East Clayton Farm

East Clayton Farm

by Ruth Lawrence

What do donkeys, the South Downs and a care farm have in common? The answer can be found at East Clayton Farm in Washington, which provides health, social and educational care services for vulnerable, disabled and marginalised young people.

East Clayton FarmIt felt like I was in a scene from a vintage spaghetti western – I half expected Clint Eastwood to amble over the distant horizon, chewing a cigar and wearing a dusty poncho. The South Downs is perhaps not the place you’d expect to see four donkeys out on a walk but they are part of an innovative programme designed to help disabled and marginalised young people in West Sussex. The home of these donkeys is East Clayton Farm in Washington, which The Lorica Trust Charity leased from the National Trust 11 years ago and transformed it into a registered care farm with an ambitious vision to become a productive, thriving community.

Care farms provide health, social or educational care services for vulnerable individuals, providing supervised and structured farming related activities. At East Clayton Farm the donkeys are a recent acquisition; their purpose is to provide residents and visitors from other charities with the unique experience of walking with them on the farm and surrounding lanes. In the future, it is intended that the donkeys will be further engaged to carry packs for walkers on the South Downs Way which will help to raise much needed funds for the charity.

Development Manager Jean Rolfe took me to meet the donkeys. They were waiting inside their large open stable set within their paddock, allowing them the choice of grazing or resting under shelter. Two sets of two brothers make up the little herd; pale brown Darren is the bossiest while his brother John is calmer and more laid back. And patchy grey coloured, curious Bobbin is brother to the cheeky, smaller, brown Bramble; all four of them are impossible to resist.

East Clayton FarmPeople instantly reach out to stroke them and their long ears always seem to be asking for a friendly scratch.

We put on their head collars and led them from the yard, one person per donkey. Donkeys have been long famed for their stubbornness but these four could not have been more enthusiastic. They walked briskly beside us, occasionally stopping to nibble a particularly tempting leaf. I could quickly see the appeal of walking beside them; smaller and easier to manage than a horse and taller than the largest dog, they seem to fit perfectly with a human stride and height, making them the perfect strolling companion. They can carry provisions, hence their appeal to long distance walkers and can safely be tethered outside a pub, which will be ideal for thirsty trekkers.

These donkeys all came from a family run business in Guildford. The fact that they’ve always known one another and are middle aged makes them the ideal temperament for interacting with vulnerable people. Those who have been marginalised often feel they are not valued and donkeys, which are perceived  as being ‘beasts of burden,’ seem to have a natural affinity for improving their confidence and self image. The ethos of self value is central to the work at East Clayton Farm; it informs all their plans for the future and has already manifested the first phase of the farm’s evolution.

The farm’s outbuildings have now been converted into Bradbury Court, eight independent living units for profoundly disabled young adults. The farmhouse is used by YMCA Downslink to provide living accommodation and training facilities for young adults to bridge the gap between homelessness and reintegration into society. The foundations are now in place to really make the farm fulfil its primary function in creating a space where people are valued and find a productive role, which in turn increases their self esteem. The 120 acres of farmland is presently being grazed and will gradually be utilised for food production, conservation and outdoor activity in addition to the donkey walking. Volunteers will soon be needed to help sow wildflower seed to provide essential habitat for pollinators and small mammals that would benefit from the shelter of long grass and the insects who feed there.

East Clayton FarmThe second phase of development has at its heart the ambition to allow groups, other charities and visitors the opportunity to enjoy the facilities of the farm. A dilapidated building called Little George’s Barn is to be converted into a learning area, welcome room and disabled washroom so that groups from charities and schools can benefit from the farm. Fundraising for this phase is still ongoing but substantial sums were raised by the valiant efforts of Chairman Robin Hobson who ran the London Marathon last year in a pair of orange Wellingtons! Due to an administrative glitch, the London Marathon altered Robin’s charity place to the following year but as he figured he’d be “too old and tired” by then, he decided to run it a day early, starting at 5am and finishing in time for elevenses in Greenwich. Robin completed the arduous run, raising almost £60,000 and this year, Ben Jones, a friend of the farm, ran this year’s marathon to help raise funds for the donkeys. Jose Sayers, another friend and fundraiser will swim the Serpentine to help fund the donkeys and other farm projects.

