Trials of life... down on the farm

Graves Park Animal Farm: Peter Fletcher with one of the rabbits
Graves Park Animal Farm: Peter Fletcher with one of the rabbits
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If ever approached by an emu, it’s worth remembering a tip from Graves Park Animal Farm emu handler Chris Dyson.

“I find it you raise your hand in the air it will leave you alone, because you look taller then,” he advised, as his two young emus circled in a fashion that could have been playful or hazardous. It’s hard to tell with emus.

“If you look at the size of their heads, and their big eyes, you can see there isn’t a lot of room for a brain,” said farm manager Peter Fletcher. “They don’t do a lot of thinking.”

The emus disappeared inside their night pen where they normally have their morning meal, until they realised that the remainder of the food they’d just been given was bafflingly still outside with Chris.

“We had to give them each a chicken pal when they were chicks, so they’d learn how to peck for food,” Peter said.

The Australian curiosities have been raised on the farm since they were eggs, and join a menagerie including around 30 goats, 90 highland (or related) cattle, 120 sheep, 200 chickens, 50 ducks, three owls, two pheasants, four red deer, several thousand bees, and various pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, turkeys and more.

With over 200,000 visitors a year, the farm has just seen one of its busiest summers ever.

As a popular visitor attraction, and a training and work experience centre, the farm still gets some funding from the council, but also raises its own income, from animal sales and now also from a small farm shop which sells feed and pet supplies, pet rabbits and guinea pigs, and chickens for urban smallholders, along with wooden furniture and garden equipment made by the Graves Park-based Woodcraft Project for adults with learning disabilities.

There are also eggs from ducks and various chicken varieties for sale, along with goose, quail and turkey eggs when in season.

“You can buy then when they’re still warm,” said Peter. “They’re firmer and much tastier than supermarket eggs, which might have been hatched two weeks when you buy them.”

The site has been slowly expanding for nearly 40 years and, despite cutbacks in council budgets, Peter is confident the farm can survive. Over his years as manager he has ensured the 22-acre site at the top of Graves Park has adapted to the times.

“We used to be known as the rare breeds centre. But you have to remember rare breeds are rare for a reason. They might have too much fat or not be the right shape, for example.”

So careful breeding with good animals of slightly different breeds can result in more saleable livestock, he explained.

As well as the highland cattle and white-faced woodland sheep (a Penistone breed) the farm also keeps a small herd of golden Guernsey goats, a breed secretly kept alive by a local breeder in caves during the island’s occupation during the second world war.

A recent project is using the farm’s winter ‘cow bed’ as a natural resource for local allotment groups.

“It’s a recycling project that makes a soil improver,” Peter explained.

The farm cattle are housed over the winter months on a special ‘bed’ made from the park department’s wood chippings. The resultant mix of wood, straw and manure is shaped into ‘wind runs’ to aerate and heat the piles (and kill bacteria), and ends up a farm-grown natural fertiliser.

The cattle are also shipped out over the summer as horned lawnmowers to various city grasslands, including the green spaces formerly known as Sheffield airport and Beighton tip.

Education of modern food buyers is still one of the primary aims of the farm, and Peter hopes in future to expand the shop building to provide a larger classroom area for the many visiting schoolchildren.

The agricultural education provided for local teenagers is one of his proudest achievements, and he cites two local friends who went on to careers in farming, one at Chatsworth and one now on a farm in New Zealand.

“People need to understand things more. To me, farmers are right at the top because without food there’d be no world.”

Growing obesity is part of the problem with public ignorance about food, he said.

“But being overfed is not the fault of the farmers.”

There are signs of a growing awareness, with more community farms being set up, and more information about growing and rearing in the media.

“A lot of people come through here, so they must pick up something.”

The farm and its emus are now very much part of Sheffield.