
The posts are key to delivering the programme’s commitment to helping farmers achieve on-farm efficiency and drive best practice in proactive animal health planning.
The programme is supported by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.
Lowri Reed hails from a farming background near Llanon in central Ceredigion, whereas Lowri Williams is from Llanfihangel y Creuddyn near Aberystwyth, and is a graduate in Animal Management and Welfare from Harper Adams University.
Dr Rebekah Stuart, the coordinator of the Flock and Herd Health Project at HCC, said: “We’re delighted to have recruited two officers with experience and knowledge of agriculture and flock management to this important strand of work.
“There are few things that can have as great an impact on the efficiency and bottom line of a livestock enterprise as a proactive and coordinated approach to animal health and eradicating disease.
“The project will help farmers to work with vets to put health plans in place and monitor their effectiveness. Since opening an initial expression of interest window late last year at the Winter Fair, we’re encouraged by how many farmers are keen to be involved. We look forward to working with them to put this exciting project into action.”
Agri-food robotics centre launched
A NEW advanced training centre in agri-food robotics will create the largest ever cohort of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) specialists for the global food and farming sectors, thanks to a multi-million-pound funding award.
The world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics is being established by the University of Lincoln, UK, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded £6.6m for the new Centre which will see a massive influx of high-level robotics expertise at a vital time for the agri-food industry. The CDT will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, who will be supported by major industry partners and specialise in areas such as autonomous mobility in challenging environments, the harvesting of agricultural crops, soft robotics for handling delicate food products, and ‘co-bots’ for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories.
Professor Tom Duckett, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Lincoln, is the new Centre Director. He said: “Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries – within the UK alone they will add £183bn to the economy over the next decade.
“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.
“However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies.
“Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering that expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK.”
At Lincoln, the CDT represents an important partnership between robotics researchers from the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS) and agricultural experts from the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT), as they work together to combat these pressing issues facing the global food chain.
Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, Professor Simon Pearson, said: “It is widely agreed that robotics will transform the food and farming industries in the coming years, but there is still a major skills gap in this area. Working with our industry and academic partners to design the 50 PhD scholarships will enable us to expand the UK’s science and engineering base, delivering a flood of skills and expertise that will drive our food and farming industries into the future.”
Professor Richard Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at UEA, added: “Agriculture remains an important and atavistic activity in the UK but it the most dangerous of all the main UK industry sectors. Given that, isn’t it astonishing that so much effort is devoted to robots for driving and delivering parcels to your door?
“This project will initiate a new movement to build robots to handle the unpleasant, difficult and repetitive aspects of farming. At UEA our expertise is in Computer Vision which is making computers that see. We’d like to build robots that can see when an ear of corn has ripened or be able to measure the amount of sunlight falling on a field of wheat or to tell when beans are ready for picking. We look forward to developing new systems that handle the challenge of being on a farm.”
The Centre brings together a unique collaboration of leading researchers from the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, together with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, supported by leading industrial partners and stakeholders from across the food, farming and robotics industries. These include John Deere, Syngenta, G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson, ABB and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.
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