East Clayton Farm relies on volunteers to succeed in its invaluable work with supporting and raising the esteem of vulnerable people; some commit regular hours each week while others join volunteer teams when commitments allow. They are always actively seeking volunteers and those who decide to help can be certain that their efforts make a monumental difference to those who benefit from the farm. Communal garden areas need maintaining, seed needs sowing while chickens, lambs and donkeys all need looking after. Buildings require construction and maintenance as do fences, hedges and farmland. Fundraisers are always required at agricultural shows and farmers’ markets and there is always administrative work to be done in the office.

The transformation of the farm buildings into independent living units has already won prestigious awards including those from Sussex Heritage Trust and the Royal Town Planning Institute. It demonstrates the long term commitment to the people in the charity’s care and reflects the depth of passion and belief in the care farm ethos. The donkeys are an important step because they give people a fundamental connection to an animal they can care for and accompany on walks. Donkeys are very calming to be around and seem, like horses, to instinctively know when people are vulnerable and they adjust to an individual’s needs. They do however differ fundamentally from horses in their metabolism, behaviour and nervous system and for this reason, volunteer donkey carers receive training from The Donkey Sanctuary, who have spent years pioneering research into every aspect of this engaging, often misunderstood animal.

East Clayton FarmIn the future the farm seeks to engage other therapeutic animals as there have been groundbreaking studies showing that close connection with animals is incredibly rewarding and empowering for those who have spent their lives being undervalued and ignored. Interaction with donkeys has been found to increase a sense of achievement, confidence, motor skills and self esteem. The donkeys benefit too; they seem to appreciate the warmth and affection from vulnerable people so the therapy works both ways! Disabled children seem to adore donkeys as they are perhaps less intimidating than horses and their long fur and ears give them a cuteness factor, which is impossible to ignore. The farm is hoping to find a small cart which a donkey will be trained to pull so that children who would find it much harder to ride, even in an adapted saddle, can still enjoy moving with the donkeys.

Donkeys, like other equines are intuitive and empathic animals, mirroring back and reacting to our inner feelings in the same way a therapist would do. They live in the moment which is ideal for humans, who tend to become lost in the past or future. Being with a donkey, during grooming, walking, or just being in their presence is a powerful way to focus, which in itself is a useful tool for being more effective in life. It can teach the youngster with attention issues or poor self esteem that the donkey responds to them, which in turn teaches them to give themselves the attention they need to blossom. Donkeys apparently respond to praise more strongly than horses which is another bonus for young people who have never learned to praise themselves as they can see the benefits on the donkeys, which in turn enables them to feel more self worth.

The eventual aim of the farm is to provide facilities so that other charities can co-create ideas to benefit their own organisations. It’s an ambitious target but one that is slowly happening and gaining momentum with every person helped. Living or working on the farm is an experience that will have profound and life changing effects; eventually, young people will be able to gain practical qualifications in conservation, agriculture and horticulture which are all skills they will learn by doing rather than simply being taught. If the donkeys can be trained to pull a plough, youngsters can work with them to produce food, surely the greatest test of independence. Volunteers can work alongside young people in educational training, giving them a cushioning introduction to the realities of the workplace while boosting their confidence and levels of self esteem.

East Clayton FarmBack at the farm after our donkey walking session, the donkeys had their hooves picked, their coats groomed and generally made a fuss of; they seem to revel in attention and gathered round rather than wandering off which is what horses tend to do after they are put back in their field. As we left them, one began to bray, gaining volume with every breath. “He always does that when we leave,” said Jean and it was easy to see how these animals work their way into the hearts of their human companions. Darren, John, Bramble and Bobbin slowly took themselves off to graze, blissfully unaware of how important they will be to the people who will interact with them. Their new role as hoofed therapists has only just begun and they will continue to play an essential role in the rehabilitation of vulnerable young people across Sussex.

For further information visit www.eastclaytonfarm.org.uk