Herefordshire People: Animal magic, Barton Hill Animal Therapy Centre

PUBLISHED: 17:05 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Karen and Linka - a Barton Hill rescue pony.

Karen and Linka - a Barton Hill rescue pony.

The Barton Hill Animal Therapy Centre is a labour of love, and a stroke of genius. Corinne Westacott met the people and pets whose lives are being transformed by its work

The Barton Hill Animal Therapy Centre is a labour of love, and a stroke of genius. Corinne Westacott met the people and pets whose lives are being transformed by its work.

It was an orphan fox cub, so small it could fit into the palm of her hand, that led Julie Milsom into re-mortgaging part of her house and ploughing all her savings into setting up the Barton Hill Animal Therapy Centre.

Three one-day-old cubs had been found in a Hereford back garden and Julie, who was then teaching Animal Management at Holme Lacy College, became foster mum to the one tiny survivor. She reared the cub for four and a half months, taking it to college with her each day and making vixen-like feeding sounds in her town-centre semi in order to convince the orphan to accept its two-hourly feeds.
Looking for a safe home for the cub, she discovered that Wendy Scudamore had a sanctuary for orphaned and injured foxes on her farm at Barton Hill on the Kentchurch estate in the Monnow Valley. Meeting Wendy turned out to be a key moment.

Julie and her partner John Trimble had a vision of setting up a centre where disadvantaged people with additional learning needs could access the countryside and benefit from contact with animals and nature. Wendy, who breeds Kune Kune pigs at Barton Hill, got to hear of their plan and offered to rent them a building on the farm.

"We had such a belief in doing this," says Julie. She and John re-mortgaged part of their house, invested all their savings and set to work. "The first year was very difficult," admits John. While Julie carried on working at Holme Lacy, John worked without pay at the centre for 12 months. Then Julie gave up her job in July last year and joined John full-time. The centre, which is a non-profit organisation, is now ticking over financially with the help of four volunteers and staunch supporters like the Scudamores and Wyevale Garden Centre in Hereford which donated the animal pens.
Barton Hill is in an idyllic setting with wide views over the Monnow Valley and Garway Hill.

Every weekday, groups from residential homes, as well as individuals with special needs, come to benefit from working with the animals in the heart of the countryside, something which is so often impossible for those with limited physical ability. "We don't believe in disability at all," says Julie. "We feel that everyone has something positive to offer."

It is a two way street at Barton Hill. The visitors benefit as do the animals. It's a place where people who are often deemed 'different' by society can feel relaxed at home. Many of the animals are either rescued from abusive relationships or else have been damaged in some way. There is mutual acceptance. Dan, a 23-year-old young man from Raglan, comes every week with his helper. Dan has cerebral palsy and gets around in an electric wheelchair which he guides with his head. Purely by stroking a rabbit on his lap he is encouraged to exercise his fingers. He is now better able to extend and use his hands. His support worker says it has quite simply "turned his life around."

The carers who work with the Barton Hill regulars have reported a whole raft of benefits to the individuals who come to the centre, be it improved wheelchair skills, better appetites or increased conversation. "If some can't perhaps communicate verbally, you give them an animal and something happens." Julie has witnessed many such transformations: quick tempers soothed, anxieties allayed, confidence boosted.

Lucy and Linka, the rescue ponies, often act as silent mediators in behavioural difficulties. "Ponies are herd animals," she explains. "They seek a leader and will look to the person to be that leader. But, if your body language is confrontational, the pony won't come to you. They will mirror human behaviour. So, to bond with the pony you have to learn how to develop mutual trust and respect."

Barton Hill is now home to quite a menagerie including rabbits, guinea-pigs, chinchillas, stick insects, ferrets, parrots, poultry and pigs. There are some hand reared sheep who don't behave like normal ovines, rushing up to humans when called. Rabbits have also learnt that when a wheel-chair user goes up to the animal pen they have to jump up in order to be fed. The two Belgian hares, Ginger and Nibbly, who like to stand on their hind legs, are especially adept at this.

There is a newly established vegetable garden which means that people can take away produce that they have grown themselves. The horticultural aim is to expand into a couple of polytunnels which have been donated by a supporter.

The other big thing on Julie and John's wish-list at the moment is to make a wheel-chair friendly track into an area of woodland on the farm known as Charlotte's Wood.

"If you've ever sat in a wood on a day like today with the sunlight filtering through, you can hear the birds singing and you can just smell the plants growing. Then you have people with the same sensory needs as us but they're not physically able to get to the wood and enjoy it. If we could get them into that space so they can soak it all up, it would be fantastic."

The wheelchair path will cost several thousand pounds to create but Julie and John both have a sense that it will happen. They feel the whole Barton Hill project has, so far, been sprinkled with a touch of the proverbial stardust. But if it now feels like they've been on a charmed path, it was the willingness to work hard and empty their own bank accounts that got them there.

Julie sums up the effect it has had on her life: "I get up in the morning, come here with this fantastic view and meet wonderful people. I can go home, look back on what we've done and think 'now that was what I would call a very good day.'"

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