Farm’s animal magic

Graves Park Animal Farm, Winter 2011: Luis Mirfield (5) feeding the young Highland Cattle
Graves Park Animal Farm, Winter 2011: Luis Mirfield (5) feeding the young Highland Cattle

THE cattle are lowing at Graves Park Animal Farm at present.

Twenty two young Highland calves arrived last week and are already proving popular with visitors young and old.

The farm sees up to 200,000 visitors every year, says farm manager Peter Fletcher.

“The main thing I like about this job is it helps young people understand about food production and mother earth a bit more,” he says.

“Hopefully when they leave here they’ll have a better head on their shoulders compared to what they get from their TV and computer.”

British farming is on the up again at present, he adds. Colleges are getting full again and more young people are taking an interest, which is crucial to an industry where the average age of a farmer is about 55.

“Farming in Britain is looking a bit more successful. In the world market for meat, the demand is higher than supply largely because of increasing demand in China and India, so we’re getting more for our animals now, and New Zealand lamb is going to China.

“It’s very important that the public understand about all this. The fact that so many people are living in cities is because farmers are so successful”

The farm has always played host to school parties learning about farming, and to students and work placements for secondary pupils interested in farming or veterinary careers.

And now in 2012, after several years of planning, the farm will finally have a small outdoor classroom thanks to a partnership with Sheffield Joint Learning Disabilities Service, which works with people with a learning disability in the Sheffield area.

Construction of a log cabin on the farm will begin in the New Year and the new building should be open by spring, says Peter.

“It will be a new information centre, shop and classroom and users and carers from the joint learning disability service will help us look after the shop.

“The only way to survive these days is to provide a bit more of our own funding.”

The farm has recently sold eggs, animal food and some smaller animals to visitors, but not very efficiently: staff working elsewhere would have to look out for customers.

The new shops will ensure someone is on hand all the time.

“There’s quite a demand for duck eggs now, and we usually have between two and four dozen of the various kinds of eggs a day during the season,” says Peter.

He notes that he does occasionally get a phone call from someone used to dealing with supermarkets asking about calling in for two dozen duck eggs in an hour, and having to calmly explain he has to go round and see what’s there first.

“I’ll say: ‘Hold on a minute. I might be able to do three.”

The shop will also sell pet guinea pigs and rabbits, (of which there’s usually a good supply), and chickens.

“We sell chickens to people wanting their own fresh eggs from their garden. Just one, two or three at a time, but we have been selling quite a lot – it depends who’s been on the TV recently.”

Part of the new partnership with the Disabilities Service will provide a gardening area so food can be grown, for educational use and to sell to the public.

The shop will also stock pet hutches, bird tables and planters made by the local Finishing Touches Project for adults with leaning disabilities.

And Peter hopes there will also be compost. The farm has been trialling a compost making scheme based at an acre site near Norton Nurseries, using manure from the farm animals and bark chippings and leaves collected by the council.

Cattle are moved to this area from summer sites like Tinsley to prevent ‘poaching’ the ground over the winter (turning it too muddy.)

The initial trial compost has proved good for tomatoes, Peter says, and with a bit of adjustment should prove to be suitable for the council’s flower beds and for general use by the public.

“The shop will sell things made from people here, and it will be a focal point for us,” says Peter. “Survival is the name of the game now. When things are cut back you can’t just stand there and wait to be hit.”

The new building will also enable the farm to improve its educational work, which for Peter has always been the aim of the 35-year-old Graves Park project.

“We’re here to help public understanding,” says Peter. “To me farmers are heroes, I’m here because of what they do, and to justify my existence. I want to help young people to appreciate all that.”

lGraves Park Animal Farm is open from 8am to 4pm every day except Christmas Day (when it’s only open until noon).